BAGHDAD — One word separates the Iraqi National Police from other Iraqi security forces.

That word is “national.” It’s a crucial difference, and not just in name.

The recent fighting in Basra and Baghdad exposed the divided loyalties within the Iraqi police and Iraqi army. The Iraqi government announced Sunday that it had fired more than 1,300 policemen and soldiers who refused to fight Shiite militias in the south, and in some cases, even switched sides.

By contrast, the Iraqi National Police had just 50 out of their brigade of more than 1,000 leave, despite suffering the highest percentage of casualties among the Iraqi security forces, according to Col. David Boslego, an adviser in the headquarters of the National Police Transition Team. The overwhelming reason they left was because their families had been threatened, he said.

“The model of the national police is loyalty to country and that idea is what is the motivating factor for the program,” Boslego said.

Iraqi National Police soldiers, unlike their U.S. Army counterparts, can leave freely, much as civilians are allowed to quit their jobs, Boslego said, noting that those who left are not technically deserters.

The national police is a middle ground between the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. It was formed in August 2004 as a counterweight to the Iraqi Army, whose officers had seized power in the country three times since 1958 and held power for 21 years. Almost all national police midlevel and senior leaders served in Saddam Hussein’s organization, but the newness of the organization has helped it to grow in ways that divert from the longstanding traditions of the older Iraqi army and Iraqi police.

The national police is a paramilitary force, with members more akin to soldiers than police officers, and the organization was originally composed of officers and soldiers who served in Saddam Hussein’s Army. The INP focuses on internal security and counterinsurgency, in contrast with the Iraqi police’s law-and-order mission, which is more akin to that of American law enforcement.

The national police have heavier armor and weapons than the Iraqi police, befitting the agency’s extra emphasis on combat. While Iraqi police carry only pistols and AK-47s, national police soldiers also have machine guns.

But it’s recruiting, not weaponry, that really sets the two groups apart. Iraqi police are recruited locally and serve in the neighborhoods where they’re from, Boslego said. This often makes them reluctant to fight local militias. Iraqi army units are recruited regionally — creating some of the same problems.

Iraqi National Police are recruited nationally and then sent to units all across the country, Boslego said. Officers also move from unit to unit and area to area as they advance in their careers.

“It’s very similar to how our Army operates,” he said.

Furthermore, these units aim to have a balance of Sunnis and Shiites proportional to the country as a whole, he said. Command teams are also balanced so that if the commander is Shiite, the deputy will be Sunni.

To be sure, it hasn’t always been this way. The national police began as a largely Shiite organization with many of the same problems as other groups in the Iraqi security forces. Sunni groups, such as those in Baghdad’s Dora area, clashed with national police as recently as last year.

But Staff Maj. Gen. Hussain Jassim Mohammad Al-Awadi, the national police commander, cleaned house, replacing both division commanders and all brigade commanders, said Col. Rivers Johnson, a directorate of Interior Affairs spokesman. Leadership later began adjusting the makeup of the command teams, something completed in October. In November, the national police launched a recruiting drive in Sunni-dominated areas.

Now that national focus is something leaders impress on recruits as soon as they show an interest in joining. Leaders question them about sectarian viewpoints during the recruiting process, and they must swear an oath renouncing any faction, Boslego said. Iraqi National Police aren’t even allowed to join political parties.

“It’s a fundamental ethos that they’re taught from their first days of training,” he said.

As a result, the national police did well during the fighting in Basra, Boslego said. The government ordered a national police brigade to Basra’s center at 10:30 p.m. on March 22. Lead elements arrived there by 5:30 a.m. the following day, and the brigade had cleared its portion of the city by March 25. While fighting continued in other parts of the city, national police brass walked safely through the brigade’s streets, officials said.

The national police are in such high demand now that Boslego sees the force expanding in the future, which may see some “regionalization.” This would mean more national police based outside of Baghdad, but it would still recruit nationally and spread soldiers around — unlike the Iraqi army.

“The key is to continue to match the national demographics as closely as possible,” he said.

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