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A Delicate Duet of Policing

U.S. personnel shadow Iraqi officers, advising or overruling. Though a handoff is the goal, one station's experience suggests a rocky road.

August 26, 2003|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — By all appearances, Col. Raad Abbas Jasim seems like a typical police chief. The white star and eagle on his uniform denote his seniority. Officers rush into his office to get his signature on warrants. When citizens have a beef, it's his desk they pound.

But just behind Jasim at the Khudra district police station these days is a constant shadow: a 23-year-old female lieutenant with the U.S. Army's 18th Military Police Brigade. Like a supervisor monitoring a new hire, Rachel Amilcar hovers at Jasim's back, listens in on his meetings and occasionally overrules him.

"We try to reach agreement, but if we disagree, we must go with her decision," Jasim, 42, says, sounding less than entirely satisfied with the situation.

When a reporter questions him about progress in the investigation of the Jordanian Embassy bombing in the capital this month, he begins to speak, then cuts himself off and turns to Amilcar, sitting silently next to his desk.

"Am I allowed?" he asks through an interpreter. "This is your decision," she responds.

It's an awkward moment that speaks volumes about the challenge the United States faces in attempting to hand over police work to the Iraqis. U.S. officials are eager to reduce the military's responsibility and put Iraqis back in charge of their own country. But the Americans say they aren't willing to turn over the reins just yet, not until they show the Iraqis how to do things their way.

"As we start to feel more comfortable with Iraqis, then we will start to transition away," said Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who is overseeing the effort to rebuild Iraq's force.

At the Khudra station, it's clear that the process is off to a tenuous start.

Iraqi police say they appreciate some of the new equipment and training Americans are providing, but they resent being lectured by U.S. soldiers half their age. They ridicule Americans as too soft on the bad guys and have shown more than once that they know best how to catch criminals of the sort they've been chasing for years. Iraqis also worry that the United States is trying to impose a Western-style justice system that doesn't always translate in their Muslim-dominated culture.

"We have the same aim: to prevent crime. Be we don't understand some of their ways, and they don't understand ours," said Jasim, a 19-year police veteran. "Somehow, we managed to do it before the Americans were here."

Americans counter that the old Iraqi police system -- often used as an instrument of oppression during Saddam Hussein's regime -- was undisciplined and plagued by corruption. Suspects were routinely beaten, U.S. officials say, and cops solicited bribes from citizens to compensate for the low police salaries.

According to Kerik, Iraqis need to learn some basics. "It seems normal to us, but you have to explain to them that you can't do things like torture and physical abuse," he said.

Kerik has fired about 7,000 former Iraqi officers, many of them Baath Party members, for alleged offenses as serious as rape and murder. Frustrated that traffic cops often leave their posts during the blistering afternoon hours, he's threatened to sack anyone not found at his assigned intersection.

With a current nationwide force of 35,000 -- about 5,000 of them in Baghdad -- Kerik is putting hundreds of top officers through a three-week crash course in human rights and policing in a free society. Coalition authorities also plan to send Iraqi cops to training facilities overseas -- one destination is Hungary -- due to a lack of capacity at academies in Iraq.

But the force is still only 50% of full strength and there are critical shortages of patrol cars, uniforms and firepower at a time when violent crime and terrorism are soaring. Kerik has set up an ambitious program to recruit and train another 35,000 officers in 18 months.

"The bottom line is this is going to work," said Kerik, who plans to return to New York in September after nearly four months in Iraq. "The mind-set will change."

Kerik's replacement hasn't been named, but he appears to be grooming Ahmed Ibrahim, recently promoted to senior deputy of the Interior Ministry, to take charge of the police once he's gone.

So far, however, U.S. officials appear hesitant to cede too much control.

In the immediate aftermath of the Jordanian Embassy attack, U.S. officials attempted to let Iraqi police take the lead in the investigation. But by the second day it was clear the force was ill equipped to handle such a massive probe, and the FBI took charge, relegating the Iraqis to assisting U.S. troops in guarding the crime scene.

After last week's U.N. bombing, officials announced a "joint investigation" with Iraqi police and the FBI. But recent interviews with Iraqi police chiefs revealed that U.S. officials had not even allowed them to handle the bodies of victims, much less shared details about the search for the culprits.

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