BAGHDAD -- When the first mortar shell hit, the recruits cheered defiantly.
They were seated in the bleachers of an indoor basketball court at the Police Sports Club, about 800 prospective members of the new Iraqi police. Among them were four friends -- Jawaad Jabri, Alaa Aboud, Adel Finjan and Raed Sudani -- who later described the scene.
From left, police recruits Raed Sudani, Adel Finjan and Jawaad Jabri say they still want to become officers despite a campaign of violence against Iraqi security forces and pleas by their family members not to take the risks.
(Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)
When the second mortar round fell five minutes later, they said, no one cheered. Jabri ran to the top of the bleachers and stared out a window at a smoldering crater. "The next one's for us," he told Aboud. "They're getting a fix on our position."
After another five-minute lull, the third shell struck, shaking the gymnasium, they recalled. A police colonel walked to mid-court, the friends recalled, and announced: "This building is no longer safe. Please exit immediately. Go home to your families."
The four raced out of the gym, carrying suitcases filled with clothes and family photos and worn copies of the Koran. They had begun the day thinking they were about to start an eight-week course that would train them to be Iraqi police officers. Instead, they found themselves still pursuing a goal that had nearly cost them their lives.
A war within a war is playing out across Iraq. On one side are the jobless and underemployed young men who continue lining up to apply for positions in the reconstituted police and National Guard. On the other side are the insurgents working assiduously to kill them.
The nascent Iraqi security forces are the key to U.S. plans for bringing the insurgency under control and ultimately drawing down American troops. As Iraqi forces hit the streets over the next several months, U.S. commanders say, they will help provide the necessary stability for Iraq to hold nationwide elections before the end of January.
But the recruits, almost uniformly poor, have become the primary targets for insurgents seeking to undermine that strategy. Of about 250 Iraqis reported killed over the past two weeks, at least 90, or 36 percent, were new police officers or police and National Guard recruits. In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi authorities say they believe the insurgents send suicide bombers to patrol the streets in search of large congregations of recruits.
"We're walking dead men," Aboud said.
Sabah Kadim, a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said that despite the attacks, young Iraqis continue to apply at a furious rate.
"Word spreads through the community; you don't need any publicity at all," Kadim said. "If we want 100 in an area, 3,000 show up. This is the amazing thing: Without any recruitment drive at all, the numbers are not only doubling but tripling."
Jabri said the phenomenon is easily explained: "Everyone wants jobs, and there really are no jobs but the police."
Jabri and his friends technically are not among Iraq's legions of unemployed. He, Aboud and Finjan work intermittently assembling crates for the U.S. military for $7 a day. Occasionally they buy and sell used cars. Their other friend, Sudani, moves air conditioners, a job that normally ends with the coming of winter, now only weeks away.
The four men, all in their mid to late twenties, have been friends since childhood. Jabri, Aboud and Finjan live on the same street in Khalij, a lower-middle-class neighborhood in south Baghdad where Shiite Muslims, Christians and others live relatively peacefully. Along Masbah Street, hundreds of young jobless men idle away the hours in shops and video arcades.