Habbaniyah police learn to serve the community
November 19, 2006
HABBANIYAH, Iraq — The police captain in Habbaniyah was gunned down in August while thwarting an attack on his station by both a suicide bomber and car bomber.
Two years earlier, the police station in nearby Khalidiyah was blown up.
Protect and serve? For these cops, sometimes it is more like duck and survive.
But somehow, in a place where venturing outside fortresslike stations can be life-threatening, the Iraqi police of Habbaniyah are moving forward.
They are being helped by Police Transition Team 6, which is trying to teach members of the fledgling force to serve people and community rather than themselves and the government. It’s slow going.
“It can’t be done overnight. There’s just no way,” said Army Maj. Gregory Atencio, one of the team’s senior members.
“It’s a whole cultural shock to them, what’s happening with freedom, and what the police represent compared to what they used to represent.”
More than 500 officers headquartered in Habbaniyah work the 20-mile stretch between the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, two insurgency strongholds in Anbar province.
The transition team, a small unit of Marines, soldiers and civilians, has provided the police with security such as traffic barriers, concertina wire, and walls around Habbaniyah’s three police stations.
The headquarters is a windowless, pockmarked, two-story building inside a large, dirt lot. Inside, many rooms are piles of rubble and trash.
A contractor is being lined up to fix the place. Work would start in December or January, God willing, as the Muslims like to say.
By Western standards, the Habbaniyah police lack basics, such as utilities and phones that work, ways to pay their bills, even food and toilet paper. Some don’t know how they’ll get to and from work each day.
The transition team, which stood up in August, is essentially starting from scratch.
“[They need] the basic needs to function as human beings, let alone as an organization within a society,” said Marine Lt. Col. Bob McCarthy, the transition team’s commander.
A few of the newer cops don’t pay attention very well — poor “situational awareness,” as the military calls it — possibly because they haven’t been shot at yet.
“There’s a lack of reality for some of them,” Marine Sgt. Derrick Popham said.
As the U.S. troops approached the police headquarters Friday, one young cop on guard duty saw the Americans coming and scrambled to tuck in his shirt.
“We try to instill the little things,” McCarthy said.
The police are inching forward.
“Yes, we can patrol whenever we want,” Police Capt. Ghanem Jasim said. “The people support the police, especially lately.
“The people should support the police. The police are the sons of the neighborhood.”
Unlike Iraqi soldiers, who are assigned to units away from their home areas, the Iraqi police go home at night. They and their families are unprotected. Most have a pistol or AK-47 rifle, but not the protective armor, high-powered weaponry or anonymity of the army.
Some declined to give their name or allow their photos to be taken.
One officer said he’s trying to please God by helping his town. He then referred to the obvious schism between the insurgents and their prey.
“[The insurgents’ violence] is not the real Islam,” he said. “They are misinterpreting the religion.”
In September, only 17 candidates showed up for 50 police jobs in Habbaniyah. This month, 51 people showed up for 50 slots.
The police’s biggest need might be getting fuel for their cars.
Both the military and police said there is a problem getting assets such as fuel, personnel and money to local police forces from Baghdad’s Ministry of Interior.
“These are problems as you are trying to establish a government that is decentralized in nature,” McCarthy said. “Trying to get the system to work, you’re going to go through growing pains.
“It’s up to the Iraqi police to do it in a way that makes sense to them.”