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Iraq's Interior Ministry is as feared today as it was under Saddam Hussein. Before the U.S. invasion, the ministry served as the pervasive, terrifying intelligence arm of Saddam's Baath Party. It kept a file on every Iraqi. Now Iraq's main political parties are fighting to control the ministry. This has crippled attempts to reform the country's corrupt and sectarian police force.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay was allowed a rare look inside the Interior Ministry. And she filed this report.
JAMIE TARABAY: The Interior Ministry is located outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone and security around the ministry complex is as stringent as you might expect. Cars aren't allowed to stop near the entrance. Twitchy police shoo away any that loiter, fearing suicide bombers.
Inside the outer gate, men in faded shirts walk single-file after being patted down, carrying their belongings in see-through plastic bags. They're policemen, but they only change into their uniforms once they enter the ministry. Inside there are most security checks. Mobile phones are confiscated to prevent anyone giving information on the movements of employees. There are guns everywhere.
Following standard procedure, a Western official escorting reporters pulls out his handgun before he enters the building.
(Soundbite of security check)
TARABAY: Iraqi police at the front desk stiffen at the sight of strangers. No one gets anywhere in this squalid 11-storey building without a permit. A senior Shiite police officer who calls himself Ali Kamal(ph) says the ministry is split into hostile armed camps.
Mr. Ali Kamal (Shiite Police Officer): (Through translator) The whole ministry is plagued. Each floor represents a state of its own, a party or a certain group. The Shiite parties want to get rid of the Sunni ones. The Sunnis want to get rid of the Shiite ones. The Kurdish parties want the Sunnis and the Shiites to fight each other. They are all wrestling, and sometimes they even liquidate their rivals.
TARABAY: It's practically impossible to walk at the dusty hallways of the building without the shadow of former Interior Minister Bayan Jabr looming overhead. Jabr was leader of a Shiite paramilitary group. And he brought thousands of militiamen into the ranks of the police force. People here say he ran the ministry in a climate of fear, mistrust and corruption. Jabr was removed from the Interior Ministry in May of last year. He was given the government's finance portfolio. His successor as interior minister is Jawad Bolani, who told NPR he's fired 16,000 employees of the ministry in the past year on charges of corruption and other crimes.
Mr. JAWAD AL-BOLANI (Interior Minister): (Through Translator) It's a work in progress. We have thousands of cases we're investigating. We have a long way ahead of us to create a ministry that is balanced and structured fairly.
TARABAY: Bolani is a Shiite who's served in Iraq's air force for 15 years. This is his first senior government position. He's reputed to be independent of any of the major political parties, but observers fear the Interior Ministry's divisions run too deep to be bridged anytime soon. It's a microcosm of Iraq and its conflict. Again, police officer Ali Kamal.
Mr. KAMAL: (Through translator) There are different groups, and each one of them is holding a string, so what is happening now is no one can make decisions because everyone pulls the string in different directions. They are not united.
TARABAY: Minister Bolani says he's focused on retraining, weeding out disloyal police and replacing commanders accused of kidnappings and killings.
Mr. AL-BOLANI: (Through translator) There are negative things about government institutions like the Interior Ministry, but we shouldn't forget sacrifices made by the police and the suffering of their families. More than 15,000 policemen, including both Sunnis and Shiites, have been killed in the violence here.
TARABAY: Inside the ministry, clusters of policemen in different uniforms watch warily as people go up and down the crumbling stairs. Despite the new minister's efforts at reform, Iraq's main political factions continue to battle for supremacy. People like Ali Kamal fear that when U.S. forces leave Iraq, every man here with a gun will stand and fight before his political party, not for his country.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.