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The Baghdad Beat By: Erik Swabb
The Weekly Standard | Friday, September 19, 2008


Baghdad - Driving through Baghdad, it is impossible to miss a city on the road to recovery. Restaurants that used to be shuttered are open for business. Weddings are on the rise. People are walking the streets at night. It is easy to see the major reason for this rebirth. U.S. and Iraqi forces blanket the city, providing round-the-clock security to residents. Yet, a key transition looms on the horizon: The protectors of the people are changing.

During the "surge," U.S. forces primarily worked with the Iraqi army, but thanks to the decreased violence, the army is now in the process of transferring security responsibilities to the Iraqi police, which have yet to prove themselves. Fortunately, U.S. forces have a methodical approach to facilitate this transition that is showing positive results.

The Iraqi government wants to free up army units for missions against remaining pockets of terrorists and to prepare the military to protect the country's borders, and the government is looking to the police to provide security in the capital. This transition is needed, but it poses challenges.

First, the police do not have a great reputation from Saddam's era, unlike the well-regarded army. Although the police were generally not an instrument of oppression, they were under-manned and under-funded, often resorting to corruption and abuse. Crime only remained low due to the totalitarian nature of the Saddam regime.

Moreover, after the invasion, U.S. and Iraqi officials mainly directed resources to the army. The police are still trying to catch up. Many policemen are on duty with only one or two weeks of instruction due to the rapid expansion of the force. Another difficulty is the inferiority of the police equipment. The army has heavy weapons and up-armored humvees, while the police typically have just AK-47s and pick-up trucks. As long as the police do not face well-armed fighters, this equipment is sufficient. But if insurgents mount an attack, the police would need help or suffer heavy casualties.

Leadership is another area of concern. The police, like the army, are an all-volunteer force and must compete for the best and brightest in Iraq. As the more prestigious institution, the army has an advantage in bringing in high quality recruits and officers. The Ministry of Interior, which is in charge of the police, also poses problems. Sectarianism and general incompetence have wracked the Ministry for years. Although the current leadership is cleaning house, poor management still undermines U.S. training and assistance.

However, U.S. forces are taking a methodical approach to developing the police. The 18th Military Police (MP) Brigade is responsible for training, advising, and assessing the police within Baghdad. According to the brigade commander, Col. Mark Spindler, the ultimate goal is to move from "order and law" to "law and order," as the capital slowly ends martial law. The brigade fields 12-man Police Transition Teams (PTTs) to fulfill this mission, which includes MPs, an international police adviser (a career civilian police officer), an interpreter, and, if needed, subject matter experts in areas such as intelligence and logistics.

PTTs are assigned to specific police stations and visit them regularly. On-site training focuses emphasizes the rule of law, and PTTs also learn to inspect checkpoints and accompany Iraqis on some of their patrols. A monthly evaluation by PTTs then rates stations in 15 categories, including force protection measures, investigative procedures, detention operations, and logistics. Coalition resources are directed to those stations most in need. The best stations assume security responsibilities from the army first.

For the first time, the police are benefiting from a close partnership with U.S. combat brigades, which was critical in improving the Iraqi army. U.S. soldiers now conduct joint operations with the police. "Iraqis look at U.S. troops and want to be better," says one international police adviser. The combat brigades also teach policemen about basic soldier skills, like weapons handling, room clearing, checkpoints, and first aid.


Since October 2007, the 18th MP Brigade has stood up a major training center, expanded the force by over 10,000, and built or refurbished 19 local stations, with 17 more under construction. Throughout the chain of command of the 716th MP Battalion, which is responsible for the police in western Baghdad, there's a consensus that these police officers are far better now than they were in years past. According to Lt. Col. Darryl Johnson, the battalion commander, "the days of the Iraqi Police running from the fight are over." Sgt. Brian McCoy, a PTT member on his second deployment, echoes the same sentiment. "In 2006, we were doing all the work and they were doing nothing," he declares. The police would not patrol without U.S. troops nor even work until a PTT showed up. Now, everything from patrols to investigations is "100% better."

Recent developments support these views. In the Salhiya district, the police took over army checkpoints a month ago, the first transfer in Baghdad. Violence remains low in the area. Now, instead of leading operations, the battalion increasingly just provides over-watch. Training reflects this greater Iraqi independence. Back in February, U.S. trainers were running the 4-week police academy in Furat, the largest such facility in Iraq. Today, Iraqis provide security for the academy, train the new recruits, and furnish logistical support.

Furthermore, the police are more aware of their role in a lawful society. According to U.S. advisers, Iraqi commanders generally understand the rule of law, which in Iraq's case is a pre-Saddam legal code. Stations are collecting evidence, seeking arrest warrants, and putting people into the judicial system. It may not meet U.S. due process standards, but at least there is a process.

The Iraqi leadership is also trying to reduce abuses. Inspectors now visit detention facilities to check on prisoners and internal affairs can investigate complaints against the police. Commanders are resorting to more innovative ways as well. To eliminate thefts by the police during house searches, one Iraqi colonel orders his men to leave all money, cell phones, and jewelry at the station. He then searches them after the patrol to ensure no one stole anything.

It is all about finding an Iraqi solution, instead of an American solution with an Iraqi face. When U.S. forces tried mandating eight-hour shifts for the police, it failed. Due to lengthy commutes through Baghdad's many checkpoints, longer shifts were necessary to cut down on the travel burden. Likewise, U.S. efforts to increase computer use were short-lived. With the occurrence of electricity outages, the police understandably insisted on writing down everything. "Their method works," explains Capt. Eric Minor of the 463rd MP Company. "We shouldn't force our way."

This Iraqi-solution approach is paying dividends. U.S. forces no longer give out equipment to police stations. "Iraqis take more ownership if they request it," said Capt. Nate Brookshire, the U.S. liaison to the Salhiya district headquarters. Although the Iraqi supply system is slow, it is starting to work. "Before, the police asked us for vests and weapons. Now they ask us for cold water."

The Ministry of the Interior also appears to be trying to correct the sectarian imbalance in the predominantly Shiite police force. The integration of former Sunni insurgents remains a contentious point, but being Sunni no longer seems to disqualify people. According to the commander of the Furat police academy, seven of the eleven last graduations contained more Sunnis than Shiites, while the other four were about even. According to U.S. officers, when applicants are rejected, it is now usually for bureaucratic reasons, as opposed to religious affiliation. As one Iraqi general puts it, "I don't want Sunni or Shiite policemen. I just want a trained policeman."

If the police take over security in Baghdad without causing an increase in violence, the soldiers of the 18th MP Brigade will have another reason to be proud. But, long-term security ultimately depends on the resolution of political issues that Iraq's different communities must address. One of those issues is what kind of country Iraq will become. "The Iraqis will have a gut check in terms of how far they want to go to establish the rule of law," declares Col. Spindler.

Indeed, for Iraq to truly emerge from Saddam's shadow, the country cannot simply re-establish the old order. It must create a new one. Thanks to the efforts of U.S. troops and a new generation of Iraqi patriots, the police have a chance to be a key part of that effort.

Erik Swabb served in Iraq as a Marine infantry officer from September 2004 to March 2005. A member of Vets for Freedom, he returned to Iraq in August as an embedded reporter.


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