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Iraqi police force awaits staff, equipment and funding from U.S.

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The scene was disturbing but hardly shocking, given Baghdad's street crime: a group of men attacking two others on the banks of the Tigris River.

As three blue-uniformed Iraqi policemen arrived on foot, the assailants jumped in a car and started to flee. One of the policemen sprinted after the vehicle, drawing his handgun. The car stopped.

"Come with me to the police station," the officer yelled. But he had no police car and no radio to call for one. So he holstered his gun, climbed in the suspects' beat-up old Volkswagen and they drove away, a lone officer at the mercy of those he'd just arrested.

So it goes with the newly formed Iraqi Police Service, which the U.S.-led coalition is counting on to bring order to Iraq's violence-ridden streets. After four months, the Iraqi police are increasingly visible and active, patrolling neighborhoods, arresting criminals, even mounting sting operations.

But the 40,000-officer force is understaffed, underequipped and in no position to stamp out the marauding gangs of kidnappers, carjackers and thieves—let alone terrorist bombers—who are scaring off badly needed humanitarian workers and investors.

"We need more equipment. We need more policemen," acknowledged Hassan Ali al Obeidy, Baghdad's police chief, who apparently was the intended target of a car bombing against his office last week.

Both those things are coming, but not fast enough. That may change now that the Bush administration has asked Congress to spend $20 billion more on Iraq's reconstruction, of which $5 billion will go toward beefing up security forces. U.S. officials are considering sending police recruits outside the country for training, since there aren't enough facilities in Iraq.

Leaders of the U.S.-led coalition made the police an early priority in the effort to turn over security tasks to Iraqis. From the moment major combat operations ended May 1, officials began recruiting and training officers, including some who had been policemen under Saddam Hussein. Senior members of Saddam's Baath Party were kept out. The coalition brought in Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police chief, to help organize the department in the American model.

The strategy differs from what was done in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo after the 1999 NATO-led air war. The United Nations hired thousands of foreign police officers—including many Americans—who patrolled the streets while training a local force over several years.

Compared with the Balkans, progress in Iraq has been rapid. When Kerik arrived, few officers had weapons and many were afraid to go out on the street.

By the time Kerik left Iraq last week, as many as half of the newly trained officers had weapons, and tens of thousands more pistols and rifles were on order. Some officers now use state-of-the-art walkie-talkies, a crucial tool given the spotty telephone service and no mobile phones.

More communications equipment is said to be on the way, as are hundreds of vehicles. But no one from the coalition was available Monday to explain why some of the equipment, ordered months ago, hadn't yet reached some police stations.

The coalition's budget for the current year shows $180 million in police-related spending.

On Baghdad's streets, Iraqi police increasingly operate on their own, away from the American military police units that are supervising them. They've broken kidnap-for-ransom and carjacking rings. Many have undergone a three-week training course in U.S. policing techniques, ethics and human rights.

"It's gotten a lot better," said Lt. Tony Gatlin, the senior American military police officer at the police station in Baghdad's Aadhamiya neighborhood. "They are much more organized, and the flow of work is better. There are some good investigators here."

But the Iraqi police is still a long way—perhaps years away—from becoming a fully functioning law enforcement agency capable of preserving order, keeping records, analyzing forensic evidence and solving crimes. There are more than a thousand suspicious deaths in Baghdad each month, according to the city coroner, 700 from gunshot wounds alone. Most don't get reported, let alone investigated.

Kidnapping, carjacking, rape and thievery remain rampant. Although the streets are safer than immediately after the war, most Iraqis, women in particular, are afraid to venture far from home after dark.

In Baghdad's al Slakh neighborhood, Lt. Col. Ehsan Kahtan, a former air force officer, helps run a station with 42 officers responsible for a huge swath of the city. His men have nine rifles, three cars, no radios and no air conditioning.

"The furniture you see, we brought it from our houses," he said, sitting in a police station that looters had gutted after the war. "The uniforms, we buy ourselves."

The equipment shortage eventually can be solved with more money, but other challenges won't be fixed so easily.

"The work ethic is sometimes lacking," Gatlin said, standing near the concertina wire that surrounds the gate to his police station. "Not much happens after 2 p.m. Everyone leaves to pray, and sometimes they don't come back for hours."

It's common to be stuck in gridlock at a Baghdad intersection, only to see a gaggle of uniformed traffic police officers smoking in the shade nearby. Visitors to police stations invariably find officers milling around and chatting.

There are also persistent whispers that not all Iraqi police officers have shed the force's legacy of taking bribes. They make $100 to $180 a month, a decent salary here, but one that puts luxuries out of reach.

Even more worrisome are the questions about whether terrorist sympathizers have infiltrated the police force, and are compromising security. Coalition and Iraqi police officials are investigating how the truck with the bomb that exploded outside the Baghdad police station last week got through at least two security checkpoints.

Chief Ali al Obeidy said he thought that carelessness, not malfeasance, led police guards to allow the truck through a checkpoint. But he and other senior police officials acknowledged that it was possible that "bad people" were being hired in the push to expand the ranks of the police force from 40,000 to 75,000.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+police