U.S. commander works to help Sunni town trust local police
BAGHDAD — In recent weeks, residents of the Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliyah say a fragile peace has settled over the area thanks to a recent American and Iraqi army operation to rid the area of sectarian violence.
But when asked what they see as an impediment to peace, most residents point unwaveringly to the local police force.
The mostly Shiite policemen can’t patrol the streets without being escorted by Iraqi or American troops. The Sunni residents don’t trust them. Attacks are common at checkpoints.
And, many say, the police chief moonlights as a commander in a powerful Shiite militia. The police chief denied any knowledge of militias in the area.
In an attempt to improve the situation, the American commander in the area, Lt. Col. Van Smiley, commander of 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, a Stryker battalion from Fort Lewis, Wash., is embarking on a plan to integrate all of the area’s security forces — local police, the Iraqi and American armies and the Iraqi national police — into one joint control center at the local police station.
While Smiley touted the move as a way to allow the area’s main security forces to react swiftly and jointly to events, Iraqi officials said the real motive is to rein in the wayward police force.
An Iraqi army captain, who gave only his nickname out of fear of being targeted, explained in English why the police are resistant to the plan.
“If we work together,” said the man, who goes by Abu Mustafa, “they will know everything. We will know their mistakes. They prefer to work alone.”
The police chief acted surprised when asked why the public distrusted his police force.
“Because we fight insurgents, nobody likes us,” he said.
Army 2nd Lt. Jeff Salzano, part of the station’s police transition team, offered a different theory for why police get a frosty reception.
“They can’t go into the (districts) without us or the (Iraqi army),” he said days earlier. “Because people have witnessed them kidnapping people in the night.”
In a meeting earlier in the week with Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Salzano presented a laundry list of problems: lack of training, discipline and will among them.
“We had a (roadside bomb) the other day and they just started shooting in every direction,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to stop that.”
“We really need to get them coordinated with the (Iraqi army),” he said. “They’re not getting along at all.”
That was evident Saturday as local Iraqi army commander Col. Shamel paid a visit to the station to decide where to place the army’s operations center.
Police chief Col. Mousa Kadim was clearly not pleased at the prospect of having the Iraqi army take up residence in his building. He strenuously objected to giving up two small rooms and a hallway.
“Where will we sleep?” he said, turning to Smiley, whom Shamel had brought along to help with the negotiations.
“This is an operations center,” Smiley said. “Not a place to sleep.”
Smiley, who smiled patiently throughout the meeting, acknowledged the challenges of the plan once he emerged from the building.
Turning to a major in the police force, he grabbed the man by his shoulders and said forcefully, “Will this work?”
After the man assured him it would, Smiley turned and walked back to his Stryker vehicle.
“They understand,” he said. “Those cell phones are ringing like (expletive) right now. Muqtada Al-Sadr is being called. I know that.”