BAGHDAD — At Joint Security Station Loyalty, there are two schools of thought on the ability of Iraqi security forces to keep the peace when the U.S. military leaves.
"They are more than ready," said U.S. Army Capt. Rory McGovern of Haverhill, Mass., a company commander with the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which has trained and advised Iraqi federal police at this joint military outpost in eastern Baghdad since January. "They're making great operational and tactical strides. It's great to see."
The Iraqi unit, however, wasn't so sure. Asked what his men needed to stop the recent surge in rocket and mortar attacks from their area, 1st Sgt. Haitham Ghanem of the 1st Iraqi federal police division launched into a list of complaints.
"We need more experience, more staff. We need new equipment, training and better weapons," Ghanem said through a U.S. military translator, whose expression slowly grew pained. "We have a big war ahead against the militias. How can you fight this with old machines and an old system?"
Troops complain in every country, every language and every war, but as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw all its soldiers from Iraq by the end of 2011, a significant gap remains between American claims about the Iraqi security forces' capabilities and the opinions of the Iraqis themselves.
Many, including some Iraqi soldiers and police, question whether their forces can overcome the leadership failures, corruption and sectarian rivalries that continue to plague much of Iraqi society more than seven years after the U.S. invasion.
Some American commanders say that Baghdad's most capable force is the federal police — a paramilitary organization that's expected to handle counterinsurgency and rapid-response operations — and that it just needs better marketing.
Two weeks ago, police units, acting on their own intelligence reports, made one of the biggest finds of the year: a series of caches in eastern Baghdad that included two completed suicide vests and enough explosives to build 50 roadside bombs.
Their shortcomings, however, have had a higher profile. In recent weeks, suicide bombers have targeted police outposts and recruitment centers. In the 30 days ending Sept. 29, there were 21 rocket and mortar attacks in Baghdad, compared to 13 in the previous 30 days, according to the U.S. military.
"One thing that's not resonating well is the attacks lately, in which the police have not fared well," said Stephanie Sanok, a former U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad who specialized in military issues.
"The police in particular have come a long way from a capability perspective. But if you're not making the people feel secure, you have a problem," she said.
To be sure, the federal police have made strides since 2007, when an independent commission headed by retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones — President Barack Obama's outgoing national security adviser — argued that the force had been so deeply infiltrated by members of Shiite death squads that it should be disbanded. U.S. and NATO training programs purged the force of militiamen and restored much of its credibility.
Ali Azghar, an officer with the 1st federal police division who served in Baghdad and Mosul during some of the worst periods of Iraq's sectarian war, has learned to defuse explosives, conduct interrogations and search homes. He still worries that corruption could undermine police work.
"We are willing and prepared," Azghar said. "The obstacle is, what if you catch someone and take him in, and then your supervisor says, 'Oh no, that's my cousin,' or, 'That's my in-law.' And they release him. Your hard work could be diminished by someone higher up."
In Baghdad's mazelike eastern neighborhoods — where the federal police are most visible manning traffic checkpoints in green camouflage uniforms that make them look a little like American soldiers — many Iraqis tell stories of police negligence, real and perceived.
Ibrahim al Safat, a former hotel security manager who lives with his wife and children in a second-story tenement in the Zafaraniya neighborhood, said that he approached police officers several times this summer to ask about building a park in the empty lot between his home and a checkpoint. At night, al Safat feared, the lot could attract militiamen looking for an unlighted space from which to launch rockets; once this summer, neighbors saw an unfamiliar minivan casing the area for several hours.
Each time, the tall, thin 50-year-old said, the police ignored him.
"That park was supposed to be built, but the federal police don't have the credibility and the power to see projects through," Safat complained. "There is a lot of corruption. Someone always has to be paid."
Zafaraniya remains one of Baghdad's most volatile neighborhoods. Once a haven for Shiite militiamen and fighters loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the belt of neighborhoods stretching from the Sadr City slum south to Zafaraniya is the source of many of the more than 130 rocket or mortar attacks launched in Baghdad this year, U.S. military officials said.
Lt. Col. Joel Hamilton, the battalion commander at Loyalty, a sandy outpost that once served as a base for Saddam Hussein's secret police, acknowledged that a "trust gap" exists between the police and the people. When his unit arrived in January, he found deep skepticism of the security services, exemplified by a lack of phone calls to police tip lines.
In May, Hamilton's battalion helped federal police officials take a page out of the U.S. counterinsurgency playbook, starting occasional food giveaways and free clinics in a poor area known as New Baghdad. Iraqis were grateful, but when Hamilton learned that recipients assumed these were U.S. military projects — American forces did pay for the supplies — he urged police and local government officials to take a more prominent role.
"We began that effort to bridge the gap that we felt was definitely there between the people and the security forces," said Hamilton, of Omaha, Neb. Since May, calls to police tip lines have increased by 60 percent.
At a recent aid distribution, several hundred people gathered in a school courtyard to receive three days' worth of food and lined up for medical checkups by the Iraqi Red Crescent. All was proceeding smoothly until some Iraqis who weren't on the distribution list tried to enter the compound. Iraqi police officers struggled to control the crowd gathering at the gates, and American troops watched the policemen roughly handle some men, grabbing them by the shoulders and pushing them outside.
"They done (messed) this thing up," one American soldier said to another, who laughed.
Later, Hamilton said, "That was the best one of these that they've done so far."
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