Iraqi police learning to shift gears in Diyala
KHALIS, Iraq — Sgt. Hassan Jassaam strides through the trash-strewn streets of this Diyala province town, a Kalashnikov swinging against his blue camouflage, a red beret carefully placed on his head and a cigarette perpetually dangling from his mouth. He looks and acts every part the military leader, and that is part of the problem.
Jassaam is a police officer with a local emergency response force, somewhat akin to an American SWAT Team. On this day his men are supposed to be leading a joint patrol with American soldiers from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, but the Iraqis seem unsure of themselves, mostly looking to an American, 1st Lt. Christopher Motter, for instructions.
In trying to stand up Iraqi police forces, American troops are facing the challenge of working with officers who have the mentality and equipment of a military organization and who still rely heavily on American troops for guidance and expertise.
Violence has dropped markedly in Diyala province in the past year, but al-Qaida in Iraq and Jaish al-Mahdi insurgents still target Iraqis and American soldiers with roadside bombs and shootings. In a furrowed palm grove on the outskirts of this town in western Diyala, amongst drunks and stray dogs, Motter’s soldiers find a rocket-propelled grenade warhead and detonator.
During two joint patrols led by Motter and Jassaam, flocks of pigeons were flushed from nearby rooftops, a common signal insurgents use to alert others to American troop presence.
After years of war and battles against insurgents, many Iraqi police officers are still in a military mindset, comfortable manning a roadblock, but uneasy with day-to-day police work, said U.S. Army Capt. Scott Jones, who is based in Khalis.
"We’re trying to get them out of the checkpoint mentality," he said.
Jassaam’s men each have a Kalashnikov — more commonly known as an AK-47, a fine tool for warfare but awkward for a beat cop. Jassaam said officers who want handguns must buy them off the street because the government so far has refused to pay for them. Another police officer said they use paper badges because they don’t have the money for real ones.
On a mission to search for a suspected weapons cache, Jassaam seems at ease directing his men to clear vacant buildings, but he struggles to take a report from a woman who said her husband was murdered.
The state of Iraqi policing is a vast improvement over the days when officers acted more like sectarian militias than police, but making them a truly independent organization requires more work, said Brigade Commander Col. Burt Thompson.
"They’ve still got a long way to go," he said.
As U.S. forces reduce their presence in Iraq, they are trying to put an Iraqi face on police operations. Motter said he is working on teaching the Iraqis some basics like map reading and how to properly space officers during patrols to reduce vulnerability to attacks.
"They need more technical training, but mentally they’re there," he said.
Jassaam said both American soldiers and Iraqi officers are working toward peace and that joint patrols are invaluable for his men.
"The big thing we get is the experience and we feel like when we work with them we are one team," he said.
Iraqi forces have a long way to go, though. Motter was consulted on nearly every decision during two recent missions with Jassaam’s men. Jassaam even deferred to Motter when it came to questioning a man who had pro-insurgent graffiti on his wall.
Unsure what to do
When the Iraqis patrolled the cities narrow, sewage-filled alleys, Motter reminded them not to bunch up, to avoid becoming an easy target for grenade attacks. Some of the Iraqis sat down to take breaks in the middle of the patrol.
On a joint mission in the mud-hut enclave of Sufait, a slight, baby-faced Iraqi police officer leads American soldiers into a house suspected of being frequented by an al-Qaida member. When the Iraqi officer gets to the house, though, he just stands on the first floor, rifle at his side, looking unsure of what to do while American soldiers go room to room, clearing the building.
It’s a tricky balancing act for U.S. soldiers such as Motter who want to build on security gains made over the last year while giving the Iraqis more responsibility.
"We’re trying to maintain our presence but reduce our visibility," Motter said.
The task is even more difficult in outlying areas where U.S. presence is limited.
In Sufait, a 45-minute dirt-road drive from Khalis, 1st Lt. David Jarzab sat down for a frustrating conversation with the local police lieutenant. First the lieutenant complained that with only 15 officers, he is understaffed. When Jarzab said that other similar-sized towns have even fewer officers, the police lieutenant said he actually has only six officers.
It’s not the first time the lieutenant has given U.S. forces shaky information, Jarzab said. Pointing to dug-up earth in the station’s front yard, Jarzab said soldiers have even found weapons caches at the station.
"I want to tell you something, this [Iraqi police] station is corrupt," he told a reporter.
Motter said he has an excellent working relationship with Jassaam but that there is still a long way to go to build trust between soldiers and the Iraqi police. Corruption, bribery and worse are still rife within police ranks.
"I don’t give them much intel because basically I assume they’re infiltrated [by insurgents]," Motter said.