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Iraq purging tens of thousands of police officers

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's interim government has purged tens of thousands of unfit officers from the national police force in recent months, but the housecleaning is far from over, U.S. and Iraqi officials said this week.

Widespread reports of corruption and dereliction of duty among the police have prompted the Interior Ministry, with American assistance, systematically to review each officer.

The reviews and purges suggest that much-touted efforts to hand off responsibility for security to Iraqi forces in order to put an Iraqi face on the U.S. occupation were deeply flawed and ineffective.

Those hired by the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority during the chaotic months after Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed are subject to particularly close scrutiny. As the United States scrambled to fill the security void, applicants were poorly screened, and legions of illiterates, convicted criminals and officers sympathetic to the insurgency were given uniforms and guns, Iraqi officials said.

Many of them have drawn paychecks for months while rarely appearing for work.

"The coalition forces made big mistakes after the fall of the regime when they dealt with our security systems. They didn't understand our culture and our needs. They kept hiring Iraqi police officers randomly, without checking their political and social backgrounds," said Qassim Daoud, the minister of state for national security.

Iraqi officials declined to discuss in detail how they were choosing which officers to expel, and they classified the employee reviews as a normal, ongoing process. But senior U.S. officials in Iraq said the review of police, particularly the force's leadership, was accelerating.

"There have been a variety of ongoing efforts since June to figure out what was wrong with the Iraqi forces and to strengthen them, starting with a sharper focus on leadership first and foremost," said a senior American official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Out of that focus we're starting to see some correcting action."

The police purging is providing a clearer picture of Iraq's security capabilities. The national force stood at a seemingly robust 91,000 in May. But a majority of those officers were either phantoms who never showed up for work or were grossly unqualified. Revised figures put the force at just 40,000.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said recent hires had been subject to more rigorous screening. Training has improved as well, they said.

"We are being more careful; we are investigating people more," said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry. "When you are hurriedly trying to recruit a force, you are obviously going to have a lot of problems, especially if you are an occupying power. We are doing it differently."

He described the vetting of recruits as a simple matter.

"It's very easy in Iraq. Everybody knows everybody's business. So we rely on local people to tell us what they know. If we hear any rumors about a person then we investigate them more," Kadhim said.

Though they acknowledged that more careful hiring and beefed-up training would lengthen the time it took to put police officers on the streets, Iraqi and American officials said they'd learned the perils of rushing ill-prepared and ill-chosen recruits onto the job.

"We are focusing on quality, not quantity," Daoud said. "The process of reviewing the police continues, and at the same time we are feeding our system with battalions of new IP (Iraqi Police)."

Prominent critics in the Iraqi government said the selection of police officers still wasn't thorough enough. Tawfiq al-Yassery, the chair of the Iraqi National Assembly committee on internal security, said hiring and training were rushed.

However, he praised the Interior Ministry for weeding out problem officers, and suggested that other departments in the government should do the same.

"It's a positive step which should have happened a long time ago," he said. "It's time to clean out all the ministries."

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(Special correspondents Yasser Salihee and Huda Ahmed contributed to this article.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

Iraq

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