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IRAQ: Misjudgments Marred U.S. Plans for Iraqi Police

Law and Disorder

by Michael Moss and David RohdeThe New York Times Company
May 21st, 2006

As chaos swept Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, the Pentagon began its effort to rebuild the Iraqi police with a mere dozen advisers. Overmatched from the start, one was sent to train a 4,000-officer unit to guard power plants and other utilities. A second to advise 500 commanders in Baghdad. Another to organize a border patrol for the entire country.

Three years later, the police are a battered and dysfunctional force that has helped bring Iraq to the brink of civil war. Police units stand accused of operating death squads for powerful political groups or simple profit. Citizens, deeply distrustful of the force, are setting up their own neighborhood security squads. Killings of police officers are rampant, with at least 547 slain this year, roughly as many as Iraqi and American soldiers combined, records show.

The police, initially envisioned by the Bush administration as a cornerstone in a new democracy, have instead become part of Iraq's grim constellation of shadowy commandos, ruthless political militias and other armed groups. Iraq's new prime minister and senior American officials now say the country's future and the ability of America to withdraw its troops rests in large measure on whether the police can be reformed and rogue groups reined in.

Like so much that has defined the course of the war, the realities on the ground in Iraq did not match the planning in Washington. An examination of the American effort to train a police force in Iraq, drawn from interviews with several dozen American and Iraqi officials, internal police reports and visits to Iraqi police stations and training camps, shows a cascading series of misjudgments by White House and Pentagon officials, who repeatedly underestimated the role the United States would need to play in rebuilding the police and generally maintaining order.

Before the war, the Bush administration dismissed as unnecessary a plan backed by the Justice Department to rebuild the police force by deploying thousands of American civilian trainers. Current and former administration officials said they were relying on a Central Intelligence Agency assessment that said the Iraqi police were well trained. The C.I.A. said its assessment conveyed nothing of the sort.

After Baghdad fell, when a majority of Iraqi police officers abandoned their posts, a second proposal by a Justice Department team calling for 6,600 police trainers was reduced to 1,500, and then never carried out. During the first eight months of the occupation as crime soared and the insurgency took hold the United States deployed 50 police advisers in Iraq.

Against the objections of Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, the long-range plan was eventually reduced to 500 trainers. One result was a police captain from North Carolina having 40 Americans to train 20,000 Iraqi police across four provinces in southern Iraq.

Throughout Iraq, Americans were faced with the realization that in trying to rebuild the Iraqi force they were up against the legacy of Saddam Hussein. Not only was the force inept and rife with petty corruption, but in the wake of the invasion the fractious tribal, sectarian and criminal groups were competing to control the police. Yet for much of last year, American trainers were able to regularly monitor fewer than half of the 1,000 police stations in Iraq, where even officers free of corrupting influences lacked basic policing skills like how to fire a weapon or investigate a crime.

While even a viable police force alone could not have stopped the insurgency and lawlessness that eventually engulfed Iraq, officials involved acknowledge that the early, halting effort to rebuild the force was a missed opportunity.

Frank Miller, a former National Security Council official who coordinated the American effort to govern Iraq from 2003 to 2005, conceded in an interview that the administration did not put enough focus on the police.

"More attention should have been paid to the police after the fall of Baghdad," said Mr. Miller, one of the officials who objected to the original proposal to deploy thousands of advisers. "That is obvious. Iraq needed law and order established."

What attempts there were to train the police were marred by poor coordination, civilian and military officials said. During the first two years of the war, three different government groups developed three different plans to train Iraq's police, all without knowing of the existence of the other.

Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner sent to Iraq in 2003 to lead the police mission, said Pentagon officials gave him just 10 days notice and little guidance.

"Looking back, I really don't know what their plan was," Mr. Kerik said. With no experience in Iraq, and little time to get ready, he said he prepared for his job in part by watching A&E Network documentaries on Saddam Hussein.

Field training of the Iraqi police, the most critical element of the effort, was left to DynCorp International, a company based in Irving, Tex., that received $750 million in contracts. The advisers, many of them retired officers from small towns, said they arrived in Iraq and quickly found themselves caught between poorly staffed American government agencies, company officials focused on the bottom line and thousands of Iraqi officers clamoring for help.

When it became clear that the civilian effort by DynCorp was faltering, American military officials took over police training in 2004, relying on heavily armed commando units that had been established by the Iraqis. Within a year, members of the Sunni Muslim population said some units had been infiltrated by Shiite Muslim militias and were kidnapping, torturing and executing scores of Sunni Muslims.

In interviews, White House and Pentagon officials defended their decisions, saying that it would have been impossible to find thousands of qualified trainers willing to go to Iraq and that deploying large numbers of foreign officers would have angered Iraqis and bred passivity.

"Where it was possible to have a light footprint, that was preferable to a heavy-handed approach," the National Security Council said in a written response to questions. "The strategy was to support the Iraqis in every way possible and to enable them to do their jobs, not to take over their jobs."

Administration officials say that the insurgency, more than any other factor, has slowed their progress. While field training has been limited, they point out that most of the 152,000 police officers have attended nine new training academies, some for as long as 10 weeks.

This spring, three years after administration officials rejected the large American-led field training effort, American military commanders are adopting that very approach. Declaring 2006 the year of the police, the Pentagon is dispatching a total of 3,000 American soldiers and DynCorp contractors to train and mentor police recruits and officers across Iraq.

American commanders now see the force, which is to increase to 190,000, as the linchpin of a new strategy to protect the population, secure reconstruction projects and help facilitate the withdrawal of American troops.

But moving ahead is complicated by Iraqi politics. The battle over who would run the Interior Ministry, which commands the country's police, stalled the creation of the new Iraqi government for weeks. Even yesterday, the new government was announced without the post being filled. Iraqi officials said they were determined that the new interior minister be politically independent, free of the taint of death squads, someone who could reassure Iraq's Sunnis that the police are not their enemy.

And conditions on the ground make progress even more difficult.

Col. Muhammad Raghab Fahmy, a police commander in Baghdad, said the police struggled to perform the most basic duties. "They need weapons," he said, and they need to learn "how to use their vehicles, how to operate a checkpoint, writing skills and how to react when being attacked."

The Prewar Plan

In March 2003, three weeks before American forces invaded Iraq, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who retired from the Army in 1997, met with senior National Security Council officials to brief them on his plans to manage the country after the overthrow of Mr. Hussein.

Plucked from his civilian job at a defense contracting company six weeks earlier, General Garner, a blunt 64-year-old who led relief operations in northern Iraq after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, was scrambling to put together a staff and a plan to control a fractious nation the size of California.

General Garner and his aides said they believed that a large number of American and European police officers would be needed to train a new Iraqi force and help it police a country they feared could quickly slip into lawlessness.

In the March meeting, General Garner raised an ambitious plan by Richard Mayer, a Justice Department police-training expert on his staff, to send 5,000 American and foreign advisers to Iraq. Mr. Mayer said his detailed, inch-and-a-half-thick plan included organizational tables, budgets and schedules.

The proposal was sweeping but not unprecedented. In Kosovo, one-tenth the size of Iraq, the United Nations fielded about 4,800 police officers. In Bosnia, 2,000 international police officers trained and monitored local forces.

Two lessons had emerged from the Balkans, Mr. Mayer said. "Law and order first," a warning that failing to create an effective police force and judicial system could stall postwar reconstruction efforts. Second, blanketing local police stations with foreign trainers also helped ensure that cadets applied their academy training in the field and helped deter brutality, corruption and infiltration by militias, he said.

General Garner said he and others on his staff also warned administration officials that the Iraqi police, after decades of neglect and corruption, would collapse after the invasion. The police were "at the bottom of the security food chain," General Garner said in an interview. "They didn't train. They didn't patrol."

In February, Robert M. Perito, a policing expert and a former official at the National Security Council and the State and Justice Departments, recommended to the Defense Policy Board that 6,000 American and foreign police officers be dispatched to Iraq. The board advises Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

But at the meeting with N.S.C. officials, General Garner's proposal was met with skepticism by council staff members, who contended that such a large training effort was not needed. One vocal opponent was Mr. Miller.

"He didn't think it was necessary," General Garner said in an interview.

Mr. Miller, who left the government last year, confirmed his opposition. He said the assessment by the C.I.A. led administration officials to believe that Iraq's police were capable of maintaining order. Douglas J. Feith, then the Defense Department's under secretary for policy, said in an interview that the C.I.A.'s prewar assessment deemed Iraq's police professional, an appraisal that events proved "fundamentally wrong."

But Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the C.I.A., said the agency's assessment warned otherwise. "We had no reliable information on individual officers or police units," he said. The "C.I.A.'s written assessment did not judge that the Iraqi police could keep order after the war. In fact, the assessment talked in terms of creating a new force."

A copy of the document, which is classified, could not be obtained.

John E. McLaughlin, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000 to 2004, said intelligence officials made it clear in prewar planning sessions that the police were troubled.

"I left these meetings with a clear understanding that this police force was not one that we could rely on in the sense that we think of a Western police force," Mr. McLaughlin said. "I don't remember the agency, or intelligence more broadly, reassuring people about the police force."

Administration officials also contended that the missions in Bosnia and Kosovo had shown that finding enough trainers would be difficult, Mr. Miller said.

Moreover, the officials said they wanted to minimize the American presence and empower Iraqis. "The strategic thought that we had is that we are going to get into very big trouble in Iraq if we are viewed as our enemies would have us viewed," Mr. Feith said. "As imperialists, as heavy-handed and stealing their resources."

Even before General Garner presented his case, Pentagon officials were criticizing reconstruction efforts known as nation building. In a speech on Feb. 14, 2003, Mr. Rumsfeld warned that international peacekeeping operations could create "a culture of dependence" and that a long-term foreign presence in a country "can be unnatural."

At the White House meeting, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, said the administration would revisit the issue after Mr. Hussein was removed from power, General Garner said. The meeting then moved on to other issues.

"We settled for, 'Don't make the decision not to do this yet,' " General Garner recalled. "Let us get there and then make the decision on what was needed."

Ms. Rice did not respond to a request for comment.

On March 10, 2003, Mr. Bush approved guidelines for how the United States would govern postwar Iraq, Mr. Miller said. One of them was that only a limited number of American advisers would be sent. They would not have the power to enforce the law. That would be left to the Iraqi police.

A Security Vacuum

As American forces advanced across Iraq in late March and early April of 2003, Iraqi police officers abandoned their posts by the tens of thousands. In the resulting security vacuum, mobs looted and burned police stations and government ministries.

American troops stood by, having received no orders to stop the looting. When General Garner and other American officials arrived in Baghdad, 16 of 23 major government ministries were stripped shells.

General Garner, though, would never have the chance to raise his police training proposal again. Three weeks after arriving in Baghdad, he was replaced by L. Paul Bremer III, a retired career diplomat and counterterrorism expert. Mr. Bremer said he participated in no prewar planning and was never told of General Garner's plan.

"I had only two weeks to get ready for the job," Mr. Bremer said. "I don't remember being specifically briefed on the police."

Two days after Mr. Bremer's appointment, Mr. Kerik, who had never trained police officers outside the United States, received his assignment from the Pentagon. He also said he was never told of General Garner's plan.

When Mr. Bremer landed in Baghdad on May 12, 2003, a month after the city fell, government offices were still burning and looting had not stopped. That night, Mr. Bremer gave his first speech to his staff.

"I put the very first priority on police and law and order," he recalled. "I said we should shoot the looters."

After Mr. Bremer's speech leaked to the press, American military officials promised him an additional 4,000 military policemen in Baghdad.

Three days later, a 25-member Department of Justice assessment team arrived in Baghdad to draw up a plan to rebuild Iraq's police and its court and prison systems.

One team member, Gerald Burke, a 57-year-old retired Massachusetts State Police major, drove onto the grounds of the Baghdad police academy. Thousands of people, some civilian crime victims in search of aid, others police officers in search of orders, besieged a small group of American military policemen.

"We had people drive in with bodies lashed to the hood and lashed to the trunk," Mr. Burke said. "It was the only police facility that was open. People didn't know what to do."

Nationwide, 80 percent of Iraq's police had not returned to duty, the team estimated. Iraqis hailed Mr. Hussein's ouster but bitterly complained that the United States was not doing enough about spiraling crime. A population that had lived in a police state with virtually no street crime for 25 years was dismayed as murder, kidnapping and rape soared.

On May 18, Mr. Kerik arrived in Baghdad and found "nothing, absolutely nothing" in place. "Twelve guys on the ground plus me," he recalled. "That was the new Ministry of Interior."

Mr. Mayer, the author of General Garner's police training plan who worked in the Department of Justice, had fallen ill in the United States, and the Justice Department team was apparently unaware of his prewar plan. Working from scratch, the team pulled together a new plan to train 50,000 to 80,000 members of an Iraqi police force.

"If you took all of the postconflicts from the 1990's and combined them together, it would not equal what you're up against in Iraq," recalled R. Carr Trevillian IV, the senior Justice Department official on the team. "Even if it were a benign environment."

At first, members suggested that Iraqi police recruits receive six months of academy training, the amount trainers settled on in Kosovo. Mr. Kerik said he "started laughing," and calculated that it would take nine years to train the force.

The team reduced academy training to 16 weeks, and eventually 8 weeks. Later, a 2005 State Department audit found that translating classes from English to Arabic ate up 50 percent of training time. With translation, Iraqi recruits received the equivalent of four weeks of training.

To make up for the shortened classes, the Justice Department team proposed a sweeping field training program similar to Mr. Mayer's. The team calculated that more than 20,000 advisers would be needed to create the same ratio of police trainers to recruits in Iraq as existed in Kosovo.

Deeming that figure unrealistic, they recommended placing 6,600 American and foreign trainers in police stations across the country to train Iraqis and, if necessary, enforce the law.

DynCorp, the Texas company that was to provide the trainers, had already located 1,150 active and retired police officers who had expressed interest about serving in Iraq.

Two weeks after the Justice Department team arrived in Baghdad, they submitted their proposal to Mr. Bremer. The administration now had a second plan for training the Iraqi police. On June 2, Mr. Bremer approved it, he and Mr. Kerik said.

A Plan Begins to Unravel

The 6,600 police trainers never showed up.

Over the next six months, just 50 police advisers arrived in Iraq, officials said, even as the widening insurgency was presenting an additional, and much more lethal, set of problems.

Officials at the State and Defense Departments blame one another for the police plan unraveling.

"We and DynCorp were ready to go by June," said a senior State Department official involved in the police training effort who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. "But no money was provided for this purpose."

Mr. Miller, the former National Security Council official, said Mr. Bremer never made the need for field trainers a major issue in Washington.

"If at any point Mr. Bremer had said, 'I just saw a report and I need 6,600,' that would have made this a front burner issue," Mr. Miller said. "I don't recall that as an issue."

Mr. Bremer said he repeatedly pushed for more trainers during the summer of 2003 but was told that no foreign countries were willing to send large numbers of police officers, and that DynCorp was unable to find Americans.

"DynCorp was not producing anybody," Mr. Bremer said. "We were doing the best we could with what we had."

Mr. Kerik and two dozen retired American police officers and other workers, meanwhile, tried to reopen academies and stations, screen thousands of Iraqis claiming to be policemen and choose new police chiefs. Across Baghdad, 2,600 military policemen carried out joint patrols with Iraqis and tried to secure a city twice the size of Chicago.

Outside Baghdad, American military commanders desperate for police support declared local tribal leaders new police chiefs or welcomed repentant former supporters of Mr. Hussein back on the job. Enterprising American soldiers began ad hoc police training programs that varied from three days to three weeks.

Working frantically as insurgent attacks intensified, advisers managed to bring back 40,000 Iraqi police officers nationwide and reopen 35 police stations in Baghdad. But as time passed it became clear that large problems existed with the fledgling Iraqi police force. Insurgents and former criminals were successfully posing as policemen, corruption was rampant and some officials chosen on the fly to be police chiefs were mistrusted by large parts of the population.

By August, the field training plan had shrunk. Mr. Bremer said his staff, frustrated by the inability to get enough manpower, dropped the target number to 3,500 trainers from 6,600. By September, it fell to 1,500.

By the end of the year, the State Department opened a sprawling center in Jordan that would train 25,000 police recruits in the next 12 months, but few field trainers would be in place to monitor them once they took up their posts.

At the same time, no American officials publicly sounded the alarm about the troubled situation. After spending three and a half months in Iraq, Mr. Kerik returned to the United States and praised the police during a news conference with President Bush on the South Lawn of the White House.

"They have made tremendous progress," Mr. Kerik said. "The police are working."

American military officials in Iraq, meanwhile, became frustrated with the slow pace of the civilian-led police effort. In October, American military officials announced that their training programs had produced 54,000 police officers around the country and that they planned to train another 30,000 in 30 days.

Mr. Bremer said he repeatedly complained in National Security Council meetings chaired by Ms. Rice and attended by cabinet secretaries that the quality of police training was poor and focused on producing high numbers.

"They were just pulling kids off the streets and handing them badges and AK-47's," Mr. Bremer said.

As 2003 came to a close, criminals running rampant in Baghdad diminished popular support for the American-led occupation, Mr. Bremer said.

"We were the government of Iraq, and the most fundamental role of any government is law and order," Mr. Bremer said. "The fact that we didn't crack down on it from the very beginning had sent a message to the Iraqis and the insurgents that we were not prepared to enforce law and order."

Mr. Burke, the retired Massachusetts State Police major, said he was impressed by the eagerness of Iraqi police officers to build a professional new force but appalled by the American effort.

"We had such a golden opportunity in the first few months," he said. "These people were so willing. Even the Sunni policemen wanted change."

By January 2004, Mr. Bremer himself viewed the field training program as impractical. With the insurgency in full force, American military officials did not have enough troops to guard civilian trainers posted in isolated police stations, particularly in the volatile Sunni Triangle, he said.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesmen, said it would have been irresponsible to deploy lightly armed American police officers with little combat experience in Iraq.

Mr. Bremer and his staff backed a plan to reduce the number of field trainers to 500 from 1,500, and use the remaining funds to intensively train senior Iraqi police officials.

Mr. Powell and Richard L. Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, said in e-mail and phone interviews that they both fought the reduction. They argued that the police trainers could still operate in safer areas outside the Sunni Triangle.

They lost the fight in Washington in March 2004. The field training of a new Iraqi police force at this point some 90,000 officers was now left to 500 American contractors from DynCorp.

A Contractor Takes Over

When DynCorp trainers landed in Iraq in 2004, they had hopes of being "part of an emerging democracy, part of history," as one of them said.

Those hopes were quickly doused.

A year and a half after the invasion, the police barely functioned. American trainers had to attend to the most elementary needs, like designing forms for crime reports. Reed Schmidt, a police chief from Atwater, Minn., said he was teaching the police in Najaf his two-cop method for pulling a driver over when they told him they preferred their own method the one that involved two pickup trucks with seven officers in each to surround the car with 14 guns.

When Mr. Schmidt realized that if any of the Iraqi police opened fire they would shoot one another, he said he asked, "Aren't you worried about hitting another officer?"

Mr. Schmidt recalls them replying, "Sometimes that happens."

In northern Iraq, Ann Vernatt, a sheriff's investigator from Eastpointe, Mich., said she and five other trainers checked on 55 stations each month. The hourlong visits left her impressed by the officers' motivation, but dismayed by the bleak conditions.

"They had rusted Kalashnikovs, which they cleaned with gasoline. Most of their weapons did not work. And they got paid very little," she said. "They'd sell their bullets to feed their families."

Several DynCorp employees said their greatest frustration was simply having too many police officers to train.

Jon Villanova, a North Carolina deputy sheriff hired by DynCorp, said he was promoted to manage other trainers in southern Iraq four months into his yearlong stint. Under the plan drawn up by the Justice Department team, he would have commanded a battalion of at least 500 trainers.

What he got instead was a squad of 40 men to train 20,000 Iraqi policemen spread through four provinces. He said he could not even dream of giving them the kind of one-on-one mentoring that American police cadets received. His team struggled merely to visit their stations once a month.

"That hurt," he said in a recent interview at his home in Mebane, N.C. "You need a lot of time to develop relationships and rapport so they trust you and are receptive to what you are trying to teach them."

David Dobrotka, the top civilian overseeing the DynCorp workers, said he did not seek to hire more trainers, even though there were only 500 in Iraq, because some were not even getting out of their camps because of security concerns. "Early in the mission, 500 were too many," he said. "Some were just sitting." DynCorp executives also said that they knew the federal program only allowed for 500 trainers.

In some ways, officials and trainers said, the entire training operation was short on manpower. That was true as well for the officials assigned to oversee DynCorp.

Two government employees and one contractor in Baghdad monitored the performance of the 500 DynCorp police advisers in Iraq, State Department officials said.

Government investigators are examining reports of criminal fraud by DynCorp employees, including the sale of ammunition earmarked for the Iraqi police, said a senior government official who requested anonymity because the investigation is continuing. After one of its subcontractors working at the police training academy in Jordan stole fuel worth $600,000 in 2003, the company failed to install proposed fraud controls, federal auditors said.

Anne W. Patterson, the State Department official who assumed oversight of DynCorp's work in December, said she ordered a "top to bottom" review of all of DynCorp's contracts with the State Department.

DynCorp officials said they fired the employees involved in the fuel theft and reimbursed the government, and put the controls in place. They said the company kept close watch on ammunition.

"We'd be very surprised if any of the U.S. officers we hired to train Iraqis are involved in anything like this," said Greg Lagana, a company spokesman. "If there is an investigation, we'll cooperate vigorously."

Richard Cashon, a DynCorp vice president, said the company billed the government about $50 million a month for its police trainers, including their $134,000-a-year salaries as well as security and other operating costs.

DynCorp officials, who noted that they never received field reports from their trainers, said they were not to blame for the inadequacies in police training.

"We are not judged on the success or failure of the program as they established it," Mr. Cashon said. "We are judged on our ability to provide qualified personnel."

Whatever impact the police training program was having on law enforcement was being weakened by the toll the insurgency was taking on the police. Increasingly, police officers and recruits were targets of violence. From September 2004 through April this year, 2,842 police officers were killed and 5,812 were injured, according to American records, which are not available for the first 17 months of the war. Twenty DynCorp employees involved in police training have also been killed.

By December 2004, there were also signs that the police were being drawn into the evolving sectarian battles. Senior officers in the police department in the southern city of Basra were implicated in the killings of 10 members of the Baath Party, and of a mother and daughter accused of prostitution, according to a State Department report.

By then there was a growing sense among American officials that the civilian training program was not working, and the United States military came up with its own plan. It was the Americans' third strategy for training the Iraqi police, and it would run into the worst problems of all. Basra was just the beginning.

Max Becherer contributed reporting from Baghdad, Iraq, for this article, and Christopher Drew from New York.






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