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IRAQ: How Iraq Police Reform Became Casualty of War


Law and Disorder

by Michael Moss, with David Rohde and Kirk SempleThe New York Times
May 22nd, 2006

Jon Villanova had just arrived in Basra last spring to help build a police force in southern Iraq when bodies began piling up. Twenty or more Iraqi civilians were dragged from their homes, shot in the head and dumped in the streets.

The evidence pointed to some of the very people he and his team of foreign police advisers were struggling to train: a cluster of senior officers working out of a station called Jamiat.

But local officials resisted efforts to prosecute the officers. By the time officials in Baghdad intervened nine months later, the corruption in Basra had gotten so bad that the 135-member internal affairs unit, set up to police the police, was operating as a ring of extortionists, kidnappers and killers, American and Iraqi officials said.

"There we are, trying to build a police force that people can believe in, and they are committing murders," Mr. Villanova said. "It was a quagmire."

So was much of the rest of Iraq. An initial effort by American civilians to rebuild the police, slow to get started and undermanned, had become overwhelmed by corruption, political vengeance and lawlessness unleashed by the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

A year later, with the insurgency spreading with an unimagined ferocity, the United States military took charge of a second, broader campaign to reconstitute the police. On the ground, however, the military's plan for police units that could help restore order in Iraq would be no match for the forces tearing at the country in places like Basra and Baghdad. And along the way, it would help fuel some of those forces.

The Americans had to reconstitute the police since officers fled in droves after the invasion, ahead of gangs of looters. But the rush to replenish the ranks lacked proper controls, American, British and Iraqi officials said, and in the process political loyalists of the newly powerful were made officers, and there were reports of police jobs sold for kickbacks of $100.

In recent background checks, police investigators found more than 5,000 police officers with arrest records for crimes that included attacks on American troops, American officials said.

When the rebuilt skeletal force became a target of the rapidly spreading insurgency, Americans turned to heavily armed police commando units that had been assembled by the Iraqis. They added firepower, but at a price.

An Iraqi official who helped create the special units said he warned Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that they could become a weapon in Iraq's sectarian strife, much as Mr. Hussein's police had repressed the Shiite majority. Now, after a year in which a Shiite interior minister controlled the police, some special units stand accused by many Sunnis of operating as Shiite-dominated death squads.

The Iraqis have reined in some units, but others have received less attention. In one notorious incident, a brigade in northern Baghdad is suspected of kidnapping and killing 36 Sunni Arab men last August. Although a judge ordered the unit's commander, Brig. Gen. Bassem al-Gharrawi, arrested for murder, the arrest warrant was never executed, according to court records.

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who ran the military's police training program until last September, said he backed the creation of special police units "once we saw the fighting spirit and physical toughness of the units and the competence of their leaders." But he said he also sought to impose controls and vigorously pursue allegations of misconduct.

Like the rogue police units, other government security forces are also accused of having carried out massacres and violence on behalf of political or tribal groups. Turning all of those armed forces into an effective law enforcement mechanism is a prime challenge for the new Iraqi government formed over the weekend, and is central to the American strategy for exiting Iraq.

But reforming the police means overcoming a lot of history.

Under Mr. Hussein, the police were corrupt and ill disciplined, less an instrument of law than of repression. The police became targets of the mobs of looters that roamed Baghdad after Mr. Hussein's overthrow, and then of the insurgents, who have repeatedly bombed police stations and recruiting lines. A 2006 internal police survey conducted northeast of Baghdad found that 75 percent of Iraqis did not trust the police enough to tip them off to insurgent activity.

Before the invasion, the Bush administration envisioned the police as adequate for keeping the peace and rejected a proposal backed by the Justice Department to deploy thousands of foreign police advisers.

Now the Pentagon is spreading 3,000 police trainers across the country. Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, who is in charge of the Pentagon's current program to remake the force, said his top priority was to improve basic skills while preventing corruption. He said the new effort was making strides toward the goal of having a force of 190,000 officers by early next year with better training and an appreciation of human rights.

"Every day the Iraqis improve their capability to do their job," General Peterson said.

The task ahead is reflected in recent confidential field reports filed by police trainers and obtained by The Times. The reports display a startling mix of heroics and incompetence, dedication and criminality.

In Diyala Province on March 21, where nearly two dozen police officers were killed when militants attacked their station, the police "fought until they ran out of ammunition," a police adviser reported. A week earlier, when the police in western Iraq were attacked, the officers abandoned their post or generally "responded horribly, displaying no firing discipline and failing to take defense positions."

One of the grimmest dispatches came from Mosul, where a police general reported militant "schools" operating inside a nearby prison teaching detainees insurgent tactics and extremist views. When an insurgent was released from prison, another general reported, officers at a station in Al Hawd fired their weapons to celebrate his freedom.

In Nineveh Province in northern Iraq, an alert major crimes unit stopped a car after noticing that it had a jerry-rigged bumper and that hidden inside were all the tools for an insurgent attack mortar tube and shells, ski masks and AK-47 rounds. But just to the south in Al Tamin, a police officer seriously injured himself trying to disarm a roadside bomb by shooting it.

The Trouble in Basra

When the United States invaded Iraq, Basra seemed like a place where law and order was possible.

One of the country's largest cities, Basra escaped much of the ensuing insurgent violence in the first year of the war, and the police force there resumed operating after the United States military swept through on the way to Baghdad.

But a thicket of political and criminal groups that emerged after Mr. Hussein's ouster scrambled to gain footholds in the force.

For Stephen White, a retired British police official who said he had been promised hundreds of police trainers but got only 35, the trouble began with a near free-for-all in recruitment.

Local political leaders appointed police chiefs who in turn hired their friends, relatives and tribesmen. "This led to many being admitted initially who would under normal circumstances not be allowed to join," said Mr. White, who was working with the American military.

Bringing back former police officers also proved less than ideal. They were largely inept, sometimes brutal and prone to resist doing any real work, according to an American assessment of the police that was completed in June 2003. Some of the postinvasion looting of police stations, the report says, "could be traced to former police who were attempting to destroy incriminating records."

Initially, the police in Basra merely went easy on tribal members accused of crimes. Gradually, the corruption increased. Much of the city came to be controlled by sectarian groups, including the Iranian-influenced Badr Organization and the more radical Shiite militia controlled by Moktada al-Sadr, the Iraqi cleric who clashed with coalition forces in April 2004.

Evidence arose that the police began acting as the militia of these groups to carry out sectarian violence and enforce a fundamentalist creed. In December 2004, senior officers in the Basra Police Department were implicated in the killings of 10 members of the Baath Party, according to a State Department report.

By last September, two journalists who were reporting on the corruption and militia infiltration of the police were found dead. One was an Iraqi employee of The New York Times.

Mr. Villanova, the former police adviser, said he came across a variety of corruption during his eight months in Basra last year. Officers demanded $100 from men wanting to join the force. His team caught policemen taking bribes from smugglers.

Once, he recalls, his trainers went through a police checkpoint only to realize that Iraqi traffic was being diverted. The trainers quickly backed up, concluding it was an insurgent trap in which the police were complicit.

Then, starting last spring, the accumulating evidence in a string of assassinations pointed to the senior police officers at Jamiat. The officers acted so brazenly that the American advisers dubbed them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, for the havoc they created, Mr. Villanova said.

The police chief in Basra, Gen. Hassan Sawadi, complained publicly last summer that he could not trust most of his men, and that corruption was rampant, but that he was powerless to fire even the worst offenders.

The killings complicated American operations because the station also housed the Iraqi police intelligence unit. American intelligence officers operating in Basra who passed on tips, like the location of people suspected of being insurgents, had to make their reports vague on the assumption they would get leaked to the militants.

But American and British police advisers said the governor of Basra, Muhammad Musbeh al-Waili, insisted on maintaining control over the police force. Shortly before Mr. Villanova left Basra last fall, his frustrations bubbled up when he saw the governor at a public event.

"This is terrible to say," Mr. Villanova said. "I saw the governor and I thought, 'You know, I've got a loaded weapon here and we could eliminate this nightmare.' "

The governor did not respond to requests for comment. At a news conference early this month, Mr. Waili lashed back at his critics and called for the ouster of the police chief and an Iraqi Army general.

The Jamiat station made headlines in September when British troops, who are handling military operations in southern Iraq, broke into the station to rescue two of their officers who had been arrested and accused of exchanging fire with Iraqi police at a checkpoint.

Then in November, a team from Baghdad arrived to clean things up, starting with the internal affairs unit. "All the members of that office were corrupt," said Brig. Ahmed Hamid, the chief of the Interior Ministry's internal affairs office in Baghdad.

David Everett, a former assistant district attorney in Queens and Brooklyn who served as Mr. Hamid's adviser until recently, accompanied him to Basra and said, "It was like the 'Gangs of New York' on steroids."

To form a new internal affairs unit in Basra, Mr. Hamid is importing police officers from other parts of Iraq who he hopes will be impartial and whose families will face less risk of reprisal. His first efforts to prosecute police officers there had not gone well.

He said the judicial system in Iraq remained so weak that he was able to bring charges against only six of the internal affairs police officers. Then, all six were acquitted for lack of evidence because witnesses were too fearful to testify.

On Saturday, Majed al-Sari, an Iraqi Defense Ministry adviser, said in an interview that violence in Basra had gotten so bad that murders were now running about one every hour.

Building Special Units

As the political and criminal forces in Basra began to replicate themselves elsewhere in Iraq, the United States military was focusing on what seemed like a far more pressing problem. The insurgency had started to swell by early 2004, and the Pentagon realized that the police were in no shape to help stabilize the increasingly volatile country.

Asked to back up a Marine offensive on the militant stronghold of Falluja, police units tried and fled. Other officers abandoned their posts in southern Iraq rather than face Mr. Sadr's militia. More were killed in assaults on their stations. Some were ambushed returning from a training academy in Jordan.

Up to then, the police training had been handled largely by civilian contractors. In March 2004, the Pentagon handed control of the effort to one of its generals.

Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton was already working to build a new Iraqi Army when he got the job. Instead of getting more resources to train the police, his $2.2 billion budget was cut by a fifth, General Eaton said.

"You just look to the money, look to the people sent over to do it, the numbers to do it, you just have to conclude this wasn't important in their minds," said General Eaton, who is now retired and has become a critic of Mr. Rumsfeld's handling of the war.

That summer, General Eaton was replaced by General Petraeus, a former commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. General Petraeus said a reassessment of the police that Mr. Rumsfeld oversaw through weekly teleconferences called for increasing the force's firepower.

General Petraeus reworked their curriculum to give them two weeks of combat training, and opened the spigot to military supplies. The police had been equipped with pistols and baseball caps, and now started getting AK-47's, body armor and helmets.

Then his team discovered a faster way to toughen the force.

The Iraqi interior minister, Falah al-Nakib, said he was desperate to contain the surging violence in Baghdad but had only 8,000 police officers who were largely untrained, illiterate and unreliable. "The recruiting was done by U.S. officials who didn't know who they were hiring," he said in an interview.

Mr. Nakib began building special units within the police, its men drawn largely from the Republican Guards and Special Forces of Mr. Hussein's army. The commandos, as they were called, were seasoned and skilled military officers, and they were given the tools heavy machines guns and armored vehicles to confront the insurgents.

British military officials on General Petraeus's team said they had already been envisioned such special police units, and the Pentagon equipped, trained and inserted a growing number of them into the conflict. In Mosul on Nov. 14, 2004, a commando unit led by an American Army colonel waged a blood-soaked battle against insurgents trying to overrun a police station, the Pentagon reported. The officer, Col. James H. Coffman Jr., was given a Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military award.

Steps were also taken to train the units like the regular police, with courses in human rights and the rule of law. A civilian complaint process was set up, and last spring teams of military personnel were assigned to oversee them in the field.

But even as the special police units fought successfully, the American and British officials who helped create them remained worried. The special police units were created so quickly that the recruits were not initially subjected to the fingerprint checks that other police recruits and officers underwent for criminal records, American and British officials said. Also, Iraqi officials at first had direct control over the units despite the objections of American military officials who wanted to oversee them, the officials said.

"We saw them as a good thing, something with which to take on the insurgents," said Andrew Mackay, a British brigadier general who worked for General Petraeus. "But you could see that if we didn't get this right, it would quickly be something that the Minister of Interior, depending on who he was, could turn into his own little army."

Mr. Nakib said that before he left his post in April 2005, he met with Mr. Rumsfeld in Baghdad and told him the Shiite political parties who were coming into power that summer would hijack the commandos for use as their own militia.

"I warned him that there would be problems," said Mr. Nakib, now a member of Parliament.

Steve Casteel, an American security expert who served as Mr. Nakib's adviser, said Mr. Rumsfeld nodded and said, " 'We understand your concerns.' " Mr. Casteel said Mr. Nakib raised the same alarm with other officials, including Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq.

General Petraeus said his team helped Mr. Nakib screen out recruits who had criminal records or belonged to the Baath Party, and then vigorously pursued allegations of misconduct. He said that during his time in Iraq he never received evidence of the police carrying out clearly sectarian violence, but that at his insistence three commando leaders were fired or moved to lesser positions for detainee abuse or corruption.

At the same time, he said, he concluded that the United States needed to support Mr. Nakib's drive to create the special units, given the growing insurgency. "Nakib was trying to deal with serious security challenges and to show that the new government could develop Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems, as opposed to just relying on coalition forces to solve every problem," General Petraeus said.

When the Iraqi government changed hands in 2005, Mr. Nakib, a Sunni, was replaced by Bayan Jabr, a former officer in the military wing of the Shiite party known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The Supreme Council perceived the police force as dominated by Sunnis and along with Mr. Jabr inserted its Shiite loyalists into the ministry and the special police units.

In late 2005, Mr. Jabr ordered the hiring of 1,300 police commandos from the Shiite stronghold of Najaf, said Gerald Burke, an American police adviser at the time.

"The pace of the hiring grew frantically," Mr. Burke said.

James Steele, a retired United States Army colonel who also helped develop the special police as a member of General Petraeus's team, said he did not regret their creation, but rather saw their misuse by sectarian groups as one of the biggest threats to the American plans in Iraq.

"That is more dangerous in terms of our strategic success than the insurgency," he said. "If this thing deteriorates into an all-out civil war our position becomes untenable. Who the hell are you fighting?"

As the control over the special police shifted from Sunnis to Shiites, even the new name one unit gave itself evoked an image of escalating violence: the Wolves became the Volcanoes.

Suspects in a Massacre

In the early morning of Aug. 24, 2005, about 50 men wearing police uniforms swept into the Huriya neighborhood in northern Baghdad and dragged 36 Sunni Arab men from their homes, according to a State Department report. Their bodies were found near the Iranian border with bullet holes in their heads, their faces disfigured by acid.

Suspicion fell on the Volcanoes.

Mr. Nakib had created the special unit when he was the interior minister. But now, with him out of power, the unit was led by a police commander he said he had fired, General Gharrawi.

Mr. Nakib said he dismissed General Gharrawi for disobeying an order to assist other police officers in the restive city of Ramadi. "After I left, they brought him back and promoted him to commander," Mr. Nakib said.

Eventually, enough evidence was gathered to implicate General Gharrawi in the Huriya massacre, and on Nov. 28 an Iraqi judge issued a warrant for his arrest on murder charges.

But the warrant was never executed. General Gharrawi continued to lead the brigade until earlier this year and remains employed by the Ministry of Interior.

In April, The Times, which obtained a copy of the arrest warrant, presented it to Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the deputy interior minister for intelligence, and Mr. Hamid, who is in charge of internal affairs. Both men said they had never seen it before.

"If I received this order, I would execute it within five minutes," General Kamal said.

Ann Bertucci, a spokeswoman for the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team in Baghdad, said that a team of American military advisers was attached to the Volcano Brigade last August, but that they were unaware of the allegations concerning the Huriya massacre or the outstanding arrest warrant.

General Gharrawi declined to comment.

Mr. Jabr, who replaced Mr. Nakib last summer, said he was not ignoring the arrest warrant. He said the ministry was obliged to conduct its own internal review before referring a ministry official to the civilian court system.

Once the inquiry is completed, the ministry's legal adviser will submit a recommendation to the minister, and the minister will decide the course of action. Mr. Jabr said he had the legal authority to dismiss the case.

"Be sure of one thing," the minister said in an interview in his office. "I'm interested in the rule of law."

He said he had reassigned General Gharrawi to a relatively low-profile job in the operations room several weeks ago, pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Mr. Jabr denied that his forces were guilty of sectarian crimes or were influenced by militias tied to the country's powerful Shiite political parties. He and other government officials have blamed private security forces and criminals masquerading as policemen for the crimes.

On Saturday, Mr. Jabr was appointed finance minister. His successor in the Interior Ministry has yet to be appointed.

The power of sectarian rifts in Iraq to influence police operations gained international prominence in November. American soldiers discovered a secret prison run by Interior Ministry officials in Baghdad where 173 malnourished prisoners, mostly Sunni Arabs, complained of being tortured. At the time, several Iraqi officials said the police working there were members of the Shiite Badr Organization.

Senior American military officials said Mr. Hamid's internal affairs group had opened 96 criminal investigations against Iraqi police officers, with 26 cases ending in court convictions and 16 in administrative punishment.

While American military officials acknowledge that the special police are responsible for some abuses, they said they were uncertain how much of the death squad activity attributed to the police was really their doing.

They said much of the kidnapping and assassination in Iraq that involved men wearing police commando uniforms might be militia members impersonating the police.

Mr. Jabr said numerous other Iraqi ministries had their own security guards and police officers who operated beyond his control. One, the Facilities Protection Service, which guards pipelines and other infrastructure in Iraq, mushroomed from 4,000 men in 2003 to more than 140,000 today, and is now spread among more than a dozen ministries.

Four police brigade leaders have been relieved of their commands for rights abuses or other wrongdoing, and in February, American troops arrested 22 highway patrol officers who confessed that they planned to execute a Sunni Arab prisoner. Four of them are believed to have links to the Badr Organization.

This month, Mr. Jabr said he acted against more of his own police officers, arresting a general and 17 other ministry employees on charges they were kidnapping for ransom.

Policing the Police

General Peterson sat at a table in his Baghdad office in April and fingered a thick, white binder. It contained his plan for remaking the police force, laid out in 950 tasks.

He is the third general to be assigned to the Pentagon's third plan for the Iraqi police. He conceded that he was a peculiar choice for the job since he had never created any organization from scratch, much less a police force of nearly 190,000.

"I'm an armor officer, which doesn't qualify me for anything but combat," General Peterson said.

But after consulting with police experts, General Peterson said it became clear to him that some cornerstones needed to be laid. First among them, he said, was creating a system to go after bad police officers. "I went to the Minister of Interior and said, 'Policing the police is critical and you have no one doing this job,' " General Peterson said.

Together, they created an internal affairs operation, and brought in Mr. Hamid to run it. Mr. Hamid is also wrestling with myriad armed security forces and guards whose operations are spread throughout the Iraqi government.

General Peterson said he often felt as if he were dealing with 3,700 years of Hammurabi, the former ruler of Babylon whose portrait he keeps on his office wall. It was Hammurabi who established the legal code of an "eye for an eye," and General Peterson said that translated into police officers who had "difficulty understanding why we want to treat a known criminal like we treat others."

He said his team also needed to focus on improving the basic skills of officers.

"We were into building quantity," he said of the period before his arrival. "I'm not going to be critical of my predecessors. They had their mission, and they executed it about as well as they could have. We are just trying to make it better."

Khalid Ibrahim Ahmed, who had nearly completed a 10-week course when he was interviewed in April at the academy near Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq, said, "We need to get more training about how to fight the terrorists. We need to know how their systems work. We need training on bigger weapons. We are very worried about I.E.D.'s," or improvised explosive devices.

While more than 70,000 regular policemen have undergone such training, an additional 38,000 Iraqis mostly those who were officers under Mr. Hussein have been given only a three-week training course, Ms. Bertucci said. Other police units, including the special and border police have also received some academy training. In the field, the number of police trainers is being increased to 3,000, and most of the trainers are military personnel. The new teams will include 750 civilian contractors, up from the 500 who have been struggling to do the job by themselves. One of their missions is to determine just how much the police are retaining from their academy courses, officials said.

But recruits are learning powerful lessons outside the classroom.

Yasir Thamir Muhan, a 20-year-old recruit from Tikrit, said he fell into despair six days after joining the force. On March 2, when he and others were leaving training camp, insurgents drove up to their unprotected ragtag convoy and shoved a machine gun through the sunroof of their sedan.

Five recruits were killed. When he helped rush the wounded to a nearby village, people there panicked and forced them to drive off, too scared to be seen helping the police.

Hardened by the experience, he has drawn up his own rules of rough justice to deal with any insurgents he arrests who are set free by the country's troubled law enforcement system.

"I will take my revenge by my hand," Mr. Muhan said.

Michael Moss and Kirk Semple reported from Baghdad for this article, and David Rohde from New York. Qais Mizher contributed reporting from Baghdad and Sulaimaniya, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Basra.





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