BAGHDAD, Iraq—Efforts to halt sectarian violence in Iraq have been thwarted in part because Shiite Muslim militiamen and the politicians who support them routinely intimidate members of Iraq's nascent police force into allowing the militias to control the streets, according to a top U.S. military official, Iraqi politicians and Iraqi police officials.
The intimidation of police officers and their commanders is as big a threat to the police's ability to stop murders and kidnappings as the infiltration of the police force by Shiite militiamen, the U.S. military official said. Intimidation is a tougher problem because it can't be addressed by plucking infiltrators from the police department, the official said.
Militias, particularly the Mahdi Army of fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are believed to be responsible for much of the sectarian violence that's swept Baghdad since the February bombing of a Shiite religious shrine in Samarra. U.S. officials have warned that the militias pose a bigger threat to Iraq's stability than Sunni insurgents, and they've pressured Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to root out militia members from the police force.
But U.S. officials say intimidation is a separate problem, one they don't know how to fix.
"If this were a case of all I do is go through and find the card-carrying (militia) members, yeah, that is pretty straightforward," said the U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
But more and more police officers are being threatened by militia members to look the other way—and they do so rather than risk retaliation.
"It's this world where a guy sticks out at some base for performing absolutely to standard, and then he gets leaned on to let someone through a checkpoint," the official said. Frequently, the police officer acquiesces. "It's not worth it" to resist, the official said.
On Monday, Maliki announced a plan with representatives of the largest political blocs to address the militias, saying that only the police should be armed and conceding that militias threaten the future of his government. But his plan offered no specifics other than to outline committees that will further investigate the issues.
In the meantime, police officers say the threat of intimidation is heightened by their sense that the government can do little to protect them.
In many Baghdad neighborhoods, Shiite militiamen, especially members of the Mahdi Army, are the only security visible on the streets. Police feel obligated to the militiamen for their protection as well as for the safety of their homes and families in neighborhoods where the government cannot muster enough forces to stop attacks by Sunni Muslim insurgents.
A police officer who lives in eastern Baghdad said that while he doesn't like kowtowing to militias, he feels he has no choice but to do what militia members ask.
"Who will protect us if someone tries to kill us?" he asked, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "Our government is weak."
Militia members, far from hiding their links to groups that ostensibly are illegal, often brag about their status and reject any notion that they're doing anything other than helping the police to secure otherwise conflictive neighborhoods.
"We support the Iraqi security forces, and sometimes we work with them to help them achieve their aims," said Ali Abu Hussein, 27, a Mahdi Army member who lives in the Baghdad neighborhood of Zafaraniya. "They depend on us when they try to implement any security duties in Zafaraniya because we know the area very well."
Both Iraqi and U.S. officials said the intimidation often begins with a threat to kill a police officer's family unless he allows militiamen to travel through a checkpoint unhindered or turn over police equipment to the militia.
Pressure on the police to cooperate with the militias comes from all levels of the organizations, said Mithal Alusi, a secular Shiite member of parliament. He said Iraqi politicians with militia links often call police commanders directly to gain cooperation.
Alusi said he met with nine top police and army commanders last week who complained that whenever their forces moved against militia members, they received calls from top Iraqi politicians telling them to allow the militias to operate. Alusi didn't name the politicians.
The top commanders feel trapped, Alusi said. If they comply, then they cede control of their areas to the militias. And if they don't comply, they might lose their jobs.
McClatchy Newspapers couldn't reach the police commanders who met with Alusi.
There's no way to measure how deep the intimidation goes. U.S. and Iraqi officials say one threat against one policeman or his family can affect dozens of others who hear about it.
Intimidation is thought to be behind some recent incidents in which militiamen either traveled through a checkpoint to attack a neighborhood or set up their own illegal checkpoint to sweep up Sunnis.
One of the most notable cases was in western Baghdad in June, when more than 30 people, mostly Sunnis, were killed while trying to flee their neighborhood a day after a car bomb exploded there. The attack was brutal by even today's standards.
As families in packed cars left the neighborhood, they were stopped at an illegal checkpoint by men wearing police uniforms and were killed on the spot.
U.S. troops recently have taken to monitoring militia activities in an effort to prevent intimidation. Last month, for example, members of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry, based out of Fort Lewis, Wash., paid close attention to suspicious cars leaving a police station in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliyah. The American soldiers told McClatchy Newspapers they were watching for militiamen intimidating officers into handing over equipment.
Mohammed al-Daini, a Sunni member of parliament, said intimidation and infiltration have made the militias almost indistinguishable from the police.
"Being a part of the police now means providing the militias with legal coverage," Daini said. "The government cannot disband militias, as this will lead to the disbanding of the Iraqi police."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.