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Insurgents in Iraq are gunning for police—literally

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Like many policemen in Iraq, officer Aqil Abbas Chaloub leaves for work every day with apprehension.

It's for good reason. Iraqi policemen have bulls-eyes on their backs. Every week, insurgents kill officers in car bombings, grenade attacks and assaults on police stations.

Massive U.S. assistance has set up police academies that churn out 3,500 new officers a month. On paper at least, Iraq has more than 85,000 of the 135,000 officers the Pentagon says are needed. Creation of an effective police force is a pillar of a U.S. policy to increase public safety and allow democracy to gain a foothold in Iraq.

But recently insurgents have bloodied the outgunned police. Last week, scores of heavily armed assailants laid siege to a Baghdad station while officers fiddled with balky radios trying to call for emergency backup. Eleven officers were killed. Over the weekend, twin car bombs at another precinct left 14 people dead.

Iraq's anti-U.S. forces see killing police as a way to unnerve voters and keep them from participating in the Jan. 30 elections, trapping the nation in mayhem.

Iraqi officers say they need better equipment and training and more support from regular Iraqis.

Aqil Sabah Hussein, a 21-year-old officer, doesn't even have a pistol.

"We received leaflets telling us to leave the police or we will be killed," he said.

"Some of us don't even have badges," said officer Nabil Khalil Mohammed, "like this guy beside you. He doesn't have a badge and he has been in the police for five months now."

Still, Mohammed said, "We joined the police to serve our country and I will die serving my country."

Senior U.S. and Iraqi officials say they're rushing to train and equip the police force, but they acknowledge setbacks.

"We're in the process right now of really scrambling to make sure special police commando and public-order units have the right equipment, not only Glocks (pistols) but also AK-47s (semi-automatic rifles), Kevlar helmets and body armor," said Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, who directs the U.S.-led effort to build Iraq's police force.

"The guys they are going up against are very well-armed."

The Interior Ministry is using U.S. assistance to set up and train commando units and elite public-order battalions and to rehearse how to deploy well-armed units to rescue police stations that are under attack. Authorities are reviewing barricades around stations and fine-tuning procedures to get backup when attacks occur.

Authorities expect insurgents to increase their attacks on exposed police checkpoints and weakly barricaded precincts in the run-up to the January vote.

"If they can find a police station that is poorly defended, they are going to go after it, no doubt about it. They are deliberately seeking the most vulnerable police stations, and I think they will continue to do so," Fil said.

Even transport is a concern. Iraqi officials are exploring where to get armored cars.

"We've been scouring the earth for who can deliver this quickly," said Sabah Kadhim, a special adviser to the Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police.

For the average officer on a corner, protected only by a small-caliber pistol and without a bulletproof vest, new weapons and back-up officers can't arrive fast enough.

"What we need is more police, more powerful weapons, like PKCs (machine guns). We need better cars," said Mohammed, 22, who was thrust on Baghdad's streets recently after completing a two-month training course near Amman, Jordan.

After a moment, he added, "The most important thing is that we need the help of our people. Some people think that we are helping the Americans."

Today's police are a far cry from Saddam Hussein's corps of yore. Under Saddam, police swaggered and bullied on the front lines of a huge security apparatus. People were afraid of the police, who in turn were afraid of thugs higher up in the regime.

After Saddam's toppling, Washington sought to build a new well-trained force imbued with Western values. Deteriorating security has eroded some of those lofty ambitions, forcing U.S. officials to shorten training. Now, instructors at a training center in neighboring Jordan and at police academies in the cities of Baghdad, Kut, Basra, Mosul and Sulaimaniyah train recruits for only eight weeks.

Some 30,000 police officers are holdovers from Saddam's era. Others are young and green, often motivated by a need for a job in a nation where at least half the workforce is unemployed.

Some recruits say they had to pay bribes to get into the police academy.

"If you want to join, you have to bribe certain people," said Chaloub, the street cop. The going rate is $100 to get into the academy, then $100 more after starting work.

Nowhere has the fragility of the police been more apparent than in Mosul, the large city in northern Iraq, where intense insurgent attacks last month prompted nearly three-quarters of the city's 4,000-member police force to take off their uniforms and abandon their posts.

"There have been some real disappointments. In Mosul, some police stations ... fell quickly. But they are back on their feet. They are learning from their mistakes," Fil said.

Seeking to address one weakness, the Interior Ministry has trained some 7,000 people to form special commando units, technically apart from the police, for when greater firepower is needed to combat an insurgent attack.

Fil said he expects the police force to get stronger.

"I think we're going to see continual improvement throughout the nation," Fil said. "Every city is different, but I believe ... post-election, you'll have security forces that will stand themselves up within months or perhaps several years afterward in spite of the setbacks."


(George is a special Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent in Iraq.)


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

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