Iraqi police, army mending fences
January 6, 2009
BAGHDAD — Leather-coated Iraqi police with machine guns waved a steady stream of cars through a checkpoint late last month at the entrance to the southern third of Sadr City. A baby-blue pickup with a machine gun on top offered the officers a bit of extra firepower while officers peeked in cars and questioned passers-by.
"Here we are doing our job perfectly," said Aehab Reade Hatem, a police officer at the checkpoint. "We are searching vehicles and helping the Iraqi army."
The scene would not be unusual in any other part of Iraq, but for Sadr City the presence of Iraqi police is a visual reminder that the Baghdad slum is steadily shrugging off the control of Shiite militants who once ran the district.
Sadr City had a police force before the Americans and Iraqis went into the area as part of a cease-fire agreement that ended the Sadrists’ spring uprising. But fighters from the Mahdi Army — the Sadrist militant wing — had so infiltrated the force that it couldn’t be trusted.
The Iraqi government disbanded the entire force and replaced it with officers from outside the area, mainly from Rusafa, said Lt. Col. Brian Eifler, commander of Task Force 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, the American unit in charge of the area.
Despite the makeover, the government effectively neutered the Iraqi police and pressed its duties on the Iraqi army.
"The Iraqi army is basically the police force in Sadr City, and that’s a big burden," Eifler said.
That began to change in the past couple of months, when the government started loosening its reins on the Sadr City police. It first authorized the force to man two checkpoints with the Iraqi army so that soldiers could keep watch over the officers. The police were later allowed to do joint operations with the army, although they still can’t work independently.
"That’s a big step because for many months they were just sitting at the headquarters doing nothing," Eifler said.
Iraqi army Sgt. Maj. Ali Bean Hassan, a checkpoint commander, said he was worried when he first started working with the police. He’d heard that they used to be militia and didn’t expect the arrangement to work out well. But he’s since grown to enjoy working with the officers because they take some of the load off his soldiers and do their job honestly.
"Actually, they’re doing great at their job," Hassan said. "When we started working together, everything was clear from both sides. Iraqi army and Iraqi police, you can say we are one hand."
In a country riven by interservice rivalry, such praise from the army is perhaps the biggest sign of how far the police have come.
Still, residents who had lived in fear of the organization for so long are sometimes slow to trust the police again — even after all the changes.
"People [were] honestly just scared by the previous police force," Eifler said.
Hassan thinks the Iraqi army should continue to back up the police, who don’t have the weapons to resist militia attacks and who still don’t have the full respect of the people — however unjustified that may be, he said.
"Let’s wait until the voting issues are done. Then I think they’re going to be OK," he said.
Hatem doesn’t agree. He thinks he and his fellow officers are ready to stand on their own. Still, he doesn’t regret his move from New Baghdad at all. The work is tougher in Sadr City and he thinks that makes it more rewarding.
"Here we’ve found the real work and the rules are tougher," Hatem said.