Iraq

Iraq Police Training a Slow Process

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A joint U.S.-Iraqi force meets strong resitance in efforts to control insurgents and foreign fighters. Mike Heidingsfield, of the State Department's civilian police advisory mission, finds progress is difficult.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week, the violence in Iraq continued to escalate. Overnight, US Army forces fought off a series of coordinated insurgent attacks in southern Baghdad, while west of the city, US and Iraqi troops launched major attacks to try to control insurgents and foreign fighters in an effort called Operation Quick Strike. Mike Heidingsfield is contingent commander of the State Department's civilian policy advisory mission in Iraq. He overseas police training in Baghdad and Mosul as well as the training of Iraqi cadets in Jordon. He joins us from Baghdad now.

Thank you very much for being back with us.

Commander MIKE HEIDINGSFIELD (Contingent Commander, State Department's Civilian Policy Advisory Mission in Iraq): I appreciate the opportunity.

SIMON: What do you think it's like on the ground right now?

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: Well, I think what we see is a set of counteracting forces at work. The Iraqi police and the Iraqi military are clearly making an effort to have a greater prominence and a greater presence. At the same time, you can clearly see the insurgent forces are trying to match that presence, both in terms of the number of attacks and the sophistication of the attacks as well. It's, I think fair to say, a grand kind of up-spiraling of the two forces at work here.

SIMON: What conclusions do you draw, Chief, from the ratcheting up of attacks in the, as you phrase it, increasing sophistication of insurgent attacks?

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: I suppose if I were the internal optimist, I might suggest that the insurgents are at the end of their journey in trying to do anything to restore the initiative to their side, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think it is just the fundamental forces at work here, and through steady forward movement, the Iraqi security forces are clearly becoming stronger and more credible. At the same time, it gets clearly sensed by the insurgent forces. They seem to have a very steely determination to continue to make their presence felt and perhaps now not just symbolically but also in terms of the ability to inflict casualties.

SIMON: Your headquarters were bombed last week.

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: They were on Monday the 25th, 5:55 in the morning. This is the second time we've been through this drill. The first time it happened on the 9th of March. This time it was a mini-van packed with explosives. We estimated it to be between 500,000 and 750,000 pounds of high explosives. It came out our entry control point at about a hundred kilometers per hour and that's where the suicide bomber detonated. We had six Iraqi guard force members who were killed by the explosion. Two of whom were sentries on the roof and four of whom who were actually asleep and were blown through the walls into the rubble.

SIMON: How does that affect the people who are working there?

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: For me, just as from a personal perspective, you hear the explosion, you want to immediately get a sense of whether the perimeter's been breached, and you want to make sure that you can defend your part of the territory. And I think everybody reacts like that initially. Probably one of the most sadly but uplifting moments was watching the Iraqi security force members here who work with us very quickly recovering the bodies of their colleagues who had died without any concern for having exposed themselves in order to recover their bodies. Long-term, you see a variety of emotions. Some people, I think, feign a sense of complacency and nonchalance about it that I don't really think goes to the heart of who they are. Other people are clearly tempered and very subdued by the fact that it happens. And the vast majority just kind of take a deep breath, thank God that it wasn't worse than it was and recommit to push ahead.

SIMON: The six Marine who died earlier this week, distinct from the 19 who were killed by a roadside bomb--I think a lot of people hearing the news at home don't understand how six snipers could all be killed.

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: Death comes in many forms here. We are not the only ones who have snipers. And, in fact, Iraq in general and Baghdad in particular because of the decaying infrastructure and the enormous number of empty buildings essentially provides a sniper's perch in virtually every city block. So the insurgents have that capacity; it's just not limited to just us.

SIMON: There was, of course, also an American journalist killed this week, Steven Vincent, who just had an opinion piece published in the Sunday New York Times in which he said that Shia groups were joining up the British-ruled zone in Basra and were beginning to dominate security forces, and he thought that they were having actually a deleterious effect enforcing security and peace and the law there. What's your impression? Are a lot of the Shia who are joining security forces have some kind of their own agenda that might be at odds from yours?

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: I don't see that, Scott. I'm not familiar specifically with what he encountered in Basra. I can tell you that the situation in Iraq is unique. You know, while Sunnis dominate the Muslim world elsewhere, the inverse is true here in Iraq. I had an interesting meeting with the commander of the I-ah-heem(ph) police station which is in west Baghdad, and I talked to him about the Sunni and Shia issue.

SIMON: Yeah.

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: And he said to me quite plainly--and he polices a community that has both Shia and Sunni representation, so he has the most difficult of both worlds. And he said in the police service, the religious persuasion of the policemen and policewomen is absolutely secondary. They have to learn to contend with both sides of the faith in order to be successful. And he said the notion that one side can kill the other to the point of being politically dominant is simply insanity.

SIMON: I mean, what you're describing is--I think the phrase they have for it in a lot of US police departments is, `We're all blue underneath,' meaning that once they join the police that's what they are more than any other ethnic category. But is it a little naive for Americans to think that Iraqis have gotten to that point within just a couple of years?

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: Oh, yeah, I would not want to suggest that they've gotten to that point at all. Religion clearly tears at the fabric of this society. And I don't think any of us in the United States have ever experience anything like this. In fact, in this conversation with the station commander, I talked to him about the racial divisions that were in the history of the United States and that we still face today. And I think even with the tragic depths of racial issues in the United States, it does not approach the fundamental kind of going to the core of the issue of religion here. So, no, certainly Iraq has not gotten to the point where in the security forces they are all blue, but they probably are the best example, as basic and rudimentary as it might be, of where the country needs to go.

SIMON: Mike Heidingsfield, good to talk to you again. Thank you very much.

Cmdr. HEIDINGSFIELD: It's my pleasure, sir.

SIMON: Mr. Heidingsfield runs the DynCorp program under State Department contract to train the Iraqi police. He's on a year's leave from the presidency of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission in Tennessee.

And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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