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The Iraqi police corps — like these shown searching a car in Mosul in March — have come under fire lately for their poor performance in places, such as Fallujah. U.S. officials have called their actions "a major disappointment."
The Iraqi police corps — like these shown searching a car in Mosul in March — have come under fire lately for their poor performance in places, such as Fallujah. U.S. officials have called their actions "a major disappointment." (Anas Dulami / S&S)
The Iraqi police corps — like these shown searching a car in Mosul in March — have come under fire lately for their poor performance in places, such as Fallujah. U.S. officials have called their actions "a major disappointment."
The Iraqi police corps — like these shown searching a car in Mosul in March — have come under fire lately for their poor performance in places, such as Fallujah. U.S. officials have called their actions "a major disappointment." (Anas Dulami / S&S)
Cpl. Gazwan Al-Tahi stands outside the the Mosul Police Station in Iraq. Iraqi forces, including the police, have been criticized for taking fire from men trying to kill them and refusing to shoot back, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division said this week.
Cpl. Gazwan Al-Tahi stands outside the the Mosul Police Station in Iraq. Iraqi forces, including the police, have been criticized for taking fire from men trying to kill them and refusing to shoot back, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division said this week. (Anas Dulami / S&S)

Iraqi police recruits last year would take fire from men trying to kill them and refuse to shoot back, according to Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division.

It wasn’t for fear, loyalty to kinsmen or self-sacrificial kindness.

“They thought that if they killed someone, they might be responsible to pay the blood money,” Dempsey said.

The fix was relatively simple. The Iraqi Interior Ministry put out a letter stating officially that police would not be responsible for paying blood money, a form of compensation in Iraqi tribal law.

But that early difficulty with police, hired and trained by the U.S. military, foreshadowed the continuing problems with the entire Iraqi security force, some of whom declined to muster, refused to fight, abandoned their posts and even joined the other side during recent battles, especially in Fallujah.

According to Dempsey, about half of the security forces “didn’t do what we wanted them to” during battles earlier this month.

“But 40 percent were just flat intimidated,” Dempsey said. “Ten percent were probably culpable, guilty and criminal.

“I think we could have done a better job seeing that coming,” Dempsey said. “In the absence of a trusted Iraqi government, I think they didn’t feel they had the top cover they needed. They were very loyal to us, but they know [we are] not going to be here forever.”

While U.S. officials said no one expected that Iraqi forces would be able and ready to replace U.S. soldiers by now, they have expressed “great disappointment,” as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez put it, in the performance of many units.

Added Dempsey, “We needed to provide an Iraqi pressure to perform, not just an American one. We needed to find a way sooner. That is crystal clear to me.”

What went wrong?

“Some of it had to do with training. Some of it had to do with courage. Some of it had to do with leadership,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, chief spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq.

In the past week, working to remedy the leadership problem, the U.S.-led coalition has appointed six to eight former generals from Saddam Hussein’s armed forces. The generals were already in the pipeline, and have been going through a months-long vetting process, said Maj. Mark Martin, a spokesman for the Office of Security Cooperation. Among those appointed are a Sunni, a Kurd and a Shiite. “It’s a pretty good cross mix,” Martin said.

None of them was in the top four tiers of the Baath Party, Martin said, which would have disqualified them from serving in the new Army under a year-old policy that Paul Bremer, U.S. administrator of Iraq, brought from Washington, D.C. The policy disbanded the Iraqi army and denied posts to former Baathist military officers and others who had been in the top four party levels.

But the “de-Baathification” policy is being revised, officials said, after months of complaints that it was keeping capable people from contributing and slowing efforts to rebuild and provide security for the country.

After “major combat operations” ended a year ago, the United States hired some 72,600 Iraqi police; some 32,450 members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, analogous to a National Guard; and some 6,030 soldiers from the Iraqi army, about half of which are in training, according to the coalition press office.

All have been targeted by insurgents, who view them as tools of the U.S.-led occupation. Police stations in particular have been car bombed, including three in Basra on Wednesday. Among the 68 people killed in those blasts were 10 Iraqi policemen and a busload of schoolchildren.

By American standards, the forces’ pay and training are minimal. ICDC members get four weeks of training in such matters as how to identify bombs, use weapons, search detainees and understand commands in English, while Iraqi armed forces and police each get eight weeks of training.

For their part, Iraqi security forces have complained about the pay and lack of equipment, and they say they’re often outgunned and usually outnumbered.

“We are not a force. We are just guys with AK-47s,” one ICDC member told The Associated Press last week. “We must have better weapons, more pay, more training.”

U.S. officials are sympathetic to some of those concerns. In Sadr City earlier this month, Kimmitt said, when the militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr attacked police stations, it was understandable that the police fled. “Very few police forces in the world would be able to hold up to a militia of hundreds of people,” Kimmitt said.

But it was for a different reason that large numbers of security forces refused to fight in Fallujah. One Iraqi battalion that came under fire and took some casualties decided that getting out of there was the better part of valor.

“They said, ‘We didn’t sign on for this. We’re going back,’ ” said Martin. But the real problem, he said, was the misperception by those troops that they were being asked to fight fellow Iraqis — when in reality they were only supposed to support other troops. “They thought they were going into combat operations. They thought they were supposed to be fighting their own people. That’s what they had the problem with.”

So the failure was in the command — both Iraqi and ultimately the U.S., Martin said, which did not communicate clearly. “It was a leadership failure,” Martin said. “A failure to explain the mission to the troops. An experienced commander would make sure that everybody understood what was going on.”

Kimmitt said leaders of poorly performing units would be replaced.

Although experienced Iraqi commanders have been hard to come by, Kimmitt said the de-Baathification policy had been implemented for a valuable reason: to form a security force “built on civil rights and civilian control of the military, and one that is not a tool of a former dictator.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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