Baghdad police show progress, but challenges remain

Rusafa-policeman.jpg

An Iraqi policeman in the southern part of the Rusafa district in Baghdad. Photo by Bill Ardolino.

Bill Ardolino interviews an Iraqi Police general in the Rusafa district in central Baghdad. The general discusses the state of the police, the security situation, integration of the Sons of Iraq into the security forces, and problems with the militias.

Few things are simple in Iraq, and that maxim is no more evident than when evaluating Iraqi security forces. Relevant answers to important questions are always a matter of degree. These questions include:

• How well do the Iraqi security forces operate, and to what extent are they still dependent on Americans financially, operationally, and logistically?

• How corrupt is a given Iraqi security forces unit, and does the graft hinder manpower, morale, and operations, or does it simply meet regional cultural standards?

• How much have insurgent groups and militias infiltrated a given Iraqi security forces structure?

• To what extent are those with questionable loyalty hardcore troublemakers vs. individuals playing both sides of the fence for money or because they are subject to mafia-style intimidation?

• And to what extent are such problems moving toward being resolved?

These complexities must be considered in a serious evaluation of whether and when Iraqi security forces will be able to effectively take over control of their country as Coalition forces draw down. The local police forces in Baghdad – and specifically the Rusafa district – are historically troubled. They stand at the crossroads between an effective government institution and a flawed, gang-riddled force mistrusted by the citizenry.

Though their overall assessment is mixed, American officials assert that leadership and operational effectiveness of the Iraqi Police has improved in the past year. The police more effectively man checkpoints, and find weapons caches, roadside bombs, and wanted individuals. This progress is cited as one of the relevant reasons for the recent improvement in Baghdad’s security.

But many problems remain. The leadership of the police units varies in quality. The police are still operationally rough around the edges, are logistically challenged, mistrusted by the citizenry (specifically when compared to the Iraqi Army and local neighborhood watch groups), and are significantly infiltrated by cops associated with some of the same militias being challenged by their government.

General Hamed, who declined to be more specifically identified, commands a significant number of Iraqi Police in central Baghdad and is acutely aware of these problems. While Hamed is a Sunni with 30 years of experience in the Iraqi Police, the majority of the police under his command and the residents of his district are Shia. He is unusually candid and straightforward about challenges facing local police forces, and alternately projects airs of intelligence, calculation, command, pragmatic resignation, and dire cynicism. US military officials are always quick to note that every player in Iraq has “an angle,” and Hamed is no exception. But they generally offer praise of the general. They say he works his job with relatively straightforward intentions and at great personal risk, even as many of the police under his command are viewed with skepticism by American military personnel and Iraqi citizens.

The interview with General Hamed follows:

The Long War Journal: What is your background? How did you get into police work?

Hamed: I was born in Baghdad, I finished my primary school and high school, the academy college in Baghdad and I went to the police academy in 1979. I graduated from the police academy in 1981 as a lieutenant. I’ve worked in a lot of positions, as an IP [Iraqi Police] station director, the transportation department director, the officer in charge of all patrols in Rusafa, and the officer in charge of [several] Iraqi Police stations.

LWJ: You have a lot of experience, obviously. What happened after the US invasion happened and civil order disintegrated? Did the police force lay low, melt away, or stay whole?

Hamed: After April 9, 2003, all of the police and Iraqi Army stayed home, but on the 15th of April, I went back to my station by the police academy.

LWJ: And how many joined you, did you re-establish a police force immediately?

Hamed: Most of the IPs and especially the high ranks went back to their job.

LWJ: But obviously Baghdad has been insecure for a long time. My experience with studying Iraqi Police is in the city of Fallujah. And in Fallujah, the police force was reconstituted from scratch several times. I’m curious about Baghdad. Are a lot of the police who used to work as police prior to the invasion still working as police?

Hamed: After the invasion in 2003, a lot of policemen went to their job again, but a lot of them were threatened, especially the high ranks, so they quit. But after 2003, the Coalition forces and Government of Iraq started establishing a new police force that contains a lot of people, [but it’s] quantity, not quality. A lot of people, but they don’t have a lot of experience and many of them can’t read or write, which is a problem for us. And that’s why we became penetrated by a lot of militias. The force is penetrated by a lot of militias.

LWJ: I’ve heard a lot of assertions that the Iraqi Police, including your police, are penetrated up to 50 percent by militias and Special Groups. Frankly, how much is that still a problem and what do you and the government of Iraq plan to do about it?

Hamed: Lately, the government of Iraq started to notice, especially after what happened in Basrah in April, that the Iraqi Police are penetrated by the militias. Not only the police, but also the Army.

LWJ: And what is going to be done about that, especially since the government of Iraq is confronting the militias on the battlefield?

Hamed: They will clean up the militias from the IPs and IAs [Iraqi Army], and try to recruit new members who are loyal to their country only, not the militias or the political parties. Before we were in the police force, and now we are in the police force, but we don’t care about the specific regime, just our country. We used to work for Saddam and now we work for Maliki, and even if Abdul Kareem Quassam [the President of Iraq in 1959] was in charge, our job is to enforce the laws of the country. Our job is to chase criminals, thieves, and everyone who is trying to break the laws.

LWJ: Have you run into conflicts where some of the police are associated with militia, but are then put in a situation where they are supposed to fight or arrest militia members? Doesn’t that cause problems?

Hamed: The government of Iraq and the people have started to become aware of the situation now, and even the IPs and the IAs are realizing that these people [the militias] are not here to help them; these people are here to hurt them. And of course they have also noticed that these militias work for Iran, that they are here to support everything Iran wants in Iraq. If a given Iraqi soldier or an Iraqi policeman was 100 percent loyal to the militias before, I want to say it’s 10 percent now. Soldiers and cops who were affiliated with the militias have started to hate the Mahdi Army more.

LWJ: Can you describe how security has improved over the past year, and explain the change?

Hamed: A year ago, the security situation was really bad, but when they started the Awakenings across Iraq, they decreased the number of criminals. For example, my area of operations is very secure right now. Before establishing the Awakening members [the Sons of Iraq], we used to find 7-10 corpses every day in my area, and we used to have a lot of [car bombs], because we have the two main markets in all of Baghdad and Iraq. But with the help of the Awakening members, helping us to search people and vehicles, that helped us to decrease the crime. [Editor’s note: Many Iraqis often use the terms Awakening and Sons of Iraq synonymously, but the two groups may not necessarily be the same entities. The Awakening is a political movement originally formed in Anbar and has an armed security component, which is supported by the government. The Sons of Iraq is a program modeled after the Awakening’s armed component. Sons of Iraq units may or may not be associated with the Awakening movement. The Sons of Iraq in Rusafa were inspired by the Awakening but are not part of the movement.]

LWJ: How do you plan to integrate the Sons of Iraq into the police? At your meeting with them the other day there was a lot of conflict and tension. [A local Awakening leader had bitterly complained to the general about his Iraqi Police and the government of Iraq].

Hamed: In everything there is always positive sides and negative sides. With them, we are trying to work together, but in the beginning you have a lot of obstacles in your way. So we are now trying to meet with them every week to talk about the security situation, if they have any issues we can discuss them together. At the same time, the Sons of Iraq are a temporary thing; they will join the Iraqi Police and the Iraq Army. And that will be excellent, as they know their area. So we will try hard to recruit them in their areas; they will not go to other areas because they know their areas very well and they can patrol them better than we do right now.

LWJ: What do you think of the conflict going on up in Sadr City right now? Do you think it’s inevitable or unnecessary; do you think it’s a good thing that the government is fighting the militias, or a bad thing?

Hamed: I encourage the government in what they are doing right now in Sadr City, because it was necessary to chase the militia members that are trying to break the law. Our goal is to force the rule of law in the country, and the only people that can carry weapons are the Iraqi security forces and no one else.

LWJ: What do you think of the American advisers and America’s role in this? And when do you think the Iraqi security forces will be able to stand on their own?

Hamed: To be honest with you, if the Americans leave, a bloody civil war will start the next day, for one reason: the Iraqi security forces cannot stand on their own yet. That is my personal opinion, to be honest with you.

LWJ: And how long do you think it will be before the army and police can stand on their own?

Hamed: In my opinion, three years.

LWJ: And what are the improvements that need to be made to get there?

Hamed: Training, equipment, and choosing the right personnel.

LWJ: What is your opinion of the future? How do you view the future of Baghdad, how do you think Iraq will turn out in the next few years?

Hamed: It makes me feel bad to say this, but if the members of the government were here to help us and to take care of Baghdad, the city would be even better than it was during Saddam’s regime. But they all sit on their butts and are corrupted, and their only concern is money, so say goodbye to Baghdad. They are corrupt. Just being honest.

LWJ: Do you see hope of avoiding that outcome? Could elections in 2009 change the government?

Hamed: Insh’allah [God willing].

Bill Ardolino’s embed is sponsored by the readers of The Long War Journal, Public Multimedia Inc., and The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Please support The Long War Journal by making a tax-deductable donation today.

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13 Comments

  • Daryl says:

    Great article. Thanks. Be careful out there.

  • DaMav says:

    great work. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Thank you.

  • C. Jordan says:

    Wonderful interview. Great questions.
    Thank you Bill Ardolino for your hard work and sacrifice to bring us the story from the front.
    God Bless and Stay Safe

  • Don Bistrow says:

    A concern I have with all the great progress and positive signs is the fact that now Iran has broken off talks with the US because of the crackdown in Sadr City.
    A comment, which I find as disturbing as significant, comes after Iraqi officials visited Iran.
    ‘Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Sunday that there was no “conclusive” evidence that Iran was supplying weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq.’
    These comments further the concern provided by General Hamed.

  • Tyrone says:

    I suspect the cut of of negotiations by Iran is because we are hurting them so much by targeting the Special Groups trained by them. They deny, of course, any funding or arming of any militants in Iraq and claim the cut off in negotiations is due to deaths of Iraqi civilians (but this is clearly just rhetoric, because they have never shown any particlular concern about Iraqi civilians in the past). Also, now that the Iraqi Government appears more likely to hold their feet to the fire over the arming and training of militias, they really have little reason to negotiate (they only want to negotiate when they have to give up nothing). So this cut off in negotiation is a tactic for public opinion sake (in my estimation). Previous agreements with Iran have immediately been violated by the Iranians as far as I can tell.

  • Pete says:

    The last part is the biggest – “could elections in 2009 change the government?”. Remember, the Iraqi people have not yet experienced the ability to *replace* their government representatives. This first wave of politicians may be corrupt, but if the people recognize this then they’ll replace them – ONLY THEN will they have truly seen the advantage of a democratic system. They have not yet – but soon will 🙂
    …this is how a democracy takes root.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/05/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

  • Eileen Caruso says:

    Bill,
    I’m awed by your ability to travel, imbed, interview and report so graphically and unbiased. Love the pictures too. I know how diligently you are working and as always I’m proud of you and send my love.
    Grandma

  • membrain says:

    I think some readers here are giving the Iranians to much credit with the amount of influence they have in Iraq.
    It’s very important to remember that Iranians are very racist. They hate Arabs like the whites hated the blacks in the Deep South in the 1960’s. Iraqi’s know this. Generally they hate Iran right back. The effects of the Iran/Iraq War have not been forgotten. Iraqi Shiites fought the Iranians vigorously.
    Iran has been trying to use JAM and the Special Groups just as it uses Hezbollah in Lebanon. What this drive to kill or nullify these groups shows the Iraqi and Coalition Forces recognize this.
    The Iraqi government I think is being careful what they say publicly about Iran in the interests of stability IMHO.
    Also tribe trumps religion in Iraq. Something we learned finally in the fall of 2006.
    We are lucky to have such excellent reporting from Bill Ardolino to help us sort out the immense puzzle that is Iraq.
    My own opinion of General Hamed’s pessemistic outlook for Baghdad is coloured by the fact the he is a Sunni born and raised in Baghdad; a police officer under Saddam and therefore a former Baa’thist.
    The GOI has made some great strides recently, among them letting former Baa’thists back into the fold.

  • Daryl says:

    Great point about General Hamed’s pessimism. I was surprised that a Sunni who held such a high position under Saddam could be managing so many Shia’s. A good sign, I hope.
    One more general point about Iranians and Iraqis. There is a large racial divide between Persian and Arab. Their languages are also completely unrelated from a linguistic standpoint. Just wanted to point that out to any who might not be aware of that.

  • Don Bistrow says:

    My point was the quote from the Iraqi not any from Iranians.
    For a “spokesperson” for the Iraqi govt. to say there no “conclusive” evidence that Iran was supplying weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq’
    is utterly false.
    Whom do we believe Ryan Crocker and Gen. Petraeus testifying to this in D.C. or someone speaking for the Iraqi government who is spinning the truth to satisfy an enemy.
    I have not seen any retraction or dispute about this statement from others within the government of Iraq.
    Hopefully a new election will get people with intestinal fortitude into office so they may complete the initiatives and goals so all Iraqi’s will work together and protect the police and all troops to settle matters and move closer to a peaceful society.
    I’m am satisfied al-Maliki is sticking to his plans to clean Sadr City of its ilk and to not pause in the fight against the Shite Militia. This is part of the answer the “spokeman” should have given. Indeed!

  • Jim's Blog says:

    Muslim moderates sighted.

    It is possible for a Muslim to be a moderate in Iraq because the place is still substantially under US martial law.

  • Ted says:

    Great writing, great job.
    Things in Iraq sound encouraging. Iran needs to be dealt with—seriously dealt with. I don’t know what is wrong with the rest of the world–they just turn a blind eye to Iran.
    Stay safe.

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