Competent Police Force is Key to Iraq Peace

Insurgent attacks are tearing Iraq apart. The Iraqi police force must be rebuilt before it can be fully relied on to quell the violence. American trainers and advisers are helping to accomplish that mission.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne here in Los Angeles.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Baghdad. Some commuters in this city roll past a billboard showing the red fireball of a car bomb. The billboard says terrorists in this city killed hundreds of people last year, a figure that it is, if anything, far too low.

If Iraqis eventually find protection from this violence, much of it will have to come from the police. So this week on MORNING EDITION, we've been reporting on Iraqi cops, like the man who kissed an American soldier on the cheek.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Good morning.

Colonel ASSAD MUHAMMAD AL-SADI(ph): How are you?

Unidentified Woman: Good, okay.

INSKEEP: The policeman is Colonel Assam Muhammad al-Sadi, and the soldier he kissed first was a woman. He went right on to kiss the armed men who accompanied her.

Unidentified Man: Hey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: And then he kissed a visiting reporter.

Col. AL-SADI: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Col. Assam wears the blue shirt and black shoulder boards of the Iraqi police. There is, by the way, a bit of stubble on his cheek. He's the police logistics officer for western Baghdad and his windowless office is stuffed with 14 crates of Kalashnikov rifles. Americans supplied the guns, and he listens to their advice on how to keep track of the ammunition.

Col. AL-SADI: (Through translator) He say it's under control, anything you ask me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: The American advisors are part of a long struggle to build up the Iraqi police, which we'll describe this morning. For much of the past three years, the American advisors included Steve Castillo, a former federal drug agent who worked in Iraq's Ministry of Interior.

Mr. STEVE CASTILLO (Former Chief of Intelligence, Drug Enforcement Agency; Advisor, Iraqi Ministry of Interior): They're the police. I mean, they're the border police, they're the immigration, they're the customs. They're our Justice Department and Homeland Security combined. And if you're going to build a republic over there, you don't build that up with a strong military; you build it with a strong police force, people that have daily contact with the public.

INSKEEP: The U.S. lost a lot of time in improving that critical ministry. That's the view of Jerry Burke, a former Boston cop and one of the first police advisors in Iraq. In 2003, he joined a team that calculated the number of foreign police advisors necessary to rebuild Iraq's police.

Mr. JERRY BURKE (Former Boston Police Officer; Advisor, Iraqi Police Force): We recommended 6,000.

INSKEEP: Well, how many did you get?

Mr. BURKE: Well, the first year, maybe 100 to 125 American advisors in country. I think we got up near 900, never went over 900, during the entire three years of the mission.

We would talk about, you know, when the rest of the advisors get here. We would start talking about what some of our hopes and plans were. And after a couple of months, we sort of started saying, well, if they get here. And by the time when I was leaving we had sort of changed to, this is what you can do for yourself.

INSKEEP: It was difficult to find enough police to do the work, and Steve Castillo says it was hard to protect the police who did arrive.

Mr. CASTILLO: My first three days in Baghdad, I'll tell you, what my first three days were. I get off a plane from Spain, I pull up to my hotel and they rocket my hotel. So I never got checked in. Second day, they blew up five of my police stations by ten o'clock in the morning. So I'm walking around bomb scenes. The third day, I'm doing my books and I'm missing $72 million, which I found by the way, but it took me about ten days. That was my first three days in Baghdad.

INSKEEP: Castillo says the U.S. tried to fight the insurgency by handing weapons to almost anybody and calling them police.

Mr. CASTILLO: When I first got there, the metric I was being judged on was purely numbers. We want to see X number of police on the street by X period of time. If you got X number of thousand trained and we still got problems, let's just double that number, triple that number, or whatever.

INSKEEP: Did that end up actually setting you back because you ended up with incompetent people or people that you'd have to replace or wash out?

Mr. CASTILLO: Yeah, I mean, I ended up having to try to rebuild that police force, I think, three times.

INSKEEP: And though police training has improved, it's still hard to be sure who's on the payroll. Just last week, the U.S. Army circulated information about a police commander using official vehicles for insurgent attacks. Former advisor Jerry Burke says in the last year, militia members also infiltrated police units.

Mr. BURKE: They were recruited in mass. I know I saw one order signed by the minister authorizing 1,300 people to be hired from Najaf into a commando unit within the special police.

INSKEEP: Thirteen hundred people from the religious capital of Shiite Muslims hired all at once into a single unit?

Mr. BURKE: Yeah, and so they (unintelligible). And those are the ones I suspect are the former militias.

Mr. CASTILLO: Militias have always been the dead moose on the table.

INSKEEP: Steve Castillo was advising Iraq's interior minister in 2005, as men in police uniforms were accused of kidnapping and killing. It was a disappointment to U.S. officials who had made a plan to employ militia members productively.

Mr. CASTILLO: And because it was such an involved and costly plan, done, by the way, with limited Iraqi input, that once the government stood up, they never bought into the plan. So nothing was ever done on it.

INSKEEP: Iraq's interior minister denies that he allowed militia members into the police, and we will hear his views tomorrow. His ministry is also criticized for corruption.

Rahdi Hamza al-Rahdi, Iraq's top corruption investigator, says recruits even have to pay bribes to get into police academies.

Justice RAHDI HAMZA AL-RAHDI (Director, Iraqi Commission on Public Integrity): (Through Translator) They're investigating that right now. And quite few of those cases there at the court.

INSKEEP: Why would anyone pay a bribe to have a chance for one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq?

Justice AL-RAHDI: (Through Translator) There is--well, first, he doesn't have a job. He got to feed his family. So he pay to get the job. All himself is corrupted. He knows about the system. He wants to get into it so he can start receiving bribes himself.

(Soundbite of man's voice on loudspeaker)

INSKEEP: You can see the challenge that Iraqi police face today if you visit a station's operations center. At the headquarters in Karkh, a section of Baghdad, Lieutenant Ahmed Jawad(ph) has a sheet of paper listing the previous day's murders in his area.

Lieutenant AHMED JAWAD (Iraqi Police Officer): Fifteen, 17.

INSKEEP: Seventeen killed? Eighteen? Is this a normal day?

Lt. JAWAD: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: What?

Lt. JAWAD: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: It's a good day?

Lt. JAWAD: Good.

INSKEEP: Eighteen dead is a good day.

Lt. JAWAD: Good, yeah.

INSKEEP: Police may not have to look far to find suspects. A former general and his bodyguards in this district were just arrested on charges of kidnapping and murder. It's under that kind of pressure that the United States is trying to improve the police. U.S. Army General Joseph Peterson insists that Iraqis are still dedicated to that task.

Major-General JOSEPH PETERSON (U.S. Army): The most incredible story I can tell you, if you have the time.

INSKEEP: Sure.

Maj. Gen. PETERSON: Is the story about recruiting in al-Ramadi. In the middle of the recruiting event, a suicide vest-bomber walked into the crowd, killed 60 to 70 Iraqis and injured much, much more. When we completed the evacuation of the wounded and the dead, a hundred more Iraqis signed in. That's commitment.

INSKEEP: Hundreds of civilian and military advisors now work daily with Iraqi police units. Friendly police commanders are trying to weed out people linked to militias. A battalion commander was fired just last week. Notorious commando units are being re-branded. General Peterson says they have new uniforms and new names. A unit called the Wolf Brigade is now the Freedom Brigade.

Maj. Gen. PETERSON: Its makeup has changed significantly, and will change much more over the next several months.

INSKEEP: Has the personnel of those units changed enough, that you're confident that they won't stain the image of the new names and the new uniforms that you've given them?

Maj. Gen. PETERSON: I don't know. Hope's not a method. We are certainly doing all we can, again, to change the culture through training, through example, and through great leaders. And so, I hope it works.

INSKEEP: Much of that hope will rest on the relationships that American advisors build in police station after police station across Iraq.

We are in Baghdad and will continue our reporting tomorrow, as an American soldier explains what's going right and wrong with police training. You can find an online journal of our travels in Iraq at npr.org.

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