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The Conflict in Iraq

Nation's Forces Eager to Go It Alone

Despite attacks, police and soldiers are confident that they can handle security -- with maybe just a little help from coalition troops.

June 30, 2004|Ashraf Khalil | Special to The Times

BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces have been prime targets in a wave of violence in the country, as insurgents have struck hard at police stations and recruiting centers. But as they take over increasing responsibility for maintaining security in a sovereign Iraq, police and soldiers here claim to be primed for the coming challenges.

"We hope they confront us directly," said civil corps Sgt. Waadi Mohammed, who condemned the "cowardly" tactics of the insurgents. The first two weeks after the hand-over of power "will be the most dangerous period," he said. "After that, God knows."

That mix of confidence and fatalism seemed to permeate the ranks of the security forces, even though, by most accounts, they are far from ready to take on their new responsibilities.

U.S. officials have long hailed the capabilities of the retrained Iraqi security forces. But those claims were undercut during an onslaught of insurgent attacks in April, when many police and civil corps soldiers fled their posts, unwilling to fight fellow Iraqis. Others even joined the insurgent forces.

The events prompted a shake-up and reevaluation of the Iraqi security forces. Hundreds were sent home, and U.S. Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus -- who was credited with building up effective security units during the 101st Airborne Division's occupation of the northern city of Mosul during the war last year -- was brought in to oversee the national training program for more than 24,000 Iraqi officers. They include police, border guards and members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, which was created by the U.S.-led occupation force and renamed the Iraqi National Guard by the country's new government.

"It goes without saying that the coalition forces don't want to stay a day longer than is necessary," Petraeus said at a conference of security forces commanders last week. "But we must be honest. The truth is that for some time, the coalition forces must shoulder much of the security burden."

At a joint U.S.-Iraqi base in the northeastern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya, April's violence prompted another shake-up. About a dozen of the 220 Iraqi soldiers stayed home for several days when attacks hit the neighborhood.

Mohammed, the civil corps sergeant, described the unrest as a baptism by fire that enabled his unit to identify potential weak links.

"It was like a test. I'm happy that it happened," he said. "Anyone that we're not sure of, we got rid of. People who get scared have no place here."

The commanders now seem eager to step out on their own and prove themselves to their U.S. trainers.

"We've received high-level experience from the Americans. Now we're ready to work without them. We're sure, and [the Americans] are pretty sure," Capt. Ali Shimari said. "We're the sons of this country. The sacrifices we're prepared to make are greater than the sacrifices of any foreigner -- whether it's an American soldier or a Jordanian terrorist."

The confidence runs even higher among the police, some of whom professed eagerness to accept full control of the country.

"If the Americans leave completely ... we'll be fine," said Lt. Ayman Abdel Kader Youssef. "We're security men. We can handle it. Our confidence is high."

Such sentiments can easily be taken as bravado coming from a police force that cannot protect its own stations. Insurgents have overrun stations and launched deadly assaults, including an attack in the town of Musayyib this month in which gunmen shot their way into the station, then blew it up, killing 11 and leaving one survivor.

There is also lower-level harassment of police. Members of the Al Mahdi militia in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City often shoot up police stations, order the officers out, then detonate small explosives that do nothing more than destroy furniture.

Youssef described the string of police station attacks as "exceptional and temporary."

One possible reason for the confidence among the police officers is that many are expecting interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to take a heavy hand on security now that he has taken over the government. Allawi has promised "drastic measures," including the possibility of martial law, to stamp out the insurgency.

Career police officer Majid Abdel Sahib, who was manning a checkpoint near Baghdad University, sounded eager to get on with it. "There will be new procedures, stronger procedures" under Allawi, he said. "The good people, we'll deal with them nicely. But the bad people, we'll deal with them not nicely."

Few claim that they can handle the job without U.S. help, but the soldiers in Kadhimiya are eager to begin going out on solo raids. So far, they have conducted only joint missions and raids alongside U.S. troops. Recently, the Americans have restricted themselves to setting up a secure perimeter and letting the Iraqis handle all house searches.

"We want to work on our own," said Nizar Abdel Sadiq, a soldier.

Yet soldiers debate how well they will fare once they are on their own.

Petraeus described this paradox as natural. "In a sense it reflects the conflicted feelings of all Iraqis toward the occupation," he said. "There is a true desire to take security on themselves, but there is also a realistic acknowledgment that they do need coalition backup."

The Iraqi forces, however, seemed eager to distance themselves from the Americans in the eyes of Iraqis. They predicted that attacks targeting them would subside once they were no longer regarded as collaborators with the U.S.-led forces.

Many police officers wear civilian clothes to work, for fear of reprisals against their families. Some soldiers cover their faces with scarves when on joint missions.

"As long as I'm with the Americans, I'll cover my face," said Zeina Sami, a young female soldier. "When the Americans go, it will be normal. The people will see that I'm here to protect them."

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