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Arrested Development on Iraqi Police Force

Lack of equipment and inadequate training all but ensure that the Americans' help will be needed for the foreseeable future.

March 31, 2004|Mark Magnier and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The newly minted Iraqi police cadets march with great enthusiasm, if not great precision. "Mama, mama, can't you see," belts out an American Military Police instructor in English, "what the Army's done to me!"

The group of 29 Iraqi men and one woman shout back in spirited but garbled English, "what tharmy done me!" each striding to a slightly different drummer.

These recruits, part of a class of 500 attending an eight-week course at the Baghdad Police Academy, represent a key element in Washington's plan for bringing order to Iraq and turning sovereignty over to Iraqis at midyear. But poor equipment, inadequate training and morale problems all but ensure that the police will not be ready to maintain law and order on their own for the foreseeable future amid an insurgency that continues to target cities, citizens and Iraqi police themselves.

As a result, the U.S. military will be needed to provide extensive support long after June 30, Iraqi police and U.S. officials acknowledge. And that means that for Iraqis tired and angry over the occupation of their country, the streets may not look all that different once sovereignty is returned.

"I don't anticipate anything changing at all, really," a U.S. official said, referring to the Iraqi security structure. "We're not going to pull out and leave."

Iraqis agree that the problems will be similar for all Iraqi security services, including reconstituted military and intelligence services.

"The Iraqis will not be able to take over quickly," said Warrant Officer Fadhil Chasib, a weapons instructor at the Baghdad Police Academy and 17-year Iraqi police veteran. "We have [an] equipment shortage, huge borders. [And] most Iraqis have weapons."

Months before launching the Iraq war last March, U.S. officials drafted plans to remake the police with the help of a 6,500-member international police force. But the plans fell apart when many nations refused to endorse the invasion or to participate in the occupation after the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

The early blueprints had called for the international force -- similar to ones used in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo -- to keep order in the immediate postwar period and to retrain the Iraqi police.

The proposed international force was to provide a buffer between the U.S. military and Iraqi civilians. The idea was to tap foreign police experts who would train Iraqi recruits and also go out in the streets to show how policing is done in democratic societies.

Instead, Iraqi police are being trained by policing experts from the U.S. military and from a handful of countries with troops in the coalition forces augmenting U.S. military efforts in Iraq. This effort was delayed by bureaucratic infighting in Washington, according to two sources, and by the decision to disband the old police force and prevent former senior Baath Party members in the Hussein regime from serving again.

Eventually, leaders hope to have a 75,000-member national Iraqi police force responsible for keeping the streets safe and a new Iraqi military of about 35,000 to handle external threats. The security plan also calls for several thousand border police and an intelligence service. The responsibilities for each branch would be roughly modeled on the U.S. system.

At this point, however, the police face a far more difficult task than U.S. police do. They are, in essence, on the front lines of an urban guerrilla war. Targeted by insurgents as collaborators with the occupation, they are being attacked with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombings -- yet don't have the same level of equipment as U.S. police or the fortified bases of American soldiers.

About 300 Iraqi police have been killed by suicide bombers, assassinations and other attacks since the war began. Last week, nine officers and trainees were gunned down on a road near Hillah in central Iraq and two others were killed in the northern city of Kirkuk.

"We're on the front lines," said Lt. Col. Othman Saeed, chief of Baghdad's Khadra police station. "We can't tell enemy from friend, our borders are wide open, and every day two or three more cops get killed."

At the Baqubah station 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, patrol chief Salam Omar displays his "armory" for fighting insurgents: a few boxes of ammunition and a collection of 30-year-old Kalashnikov rifles leaning haphazardly against a wall.

Then he motions out back at a brown hulk of heat-seared metal -- the remnants of a suicide bomber's car that destroyed the station in January. Beside it is a patrol car that was bombed by insurgents, charred shreds from a slain officer's jacket still clinging to the seat springs.

"The bad guys have grenades, RPGs, you name it," Omar said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. "Try answering an RPG with a pistol. We're totally outgunned."

The shooting deaths this month of two Americans by several men believed by U.S. authorities to be Iraqi police officers has further shaken the confidence of police.

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