KUT, Iraq — Within hours of getting a new commander, the police headquarters of Wasit province was getting a face-lift. Walls were repainted, trash was picked up off the dusty roads, and the Iraqi police officers even started wearing their uniforms properly.
The changes were even more noticeable six days later, when a convoy of U.S. military police made a routine visit to the compound in Kut, the largest city in this predominantly Shiite province.
"It’s a complete transformation," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Heuer, of the 511th Military Police Company.
Maj. Gen. Ra’id Shaker Jawdak, the new provincial director of police, ordered the changes after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appointed him to replace the former director of police.
According to a memo from al-Maliki, the previous commander, Maj. Gen. Abdul Haneen al-Amara, failed to uphold the country’s election laws. Some of his officers allegedly tore down a candidate’s election posters in December, although they may have been removing posters that were covering other posters, said Col. Richard Francey, commander of Forward Operating Base Delta, the hub of the U.S. military presence in Wasit province, southeast of Baghdad.
The provincial council protested al-Maliki’s decision to remove al-Amara as police director, even though it had complained about him in previous months.
Francey said al-Amara’s only problem was his failure to take sides politically.
"He was a known quantity. They understood that he did his job, did his job well and would not be swayed one way or the other," Francey said. Now, the council members are concerned about their own jobs because they are up for re-election, he said.
Jawdak’s appointment surprised many because of the timing — just two weeks before Iraq’s provincial elections, when the threat of suicide bombings at polling sites and candidate assassinations is at its highest.
The move also worried the U.S. soldiers, who had never met Jawdak. His position is one of the most important for maintaining security within the province, and he is the critical link between the Iraqi police and coalition forces.
"He’s key," said Staff Sgt. Elton Dean, a National Guardsman with the 772nd MP Company. "He’s like the police chief for the entire province. Our relationship that we maintain with him will dictate what we’re able to do with all the other (Iraqi police) stations."
U.S. soldiers visit the police headquarters several times a week, and, over time and countless cups of chai, had developed close relationships with the Iraqis.
But they knew little about Jawdak, aside from the changes he had made at the police headquarters. There have been more police in the city since Jawdak took over, and the streets are cleaner. He jailed 17 police who failed to stop insurgents from shooting a rocket into an empty field on FOB Delta on Jan. 18.
He also ordered his men to clean up about 50 junked cars that were rusting on the police compound.
"We’ve been trying to get them to move the … cars for six months," Heuer said.
Some soldiers, however, said the stricter rules might backfire.
"A lot of [police] are pissed off about it because they actually have to do their job," said Sgt. Joseph Ireland, of the 511th. "They may go back to the militias."
During their visit to the police headquarters, the U.S. soldiers — some from an outgoing MP company and some from the company replacing them — briefly met Jawdak. He told the soldiers that his marble-floored, peach-walled office was their home, and had a staffer serve them chai before he left for a meeting with the provincial governor.
But the Americans heard that Jawdak may have transferred an Iraqi liason officer, their main contact with the Iraqi police, considered by many of them to be a personal friend, to a different location. The soldiers left the police compound angry and frustrated.
Francey said the two police directors had different leadership styles. Where al-Amara was a "team builder," Jawdak is "more direct," he said.
"He’s a little forceful with his subordinates, but he has high standards," he said. "It’s hard to complain about someone who’s trying to make that organization better without breaking it."