BAGHDAD, Iraq—The bright spot in U.S. Army Maj. Howard Zimmerman's recent inspection of Iraqi police checkpoints turned up in a dark room.
In a small, windowless building serving as an armory, the police had placed AK-47 assault rifles against the walls and draped bulletproof vests over rails. The well-maintained equipment was orderly and ready to grab.
"This is a very good standard," Zimmerman told the checkpoint's commander.
The praise was modest. But as the Army begins an extensive, yearlong campaign to train and equip 135,000 Iraqi police officers to operate almost independently of the American-led occupation coalition, the obstacles are so big that even small advances merit notice.
Establishing a professional police force to ensure domestic tranquility is vital to withdrawing the 140,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq, according to President Bush. His administration has declared 2006 to be the "year of the police," and the Pentagon plans to spend $1 billion boosting Iraqi Interior Ministry forces, most of which are police.
The need for that professional force is only made more obvious by the widespread killings and mosque attacks that followed the bombing of the golden dome of an important Samarra mosque Feb. 22.
Three years after the American-led invasion, the police force has improved in some places but hardly exists elsewhere, and at every level it depends heavily on the U.S. military and its allies for technology, training, equipment and logistical support.
"The assistance we're getting from the coalition is huge," said Maj. Gen. Thamir Saadoun al Janabi, the head of the Major Crimes Unit, which is akin to the U.S. FBI.
Religious and ethnic militias and criminal organizations have infiltrated police in some areas, further undermining the fledgling force's effectiveness and credibility. Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority has accused some units of the Shiite Muslim-dominated force of kidnapping, torturing and murdering Sunnis.
The job of improving the police has fallen largely to the California National Guard's 49th Military Police Brigade and the three battalions under its command, about 4,000 soldiers and 700 civilians. This month it began dispatching 250 to 300 "police transition teams" of specialist soldiers and civilians to work with police in Baghdad and nine other key cities.
"We happen to think ... that the best way to beat the insurgency is to build infrastructure, to show the Iraqi people that we can provide goods and services that make their country better," said Lt. Col. Peter Cross, the brigade operations officer. "The police is one of those services."
Iraq has about 215,000 police officers, some of whom served under Saddam Hussein's regime and about 80,000 of whom attended U.S.-sponsored academies in Iraq or Jordan after the dictator's fall. The police are mostly trained and deployed to battle insurgents and terrorists, not everyday criminals.
"They've got the basics of policing," said Col. Rod Barham, the brigade commanding officer. "Our job is to take that one step further."
Some American military assistance, especially logistical support, is expected to continue after 2006.
"We are not looking to make these guys `Law & Order' or `TJ Hooker' type of police," Cross said. "This is rudimentary type of stuff we're dealing with."
Just how rudimentary was clear on Zimmerman's inspection of several police checkpoints ringing the capital. In one police commander's Spartan office, Zimmerman sat down, doffed his helmet and began discussing the northeast Baghdad checkpoint's equipment and training needs.
The conversation began with good news: About 1,800 leather jackets and raincoats for police had arrived, albeit well into winter. That still left the checkpoint without enough lockers, concrete barriers and living accommodations.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, a different commander beseeched Zimmerman for a generator to power a streetlight and for assurance that repairs to the checkpoint road would occur as planned. At yet another checkpoint, the commander asked for help to get a second electricity line installed.
Zimmerman noted the requests and in some cases called the U.S. Army or Iraqi government for immediate help. The police still lean on American forces to get help that isn't forthcoming from the Iraqi government, he said.
On the east bank of the Tigris River in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, Lt. Col. Alaa Saleh Ibrahim was optimistic about the future of the river patrol under his command—thanks largely to coalition assistance.
The patrol's headquarters, obliterated by an insurgent bomb, has been rebuilt and a boat-maintenance facility was added. Six new patrol boats are expected within a few weeks, and a dozen of Ibrahim's men soon will head to America for training.
Even so, Ibrahim still had doubts about the patrol after most U.S. military backing is withdrawn at the year's end.
"We can depend on ourselves," Ibrahim said, "but it's not going to be that good."
In some cases police have purchased their own equipment or repaired buildings. Lt. Col. Mohammed Thamer Zamil was unwilling to wait for the Interior Ministry to act, so he and his men bought portable heaters for the checkpoint he commands.
"I don't want to see my enlisted men in the cold weather," said Zamil, who also initiated the armory improvements that impressed Zimmerman.
Commanders say the Iraqi chain of command is unreliable.
At the Baghdad headquarters of the police's SWAT-like emergency response force, Col. Raed Amin said his plea for leather jackets for the 1,000 or so men under his command seemed to fall on deaf ears.
"We talked to the Ministry of Interior. They didn't respond to us," Amin said. "We talked to Sergeant Dawson (of the 49th Military Police Brigade). He told us within a week or two he's going to get them."
Even when the Iraqi supply chain delivers, commanders can't count on the quality, because of incompetence, corruption or bureaucratic inefficiency. Amin's unit recently received defective ammunition.
"We fire a few rounds, and then it just explodes on us," Amin said.
Helping the Iraqi government develop a dependable logistics and maintenance system is crucial, said Maj. Timothy Johnston, the 49th Military Police Brigade's logistics and supply officer.
"It's our exit strategy," Johnston said. "The way we can exit this country is for the country to be able to do everything itself."
The brigade still is wrestling with how to deal with ethnic, tribal and religious influences, said Cross, the brigade's operations commander. There's only so much that American military and civilian advisers can do, he said.
"For it to be addressed in a serious manner, the Ministry of Interior needs to get serious about it," Cross said. The Iraqi Constitution bans sectarian militias from the police force, "but I can tell you I haven't seen the teeth to that yet."
Still, they've made progress, Cross said. In Baghdad during Iraq's largely peaceful parliamentary elections Dec. 15, Western military and civilian advisers mostly stood by as the Iraqi police ably handled security.
"We just sat there and watched them," Cross said. "That's what right looks like. That's what we need to get to for the entire country."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-POLICE