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Starting from scratch with Iraqi police force slows security efforts

BAGHDAD, Iraq—After a bloody series of rocket attacks and suicide bombings, U.S. officials want Iraqi police and other security forces to start taking greater responsibility for keeping order. The Iraqis, however, say the U.S.-led coalition hasn't given them the equipment, authority or personnel they need to patrol the streets, gather intelligence and halt terrorism.

Security is the essential first step for establishing a stable and democratic Iraq.

This week, as the holy Muslim month of Ramadan began, Baghdad's lack of basic security was glaringly obvious: Attacks on Monday on four police stations and the Red Cross office left 36 people dead and nearly 250 people injured, most of them Iraqi bystanders.

"We think it's extremely important that the IP (Iraqi Police) be increased and increased immediately," said coalition spokesman Charles Heatley.

However, weapons for the police remain in crates awaiting distribution, and no officers have been hired in months.

Coalition officials "work very slowly," said deputy Baghdad police chief Jafer Abdul-Rassol with a shrug.

Outside the New Baghdad police station, officer Mohammed Hamza, who helped capture a would-be suicide bomber on Monday, complained he had to purchase his own weapon and uniform.

"We want to fight the Arabs," or foreign terrorists, he said. "But we need support. We need cars. We need guns. We don't even have proper barriers to protect ourselves" from car bombs.

At the al Muthana police station, officers pass the hat to buy gasoline for their three vehicles—extended-cab Nissan trucks whose insignias are doors painted blue by the officers and hand-stenciled with identification numbers.

The station chief, Lt. Col. Riad Abdul Karim, said his officers received summer uniforms just in time for winter, so many officers opted to buy their own.

"Our guns we have to confiscate from criminals," he said. "The furniture is not suitable. It's the simple things we need."

At Baghdad police headquarters, secretaries stoop over tables to work because the headquarters doesn't have enough chairs.

"The Americans haven't even given us typewriters," said Lt. Col Mohammed Ibrahim. "All of ours got looted."

Abdul-Rassol, the deputy Baghdad police chief, blamed bureaucracy.

At Iraq's Ministry of Interior, workers are daunted and baffled by coalition red tape, he said. And the coalition has been slow to train new officers and retrain the existing force.

For instance, he said, plenty of new AK-47 assault rifles and 10,000 side arms are ready to be distributed, but the coalition won't hand out the weapons until each officer is trained in their use. It's an odd policy, he said, given that the vast majority of officers were trained on the weapons when they were in the Iraqi Army.

When asked how the training is progressing, Abdul-Rassol grinned and said, "We are now teaching the teachers."

He predicted that firearms training for rank-and-file officers would begin "in one month, maybe," an Iraqi catchphrase meaning sometime.

The deputy chief also said his department has no real investigative power or equipment such as fingerprint tracking or ballistics.

The coalition hopes to have 35,000 more police officers hired by the end of December, Heatley said.

The problem, he said, is that the Iraqi police force, which now numbers 40,000, has to be built from scratch, eliminating the leadership because its members belonged to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Officers must be trained about human rights and the rule of law. And equipping them will take time, Heatley said, because most of their equipment was looted.

"They were vastly under-equipped before the war," he said. Saddam "didn't use the police for real police duties. We are trying to create a new police force, and you can't equip a 40,000-officer police department overnight."

Iraqi police and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council criticized a plan to spend more than $1 billion to train new Iraqi police recruits in Jordan. The Iraqis say it's too expensive and that basic police training should take place in Iraq.

Heatley said adequate facilities don't exist in Iraq, and that most of the money would be spent to pay for international trainers. "It's easier to persuade international trainers to train outside of Iraq rather than inside at the moment" due to the violence, he said.

Many Iraqi police officials say their bosses in the coalition don't have a grasp of the problems on the streets. Saddam opened the doors of the prisons before the invasion in March, freeing thousands of criminals, and the country is awash in weapons.

Some police officials also argue that the coalition has made a mistake in refusing to rehire high-ranking former Iraqi Police officials.

"Maybe there is one bad man in 10," said al Muthana chief Abdul Karim. "But I can work with the nine."

Former police Gen. Hussein Muhsin al Ali was an instructor at the Baghdad police academy. He has an Iraqi law degree and a doctorate in criminology from Michigan State University. But on Thursday, he and a workman were making some repairs on his front patio. He is out of a job.

Coalition forces arrested al Ali on May 31 and released him from detention in mid-July. He was dismissed from the force because of his Baathist ties, but in Saddam's Iraq, every professional was required to join the Baath Party, he said.

"The Americans don't understand how the system here worked. I think they will understand later on," he said.

Al Ali's former colleagues at police headquarters said he and others should come back to their posts. And the Governing Council has urged the coalition to reconsider the de-Baathification policy, both in the police force and in standing up the former Iraqi army.

We know the people. We know the country," al Ali said. "We love our country and don't want our people killed by terrorists. I want to serve."


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

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