Iraqi Police Get Little Money, Less Respect

Iraq's local police are at the bottom of a ladder where corruption skims off money for even the most basic needs, from bullets to gasoline. Some policemen have to take money from their own pockets to buy their uniforms on the black market, because higher-ups have stolen and sold them.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And we're going to begin this hour in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave this optimistic assessment today. He said that Iraqi security forces will be ready to take control of most of the country's provinces by the end of the year. Iraqi forces have already taken over in one province, and Maliki said responsibility for another will be handed over next month. U.S. strategy in Iraq is focused on training Iraqi security forces. As they improve, the plan goes, American troops can be pulled back.

The Army's 49th Military Police Brigade is on the cutting edge of that effort. It is training Iraqi policemen in some of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods. NPR's Corey Flintoff was recently embedded with some of the MPs, and he prepared this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

COREY FLINTOFF: Sergeant Jerry Abrew(ph) is jolting along in the shotgun seat of an armored Humvee, giving directions to his driver.

JERRY ABREW: All right, scoot over to the right some. There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

FLINTOFF: The small convoy makes its way to one of the Iraqi police stations that Abrew's unit is trying to help. It's a dusty compound surrounded by whitewashed walls trimmed in dark blue, the color of the IPs, the Iraqi police - the closest thing Baghdad has to a city police force.

NISSAN: Hello, hello, hello, hello. (Unintelligible).

FLINTOFF: The station commander, Colonel Nissan, is an affable man with a drooping, walrus mustache. He offers chairs, cigarettes, and round after round of sweet tea in tiny glasses.

NISSAN: Sit down. Welcome, welcome.

FLINTOFF: The MPs sip their tea while sweating in the broad-shouldered body armor the troops call full-battle rabble. Colonel Nissan is one of their favorites, and they've come to check on his progress. Speaking through the MPs' Iraqi interpreter, the chief says his men ran into a firefight yesterday.

NISSAN: (Through Translator) Yesterday, they went to Aldora, you know, the area. They got ambushed there by 25 people that attack that convoy.

FLINTOFF: The Iraqi colonel says that none of his men were hurt, but they expended 400 rounds of scarce ammunition, and he's running low. He also says his fuel allocation has been cut so deeply that more than half of his patrol trucks will have to stay parked at the station.

ABREW: Let him know that I sent out my report like two days ago about the fuel shortages, ammo shortages, barrack space shortages, and the vehicles, all on there.

FLINTOFF: But Sergeant Abrew has his own problems further up the chain of command.

ABREW: Yeah, I talk to the colonel about the budget for getting these vehicles fixed. The money I was going to use to get some of those vehicles fixed, we don't have it. They cancelled it.

NISSAN: Okay.

FLINTOFF: On another day in a different part of Baghdad, Lieutenant Steven Ottolini(ph) leads his platoon on a visit to stations in the Autamea(ph) neighborhood, which has been especially violent lately. There are two stretches of the road where snipers have been active, and the gunner swings his turret watchfully.

(SOUNDBITE OF MECHANICAL WHIRRING)

FLINTOFF: From the oven-like inside of a Humvee, almost anything can look threatening. A pile of rubbish might conceal a bomb. A man with a cell phone might be waiting to detonate one.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

FLINTOFF: One of the MP's jobs is to monitor the treatment of prisoners in the lock-ups at their police stations. At this station, Iraqis bring prisoners out of the dim, baking jail cell to talk about their conditions.

HUSSEIN ALI JASSAM: (Through Translator) And I have the mail visits. Move the - they killed a guy (unintelligible) brothers (unintelligible).

FLINTOFF: Hussein Ali Jassam killed a man he claims was trying to rob him. Jassam is 33 with welts from bullet wounds on his left forearm and wrist. He says he was beaten right after he was arrested, but that he's been well treated here.

Ryad Kalif Abbas(ph) is an Iraqi policeman. He emerges from the cell with a stainless steel frame sticking grotesquely out of his left upper arm. He says it's holding the bone together after he was wounded in a nighttime shootout with insurgents.

RYAD KALIF ABBAS: (Through Translator) And after that, I tried to defend myself against the terrorists or the bad guys, but unfortunately, I killed someone from the first civilian (unintelligible).

FLINTOFF: Even though he says the killing was accidental, Abbas says it's Ministry of Interior policy to jail Iraqi police until their cases have been investigated. He's been here now for three months.

KALIF ABBAS: (Through Translator) If I be killed, nobody take care of motive or to - unfortunately, I was on duty and I killed someone by mistake. They put me in the jail. Why?

FLINTOFF: Lieutenant Colonel Peter Cross is the operations officer of the 49th Military Police Brigade, and he says he's proud of the job his soldiers have done in getting the local police back on their feet. But the higher levels of Iraq's security organizations are a headache for the MPs.

PETER CROSS: What we don't have control of - and this is one of the frustrating aspects of our job - is the Ministry of Interior, who the police work for.

FLINTOFF: Cross says the Ministry of Interior is a bottleneck for the resources the Iraqi police should be getting. Another problem is that while the Americans are helping one police faction, there's another - a much more powerful national police, a separate agency that's been accused of operating Shiite death squads.

CROSS: Please note, we don't work with the national police. The reason we take that very seriously is the national police is the one that's really the most corrupt. That really is where the major militia influences are coming from.

FLINTOFF: Cross' unit works with civilian contractors, most of whom come from police departments in the U.S. They're called international police liaison officers. Chuck Reynolds supervises civilian trainers at forward operating base Rustamiyah in east Baghdad. He says corruption and militia infiltration are problems for the Iraqi police, too, but one of the biggest challenges is teaching IPs the meaning of civil rights.

CHUCK REYNOLDS: They basically lived under martial law for the last almost 40 years. Teaching them that people have rights and they deserve to be respected as human beings, regardless of what they did.

FLINTOFF: Back at the Autamea station, police drive up in one of the light pickup trucks they use for patrols. A trickle of blood coagulates on the tailgate, mingling from the piled bodies of seven people - six men and a woman. Lieutenant Steven Ottolini says the victims were traveling in a police convoy that was taking suspects and witnesses to a nearby courthouse. He says the convoy was attacked, possibly in an effort to free the prisoners or eliminate the witnesses.

STEVEN OTTOLINI: Some of the witnesses unfortunately were killed, and some of the detainees were killed. And one IP was injured, and one IP lost his life. You know, it's Baghdad.

FLINTOFF: Ottolini says this wasn't a matter of terrorism, but what he calls straight-up crime.

OTTOLINI: This is what our Iraqi police are dealing with. And they're doing a good job. You know, a few are killed, unfortunately, but they prevailed today by far.

FLINTOFF: Ottolini proposes a joint patrol with the Iraqi police, but he discovers that there are places in their own precinct where they won't go.

Man #1: We cannot go over here, because it's a very dangerous area.

OTTOLINI: They can't go to Sephina(ph)?

Man #2: (Through Translator) Because they are scared from the armed guards, and we have no armed vehicles. Our vehicles are not like your vehicles.

FLINTOFF: Nor are the IPs likely to have all the unarmed vehicles they need anytime in the near future. Colonel Nissan, the genial chief with the walrus mustache, says his effort to get resources reminds him of an absurdist play.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NISSAN: It's like a problem just with the Waiting for Godot, like waiting for nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLINTOFF: Sgt. Abrew warns him that there may not be much time to wait.

IP: What we're trying to do is get the IPs working on their own, doing their own thing. You know, getting out there and doing it without our help, you know. So eventually, the MPs ain't going to be here as much. And then one day they're not going to come at all.

Man: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: And then it's time to move on. Sgt. Abrew puts down his tea glass and shakes hands with the colonel. There's one more station to visit before his convoy heads back to its base. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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