War Stories

A Thin Blue Line

Why Iraqi cops are struggling.

Everyone agrees that to make Iraq safe, the United States needs to be training Iraqi security forces. But the presidential candidates disagree over how well that’s going. The White House insists that more than 30,000 Iraqi cops have completed the requisite three-week training program. John Kerry and John Edwards accuse the administration of distortion, noting that not one Iraqi police officer has gone through the “full 24-week field training program.” But the key to success isn’t the length of training. Rather, it is zeal. And so far, the insurgents have fought with much more zeal than the Iraqi government forces.

Here’s why. Imagine you’re a 25-year-old cop in Baghdad. Four years ago, your uncle, a minor sheik who likes Scotch, got you on the force. It wasn’t much of a job. Serious crime was rare, and Saddam’s real enforcers were the Mukhabarat secret police. All you did was sort out petty arguments and pocket a few bucks from store owners in return for chasing away the street vendors. You had no pull with your captain—a Saddam crony who fed on your tips—and no chance of promotion. You took home 50 bucks a month. You got by.

Then the war came. Saddam was replaced by Americans who gave you 100 bucks a month, a blue shirt, and a 9 mm Glock pistol. They appointed a new captain, a former soldier, and told him he was king of the precinct. Things were looking up.

That was a year ago. Now the captain is a black scorch mark outside the station where the car bomb went off. The Americans are talking about detective training, but how can you investigate theft when you’re being shot at each day? The new captain won’t patrol without an armored escort. Your father has received death threats if you don’t resign. You don’t know who the bad guys are. You suspect two or three men, but if you haul them in and hang them by their thumbs, the Americans will have you fired. Or worse, some fellow Iraqi will put a bullet in your head.

Being a cop in a Sunni city is the hardest job in Iraq. The real problem isn’t being outgunned or inadequately trained. It’s that it’s hard to protect the public when your first thought is protecting yourself. According to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, more than 700 Iraqi police officers have been murdered since Saddam’s ouster, most of them in Sunni cities, including Baghdad.

Consider the car bombings against police stations in Iraq, a tactic of the insurgents that has escalated steadily since it was first employed in June 2003. Since the invasion, four of the five deadliest car bombings in the world have targeted Iraqi police houses. Last fall, the Iraqis reinforced their facilities, encircling them with 10-foot high, concrete barriers and controlling the points of access. These steps created lines outside the stations as cops and recruits waited to be screened before entering. The terrorists noticed. Last February, a car bomber blew up a queue outside the Iskandariyah police department, killing more than 50 cops and recruits. Similar attacks followed.

There’s no easy solution. “You cannot have lines of people on the street [because] they’re just soft targets,” said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the hands-on soldier leading the effort to organize the Iraqi security forces. “To combat it we have a second ring of force protection barriers. But you have to assume risk somewhere.” Indeed, because the barriers have insulated the queues, the insurgents have come up with a third-level target: civilian shops catering to policemen. On Sept. 22, 2004, a car bomber killed 11 police recruits outside an ice cream shop down the street from a Baghdad station.

All told, exploding cars account for approximately 60 percent of Iraqi police and recruit fatalities. That means, of course, that 40 percent have resulted from other kinds of attacks—massacres by carloads of men carrying automatic weapons, assassinations, even conventional firefights. Family members of cops have also been kidnapped and killed. The uniform itself attracts terrorists the way blood draws sharks.

The problem is that the cops are fighting a war against strangers instead of policing their neighbors. There is no national identification system or vehicle-registration database to help them figure out who’s who. And although the Iraqi National Guard is supposed to provide a military umbrella over the police in the tough areas, it hasn’t been able to do so consistently, in part because Ambassador Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army last year, in his second week as head of the occupation government.

The lack of protection posed a huge impediment to building the Iraqi security force: During the uprisings last April, for example, the police were unprotected, and 80 percent of the force in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, left their posts. In the region southeast of Baghdad, close to half of the Iraqi security forces left their posts. Petraeus has set a goal of training 135,000 Iraqis, but, at the current rate of only 5,000 trained each month, it will take about two years.

Other obstacles, too, have hampered the creation of a reliable police force. Even many longtime Iraqi cops have never received much training, because for years they resided at the bottom of Saddam’s security barrel, surviving on petty protection collections and kickbacks. When the insurgency gained steam, some of them joined the enemy forces. Others continue to wear the uniform but support the other side. “From our perspective, at best the IPs are passively turning a blind eye to insurgent activity, and at worst he was part of the muj himself,” said a Marine lieutenant colonel who commanded a battalion in the Anbar province. “Blue uniform by day, wire-twister by night.” The uncertain loyalties of the men on the force have also presented a vetting challenge for Petraeus and his staff. “One rule of thumb for future regime changes,” the lieutenant colonel said, should be “after you win, keep the army and fire the cops.” But, he added, “We did almost exactly the opposite.”

Of the 82,000 police in Iraq, about 32,000 have undergone American training, mostly outside Anbar. “Training” implies not just teaching them a curriculum, but, more important, vetting the recruits and establishing their allegiance so that Americans will have confidence in them.

Last week before a congressional committee, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage mocked the Iraqi police as “shake-and-bake.” Gen. John Abizaid shot back on Meet the Press that ” ‘shake-and-bake’ gives some sort of an idea that the Iraqi police … are somehow or another unserious, unqualified and unprofessional people, and that’s just not true.” Abizaid and Petraeus understand that until recently, American policy-makers have encouraged the poor performance of the police by purging their leaders, disbanding their army, and setting out to finish off the “dead-enders” all alone. These actions have allowed the Iraqis to accept democracy as a gift, rather than as a hard-won result of a collective struggle in which they have a stake. And now they are being placed at the tip of the spear.

With elections set for January, the police face a daunting challenge. They are performing satisfactorily in about 80 percent of the country. But there are about 10 tough Sunni cities that will require sufficient control to permit Iraqis to line up at polling stations without being gunned downed or bombed. No trend can predict the outcome. On the one hand, many police have abandoned their posts. On the other, there is neither a shortage of recruits nor a lack of will among the remaining cops who have been fighting and dying by the hundreds. Whichever the case, the elections will be the test of Iraqi police resolve.