Iraqi Security Has Come Far, With Far to Go
U.S.-Trained Forces Hit by Defections
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page A18
BAGHDAD -- Five hooded men hopped out of a car at the checkpoint, heavily armed and clearly eager for blood. Iraqi policeman Maytham Talib figured it was time to quit his job.
"Each one of them had an automatic weapon. The police, we had four rifles, but only two worked. We had seven bullets for each rifle. We ran," said Talib, 25. He had already seen two colleagues gunned down at a checkpoint and two others slain by a grenade. He fled, took a bus home and has not been back to work since.
Established by the U.S. occupation authority and trained by foreign troops, Iraq's police and National Guard have been targets of insurgent attacks for months. With the formal end of U.S. occupation, they have been dying in ever larger numbers -- at least 127 have been killed in the last two months. The danger, coupled with low pay, has caused many to quit.
Defections pose a serious obstacle to the rebuilding of Iraq's security forces but not the only one. Planning has been chaotic, units have staged mutinies, and essential equipment has not been delivered. In recent months, the entire process of recruitment and training has been largely scrapped and begun again, and the interim Iraqi government that was installed on June 28 has dictated more changes.
"It was worse than starting from scratch," complained Sabah Kadhim, a top official in the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police. "We had to weed out criminals from the policemen who the Americans put there."
After more than a year under the occupation, Kadhim said, "the police lacked efficiency, lacked organization, lacked cars, lacked weapons, lacked communication. Literally, they didn't have clothing."
Now, Iraqi and U.S. officials insist, the security forces are making progress. They say the police and National Guard are starting to conduct their own raids and perform well under attack. Training camps will soon crank out graduates. The heavy U.S. military presence is gradually shifting to a backup role behind Iraqi forces, they say, and there are plenty of new recruits waiting to take the places of those who quit. Last week, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the emerging security forces were starting to reduce the number of attacks in Iraq.
But his optimistic assessment seemed at odds with the daily drumbeat of mortar attacks, car bombs and ambushes.
"Security is the biggest problem we face," Defense Minister Hazim Shalan said in an interview. "We are working. But if you ask me, am I satisfied, I must say no."
Approximately 225,000 men and some women are listed as serving in the Iraqi security forces -- nearly 88 percent of the recruitment goal. But the numbers are debatable; the police carry 30,000 more names on their payroll than they can account for. Of those who exist, only a fraction have any training, often consisting of a few weeks at a boot camp. Top officials insist they have relatively few resignations -- no reliable figures are available -- but officers on the street say hundreds quit every month after getting their paychecks.
"I'm waiting to finish this month and get my salary, and then I will quit," said Heider Abbas, a policeman in Baghdad who cited low pay. A laborer or shop worker, he said, "gets more than we do."
U.S. planners say Iraqi security forces must be strong enough to fight the insurgency before American troops can withdraw. But the rush to build the forces -- an effort one officer called "30,000 in 30 days" -- led to a crisis in April when Iraqi troops refused to fight.
According to a Government Accountability Office report released last month, nearly 3,000 policemen quit or were removed in one week in mid-April. Among the Iraqi National Guard, desertions ranged from 30 percent in northeastern and central Iraq to 82 percent around the western city of Fallujah, where insurgents battled besieging U.S. Marines. In all, 12,000 soldiers did not show up for duty, according to the report.
"Given the poor performance of the Iraqi security forces during April 2004, it is unclear what level of security they will be able to provide during the period leading up to Iraq's national elections" scheduled for January, the GAO concluded.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Recruits line up to join an Iraqi security force. At least 127 security personnel were killed in the past two months.
(Photos Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)