BAGHDAD — U.S. officials have revamped and expanded training programs for Iraqi police units amid mounting concern that their focus on fighting insurgents, and not protecting citizens, has created an unaccountable force plagued by corruption and rights abuses.
The police units are under the Iraqi Interior Ministry, led by Bayan Jabr, a Shiite Muslim with ties to a sectarian militia. The predominantly Shiite force has become highly politicized and is accused of torture and death squad operations against Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.
Those concerns were reinforced Wednesday by the State Department, which highlighted Iraq's "climate of extreme violence in which people were killed for political and other reasons" in its annual global human rights report.
"Reports increased of killings by the government or its agents that may have been politically motivated," the report says. "Members of sectarian militias dominated police units to varying degrees and in different parts of the country."
Problems with the fledgling force have been exacerbated by a lack of steady oversight, some U.S. officials say. For much of the last three years, U.S. advisors to the police units have been stretched thin as the United States focused on training Iraqi army recruits. That has led to a police force that has access to modern equipment, weapons and vehicles, but no track record of keeping control of its hardware, much less its personnel, the officials say.
To address concerns about abuses and improve accountability, the Bush administration has tripled the number of training teams being attached to police forces throughout the nation and expanded police training academies in Jordan and Iraq.
Some U.S. advisors say they are concerned about the consequences of training courses that have skewed toward weapons handling and battlefield tactics and not dealt enough with human rights, investigations and administration.
"There is a tension between survival and defeating the insurgency of the moment, versus where we know we have to get in a civil democratic society," said Robert M. Witajewski, the top civilian police trainer and director of the U.S. Embassy's Narcotics, Law Enforcement and Correctional Affairs program. "It's walking a fine line. You can over-militarize the police, and all you're doing is creating an entity that could cause a coup down the road."
Even as the Bush administration revamps the program, U.S. military officials defend their efforts, pointing to the fine balance between training police to fight insurgents in the short term and creating a permanent force capable of enforcing law and order after American troops leave.
"We're trained to kill. That's what we're good at -- kinetic warfare," said Lt. Col. Peter Cross, a California Guardsman with the 49th Military Police Brigade training task force. "There's no real doctrine for training an indigenous police force, so we're having to make up a lot of this on the fly, under fire."
Despite the planned overhaul, the training programs remain an exercise with extremely high stakes and little certainty of success.
The focus on the Iraqi army meant that while thousands of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers shared space at military bases and conducted joint operations throughout last year, by the end of 2005 there were only 700 U.S. police trainers for an Iraqi police force of more than 100,000.
Trainers now acknowledge that was a mistake that allowed the Interior Ministry forces to grow into an inscrutable bureaucracy of overlapping jurisdictions and tangled lines of authority.
"We're not starting from ground zero," said Witajewski, whose State Department program, with an annual budget of $1 billion, covers the cost of much of the police training in Iraq and will eventually take over advisory functions at the Interior Ministry once the U.S. military draws down. "We're starting from the second sub-basement."
Time is against the effort. The U.S. public's support for the troop presence in Iraq is waning even as the Sunni-led insurgency appears to be intensifying. The bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra last month drove the two Muslim sects to the brink of civil war.
Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, the top U.S. police trainer in Iraq, said that more than 120,000 police officers had been trained so far and that 80,000 more still needed to attend academy courses, surpassing the original goal of a 76,000-strong force. The increased number, however, reflects the problems with the training effort.
U.S. trainers said they badly underestimated how many police it would take to stabilize Iraq. The higher recruitment figures also take into account thousands of recruits who abandoned their posts or didn't report for duty after attending academies. Peterson said that thousands of inadequately trained officers also needed to take courses.