Iraq Tries to Rein in Renegade Police Forces

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Growing reports of police abuse prompt Iraq's Interior Ministry to set up a new unit to investigate charges of murder and other abuse by security forces. The United States is shifting resources to deal with the emerging internal crisis.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. There are growing reports of police abuse in Iraq. Sunni Arab politicians and religious leaders say death squads from Iraq's Shiite-led Interior Ministry are often behind the killings and kidnappings that make news almost every day. The U.S. has been focused on building the Iraqi army. Now it is shifting resources to deal with a police force that has spun out of control. NPR's Anne Garrels has the story from Baghdad.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Just getting into the Iraqi Interior Ministry indicates how dangerous this country is. Because of repeated bombings it took six checkpoints to reach a graduation ceremony at the Baghdad police academy. But Iraqi Brigadier General Ahmed says it's especially dangerous to be an honest policeman. He investigates crooked cops. At 38, he is young for the job, but he is aging fast. Since he took over command of the new Internal Affairs Division a few months ago, he's survived four assassination attempts.

General AHMED (Internal Affairs, Iraqi Police): (Through translator) Two from outside, and two were by people within the Interior Ministry.

GARRELS: As the latest crop of internal investigators collected their certificates, no one posed for the cameras. They don't want their identities known outside or inside the police force. According to 28-year-old Hamed (ph), they don't even trust each other.

HAMED (Internal Affairs, Iraqi Police): (Through translator) It's a difficult question. Unfortunately, there's no trust between us.

GARRELS: As General Ahmed congratulated the police investigators, he warned Iraq is at a crossroads.

General AHMED: (Through translator) We must decide as a people whether to remain on a path of civil rights abuse, corruption and violence or to take the path of human dignity, justice and peace for every Iraqi.

GARRELS: David Everett, a lawyer from New York who retired as a colonel from the Army Reserves, volunteered to help set up the Internal Affairs Division.

Colonel DAVID EVERETT (Volunteer, Iraq): We're talking about kidnappings. We're talking about extortion. We're talking about shakedowns at checkpoints, all these things. It's not minor infractions that we're talking about here.

GARRELS: He cites progress with the recent detention of a general suspected of torturing detainees and a police ring that sold passports on the black market. But Internal Affairs has also had to police its own department, closing down its branch in Basra because, as Everett put it, the guys there were the biggest gangsters in town.

U.S. officials say problems with police stem from the lack of planning before the U.S. invasion three years ago. The new police force was thrown on the streets with little or no training and no vetting. In the process, some units became little more than militias. And the Ministry is now overseen at the highest levels by religious Shiite parties with ties to militias. Reports of uniformed death squads have risen sharply. Several of the new investigators said it would be difficult to deal with the militias because of political pressure.

ROD (ph) (Internal Affairs, Iraqi Police): (Speaking foreign language)

GARRELS: Rod, a 46-year-old investigator from Karbala, says he feels like his hands are tied for now. As one U.S. official put it, any Iraqi investigator who takes on the militias won't live long. So the Americans are taking the lead for now. It was Americans who raided a bunker last November where police were torturing Sunni detainees. And it was American troops who arrested a group of 22 Interior Ministry police commandos in January as they were about to execute a detained Sunni man.

The government has repeatedly denied the existence of death squads. But when reports emerged yesterday that armed men in commando uniforms had raided a Baghdad security company in broad daylight and removed 50 employees, General Ahmed assumed it might just be renegade police. He's investigating. David Everett is proud of the help his American trainers have given Ahmed's division in the past six months. In addition to investigation techniques, the new Iraqi investigators receive human rights training. Everett has no illusions these lessons will stick overnight.

Mr. EVERETT: You've got to start someplace. And if we don't start someplace, then we can never have any chance of getting away from this cycle of abuse.

GARRELS: Better training is key, but he says there must also be mentoring. Just as it once did with the Iraqi military, the U.S. is now putting American police with Iraqi units to improve oversight. But it's hard to find experienced trainers willing to spend long periods attached to police units. Everett will leave in April when his six-month tour is up, but he will leave plenty more to be done.

Mr. EVERETT: Anyone who thinks that this is going to happen overnight is going to find themselves sadly mistaken.

GARRELS: He believes Americans must stay until the lessons turn into reality.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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