RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is in St. Louis visiting member station KWMU. I'm Renee Montagne.
And we're going to check in now on a turbulent place in the Middle East that has faded from the headlines - Iraq. For years insurgents have targeted Iraq's oil infrastructure. In February they bombed a refinery. In March explosions ruptured the pipeline from northern Iraq to Turkey. So Iraq has now created a special police force to protect its oil and gas facilities. NPR's Mike Shuster went to see how recruits are being trained by Italian national police.
MIKE SHUSTER: The center for training the Iraqi oil police is known as Camp Dublin. It's a small corner of the American and Iraqi bases around Baghdad's airport. There about fifty Italian Carabinieri are teaching classes in modern policing techniques. The subjects include topography, desert and urban patrolling, smuggling, and oil infrastructure, among many others. The goal is to train as many police as possible and prepare some to be trainers themselves.
Recently, about a dozen Iraqi recruits were beginning to put what they are learning into practice, going through the methodical steps used to clear a building of gunmen who have taken hostages.
Mr. GIANLUCA BIANCHINI (Trainer): We can start? OK.
SHUSTER: Gianluca Bianchini, a paratrooper in the Carabinieri back in Italy, explains the plan of attack.
Mr. BIANCHINI: As you can see, they are approaching the main entrance of the building. The first two will use the ballistic shield.
(Soundbite of explosions)
Unidentified Man #1: Go!
Mr. BIANCHINI: They will check using the flash bang for each room.
SHUSTER: This was the first time in the field for these recruits. The techniques they are being taught differ dramatically from those that Iraqi security forces have used in the past, says Colonel Fausto Vignola, commander of the Carabinieri training division.
Colonel FAUSTO VIGNOLA (Commander, Carabinieri Training Division): The starting point is a military approach to the problem, but in the end we want to reach a police approach to the problem. It means to catch these people, to stop the situation using the minimum force needed.
SHUSTER: Right now the oil police are about 25,000 strong, but that's clearly not enough to defend all of Iraq's vulnerable oil facilities, including 4,300 miles of oil and gas pipeline. Recently the force's commander said the oil police need about 12,000 additional troops.
The police continue to receive intelligence that the facilities are a prime target of al-Qaida in Iraq. Major General Claudio Angelelli is also concerned. Angelelli commands the NATO training mission in Iraq, which includes the Carabinieri's activities.
Major General CLAUDIO ANGELELLI (NATO commander, Iraq): They need to increase the figure, because until now they are supported by the army. But in the future, this is a specialized task for the oil police, so they have to increase the figure to be able to control all of the oil infrastructure.
SHUSTER: This is new work for the Carabinieri. There is no such thing as oil police in Italy. But the Carabinieri have been training regular Iraqi police for several years, putting nearly 10,000 recruits through basic police training. So Iraq's government asked Italy to take on this specialized task, says Colonel Vignola.
Col. VIGNOLA: Any police organization have a part of activity related to the protection of sensitive objectives. I think that this is an important part of training.
SHUSTER: The training course lasts for six weeks. It includes exercises in the field coupled with classroom lectures. This classroom was filled with about 250 trainees.
Col. VIGNOLA: They are teaching how to protect a compound. In case of vehicle-borne IED, the risks are reduced at the minimal level.
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
SHUSTER: The Iraqi officers in charge of the oil police seem genuinely impressed with the new kind of police training they're getting. Major Shamil Hassan commands the oil police recruits while they go through the course.
Major SHAMIL HASSAN: (Through translator) We didn't get used a lot of training during Saddam, I mean the old regime. But now we can see a lot of improvement. If you compare now, the time now and before, there is no such compare between them, because really we improve our skill and we improve our professionalism.
SHUSTER: Professionalism is especially important because the government believes Iraq will eventually produce far more oil. Right now it is pumping about 2.2 million barrels a day, the highest output since the American invasion. Some oil experts believe that figure could double in the coming years. But that will need many miles of new pipeline.
Iraq is also considering building new refineries over the next five years that could make it an exporter of petroleum products, not just crude oil. So it's especially important now, says General Angelelli, to get the current crop of oil police off to a modern start.
Gen. ANGELELLI: This is a very tough duty, but one of the most important duty for the Iraqi police forces, because you know the oil is the unique source for the Iraqi people.
SHUSTER: Iraq also continues to lose revenue to smugglers who steal oil from the pipelines. That's just one other task the Iraqi oil police will have to take on.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Baghdad.