By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
BAGHDAD -- The signs of the militias are everywhere at the Sholeh police station.
Posters celebrating Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army militia, dot the building's walls. The police chief sometimes remarks that Shiite militias should wipe out all Sunnis. Visitors to this violent neighborhood in the Iraqi capital whisper that nearly all the police officers have split loyalties.
And then one rainy night this month, the Sholeh police set up an ambush and killed Army Cpl. Kenny F. Stanton Jr., a 20-year-old budding journalist, his unit said. At the time, Stanton and other members of the unit had been trailing a group of Sholeh police escorting known Mahdi Army members.
"How can we expect ordinary Iraqis to trust the police when we don't even trust them not to kill our own men?" asked Capt. Alexander Shaw, head of the police transition team of the 372nd Military Police Battalion, a Washington-based unit charged with overseeing training of all Iraqi police in western Baghdad. "To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure we're ever going to have police here that are free of the militia influence."
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., predicted last week that Iraqi security forces would be able to take control of the country in 12 to 18 months. But several days spent with American units training the Iraqi police illustrated why those soldiers on the ground believe it may take decades longer than Casey's assessment.
Seventy percent of the Iraqi police force has been infiltrated by militias, primarily the Mahdi Army, according to Shaw and other military police trainers. Police officers are too terrified to patrol enormous swaths of the capital. And while there are some good cops, many have been assassinated or are considering quitting the force.
"None of the Iraqi police are working to make their country better," said Brig. Gen. Salah al-Ani, chief of police for the western half of Baghdad. "They're working for the militias or to put money in their pocket."
U.S. military reports on the Iraqi police often read like a who's who of the two main militias in Iraq: the Mahdi Army, also known as Jaish al-Mahdi or JAM, and the Badr Organization, also known as the Badr Brigade or Badr Corps.
One document on the Karrada district police chief says: "I strongly believe that he is a member of Badr Corps and tends to turn a blind eye to JAM activity." Another explains that the station commander in the al-Amil neighborhood "is afraid to report suspected militia members in his organization due to fear of reprisals."
American soldiers said that although they gather evidence of police ties to the militias and present it to Iraqi officials, no one has ever been criminally charged or even lost their jobs.
Among the worst of the suspected Mahdi Army members is Lt. Col. Musa Khadim Lazim Asadi, station commander of the Ghazaliyah patrol police. "He has stated to us that he does not believe the Mahdi Militia is a bad organization," a military report said. "He had a picture of Sadr in his vehicle until we said something about it."
"He is a cancer to the station and the people of Ghazaliyah," the report concluded.
On a recent visit to the blue-and-white facility, located in one of the most violent parts of the city, even other police officers in the building complained that Asadi and his subordinates are corrupt and tied to the militias. "They steal vehicles and kill people," said 1st Lt. Sarmad Sabar Dawood, assistant commander for the local police, which is independent of the patrol police. "In fact, we are investigating Colonel Musa and the patrol police for criminal behavior."
But when U.S. military officials visited Asadi on a recent afternoon, he not only denied that his men were involved in the militias or crime but refused to acknowledge that there had been any killings in the area at all. Although scores of tortured bodies are often found in the neighborhood, Asadi said the murders all took place somewhere else.
At his response, 1st Lt. Cadetta Bridges shook her head in disbelief. "This guy is a crook and a liar," said Bridges, 31, of Upper Marlboro. "They're all crooks and liars."
Shaw, 32, of Alexandria, turned the conversation to the confusing division of Iraqi police forces into three autonomous parts: patrol police, regular police who investigate cases, and traffic police. The U.S. military has proposed reorganizing the force so that there is one commander in each neighborhood responsible for all the police. So far, Shaw said, Iraqi officials have not been receptive.
The problems with the tripartite division were evident in Sholeh. Sitting in Asadi's second-floor office, Shaw asked him if he worked with the regular police on the ground floor.
"Of course not," Asadi replied brusquely. "Why do we need to coordinate with them?"
Visibly exasperated, Shaw and Bridges quickly left and headed for a police station in Mansour, a relatively safe neighborhood in central Baghdad, to meet with a police major they described as one of the better cops they'd encountered.
When Shaw asked what the police in Mansour were doing to reduce the violence, the major said: "There is nothing the police can do. The only solution is to create a government that will take away the militias. Then everything will be fine."
The major, who asked to be identified as Abu Ahmed because he feared for his safety if his full name was published, sat in a closet-size room that he hardly ever leaves. Orange-and-brown sheets covered a tiny bed next to his desk.
"I can't go home or I'll be killed," said Abu Ahmed, who sees his children only when police officers can bring them to the station. He sighed as he looked at photographs of two recently assassinated officers. "And it's getting worse. So much worse."
"I think I must quit soon," he said quietly.
Arabi Araf Ali, a police officer in the southern neighborhood of Dora, said police do little more than pick dead bodies up off the street. In the station's parking lot nearby, a colleague washed off a police truck that had just been used to retrieve the corpses of five Shiite men slaughtered that morning. Brain matter littered the ground.
"Some parts of Dora are so dangerous," Ali added, "that we cannot even pick up the bodies there without Americans. We are just too afraid."
The Iraqi police are not the only ones who feel unsafe. The American soldiers and civilians who train the Iraqis are constantly on guard against the possibility that the police might turn against them. Even in the police headquarters for all of western Baghdad, one of the safest police buildings in the capital, the training team will not remove their body armor or helmets. An armed soldier is assigned to protect each trainer.
"I wouldn't let half of them feed my dog," 1st Lt. Floyd D. Estes Jr., a former head of the police transition team, said of the Iraqi police. "I just don't trust them."
Jon Moore, the deputy team chief, said: "We don't know who the hell we're teaching: Are they police or are they militia?"
The trainers agree that Ani, the new police chief for western Baghdad, is an honest cop who is trying to get the police force in order. But Ani acknowledged in a meeting with U.S. officials that he does not plan to root out and fire militia members.
"I don't have that power," he said. "There are people higher than me that control that."
Among Ani's bosses are the police chief for all of Baghdad, who has been linked to the Mahdi Army, and the minister of the interior, who is a member of Sadr's political bloc.
"I think he's trying to do the right thing," said Lt. Col Aaron Dean, the battalion commander, as he walked to his Humvee after the meeting with Ani. "But I know they're all under certain influences. If you take a big stand against the militias, they're going to come after you."
The difficulty of eliminating corruption and militias from the Iraqi police forces can be exasperating for the American soldiers who risk their lives day after day to train them. "We can keep getting in our Humvees every day, but nothing is going to work unless the politicians do their job and move against the militias," Moore said.
Sitting in the battalion's war room with four other members of his team, Moore estimated it would take 30 to 40 years before the Iraqi police could function properly, perhaps longer if the militia infiltration and corruption continue to increase. His colleagues nodded.
"It's very, very slow-moving," Estes said.
"No," said Sgt. 1st Class William T. King Jr., another member of the team. "It's moving in reverse."