MUNTHERIA, Iraq—In an uncommonly downbeat assessment of Iraq's security challenges, U.S. Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer told local officials Monday that it will take at least a year for the country to hire, equip and train enough police and border guards to meet its needs.
"There is no way to speed it up; it simply can't be done," he said. "And it's going to take another year. We just have to be honest about that."
Bremer's comments, just three months before the American-led coalition is scheduled to return power to an Iraqi government, made it clear that U.S. troops will continue to play the key role in maintaining security in Iraq even after the hand-over of power, scheduled for July 1.
At least 100,000 American troops will remain in the country after Iraqis take over.
Bremer made his remarks during a meeting with local leaders from Diyala province, which stretches east from the capital to the Iranian border.
In contrast to the optimistic tone often used in public by coalition officials, the meeting featured grim assessments of Iraq's policing and border challenges.
In response to Gov. Abdulah Hassan Rasheed's plea for more police officers in his province of 1.2 million people, Bremer said: "The key is to have professional police, not just to add people who aren't trained. Many of these people who are already in the police force are corrupt, they don't understand human rights and some of them are engaging in attacks on the coalition."
He added sharply: "We're not going to bring in any more untrained police. It's not going to happen."
Three weeks ago, four Iraqi police officers were arrested in the ambush killings of two U.S. officials and their translator. Coalition officials also have complained recently about the use of torture and other abuses by Iraqi police, many of whom were officers under Saddam Hussein's regime.
Much of the latter problem is deep-rooted in culture—Iraqi police build cases mainly by extracting confessions—and coalition officials face a dilemma in trying to address it.
With murder, kidnapping and carjacking still epidemic, local police are seen as the key to the Iraq's future security. And, as Bremer pointed out later, opinion polls indicate that for all their faults, they are the most trusted security force in the country.
Bremer said the coalition expected to train about 25,000 new police officers in an eight-week course by next year, which he said was the world's largest police-training effort.
In an interview after the meeting, Bremer said the coalition and Iraq's Interior Ministry were working to root out bad police officers.
"We will not hesitate to take action when we find evidence of abuse," he said.
The meeting also focused on border security, a sore point among Iraqis, who wonder why the coalition hasn't been able to stem the flow of foreign terrorists into their country. Foreigners are thought to have planned and carried out many of the suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Iraqis.
Coalition officials have said repeatedly—as Bremer did again Monday—that Iraq's border is too large and rugged to be policed with total effectiveness. The coalition recently closed 16 of the 19 border crossings with Iran in an effort to channel the flow of legal migrants and better pursue illegal ones.
"We are never going to have 100 percent security on the borders of Iraq. We have to be realistic about that," Bremer said.
He got an earful about the inadequacies of the situation.
Deputy Gov. Ghassan Abass Jassim told him that of 34 border police outposts in Diyala province, only eight are staffed, and those don't have enough men.
"There is some substance to that concern," said Brig. Gen. Dan Hickman, the local U.S. Army commander, who said troops recently caught a smuggler with a map showing which border crossings were staffed.
Coalition plans call for 16,000 border guards by next year, but the officials and Bremer agreed that 25,000 were needed.
Gen. Jassem Hamad Kalif, the director of the Department of Border Enforcement, said Iraq's new border police were patrolling about 50 locations, but "they are being overwhelmed by the sophistication of the smugglers."
Some of his men still lack uniforms, he added.
"I keep being told that we have the equipment," Bremer said. "Why don't you come around to my office in a few days, General, and we will try to get your questions answered, Inshallah."
(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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