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U.S. soldiers enforce law in Baghdad, keep watch over Iraqi police

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a nondescript building scarred by looters, a U.S. Army battalion has become the law and order keeper for a sector of north central Baghdad that is home to about 3 million Shiite Muslims.

The Americans have help—maybe—from 45 local Iraqi police who returned to work last weekend. But the local police must live down their reputations with local residents—and their U.S. military supervisors—as former henchmen of Saddam Hussein.

Lt. Col. J.R. Sanderson with 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor, from Fort Benning, Ga., calls the local cops "the most distrusted people in Baghdad."

For now, the Americans who oversee them wield great and unchecked power. But there's a lot of real policing to do. Sporadic looting, black-market merchants and automatic-weapons fire continue to make Baghdad anything but peaceful. And then there's the nationwide problem of policing the Iraqi police.

Last weekend in Hillah, U.S. Marines shot and killed an off-duty officer who, along with another off-duty cop, was apparently trying to carjack a vehicle. The self-appointed mayor, with the tacit approval of U.S. Marines, summarily fired the new police chief over the incident. In Kut, south of Baghdad, recently returned Iraqi police officers are stealing back their stolen patrol cars.

Marines in Kut have had trouble getting the police force off the ground. First, the main station was looted and burned. Then a local leader trying to assert power threatened officers who signed up for work. Now that he's gone and the force is slowly growing.

Marine Reserve Maj. Trevor Devine, a DEA agent back home, approved the police cruiser repo action. He also allows local officers to carry AK-47s.

"We're rolling the dice a lot, and we know the risks of arming the police. But it's a dangerous game, and none of us are ignorant of that fact," Devine said.

In a briefing Tuesday, Sanderson told commanders with 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, "Trying to build back a sense of trust in police will be your hardest mission." The Fort Riley, Kan., tank battalion is relieving Sanderson's unit, which took over an Iraqi military intelligence complex and set up a police station on the edge of it.

Sanderson has one of his captains, 30-year-old Andy MacLean, overseeing the Baghdad sector's police station. It makes MacLean, an artillery officer, essentially the police commissioner. The police chief and enforcer on the streets is Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Dale.

Iraqi police who once owed allegiance to Saddam Hussein now defer to MacLean and Dale. "These guys know their way to power is through us," MacLean said.

Every day, his soldiers work beside police. After each assignment, Iraqi officers have to return their AK-47 rifles to soldiers.

The soldiers supervise police at checkpoints to make sure they are not stealing money, unfairly arresting people or using unreasonable force.

Similar activities are taking place in Najaf, Samawah and Diwaniyah.

Army Reserve Maj. Fred Harmon—in civilian life a patrol officer from Amarillo, Texas—is supposed to oversee police training in southern Iraq. He said Wednesday that there is no formal training course in place yet. Each commander decides what to do with and about local police.

In some cases, soldiers have held classes for officers on basic rights, including the one against unreasonable search and seizure.

According to MacLean, there's no alternative to using veteran police; the U.S. military can't train new ones fast enough. He thought it might be a good idea to hire a few new ones, who could learn on the job, "just to break up the good ol' boy network."

The returning Iraqi police drive their own cars and wear makeshift uniforms. To many Iraqis, the old green uniforms worn by the police conjure up oppressive images of the old regime.

Col. Muhammad Sabty Dawood, the top Iraqi police officer in north central Baghdad, said through an interpreter: "We are still at the beginning of the road" in restoring order.

During the transition, the soldiers sometimes serve as judge and enforcer.

MacLean decides, for example, whether probable cause exists to search someone's house, whether squatters should be evicted, whether someone gets arrested and whether someone gets freed from the compound's jail. It has housed up to 96 prisoners at a time, some of them allegedly violent criminals.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Dale, with his semi-automatic rifle and full combat gear, stepped outside the police station. "When I go around this corner," he said," you're going to see 8,000 people scramble like ants."

Indeed, as he and other soldiers sprinted toward a government-owned gas station near the police station, scores of people dropped empty fuel cans and fled. They'd intended to fill the cans with gasoline and sell it at greatly inflated prices, Dale said.

The soldiers punctured the abandoned cans with bayonets. "If we're not like that, those people won't listen," said Pvt. Ashley Hargett, a 20-year-old from Hutchinson, Kan.

The people with the fuel cans bribe their way to the front of long lines for gasoline, the troops explained, causing cars to back up on the street. For running off the can merchants, the Americans earned thumbs-up signs from motorists delayed for up to two hours in the stifling heat.

Dale and about five other soldiers headed on into a crowded market area. They passed vendors selling everything from spices, to apples to bras, on streets reeking of sewage and garbage.

Just as the patrol stepped into a busy intersection, they spotted a man sprawled on his back, covered in blood. His neck had a gaping wound. His chest convulsed.

As the soldiers yelled "Back off!" to the growing crowd, Master Sgt. Wayne Blunden, with 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, tied a combat field dressing around the man's wound. A car stopped. Bystanders lifted the man onto the hood of the car, and it pulled away.

People in the crowd told the soldiers that the man was a criminal who tried to kill himself before people seeking revenge could kill him. Some of the soldiers doubted the story.

A man threw a bucket of water onto the blood staining the street. But no police came to investigate, and the soldiers weren't trained for the job.

As Sanderson put it, "Winning the peace is much harder than winning the war."


(Knight Ridder correspondent Dion Nissenbaum reported for this story from Hillah, Iraq.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-POLICE