By Ann Scott Tyson and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 7, 2007
Senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq rejected an independent commission's recommendation yesterday to disband the 25,000-strong Iraqi national police force, saying that despite sectarian influences the force is improving and that removing it would create dangerous security vacuums in key regions of the country.
"We are way past the point where we just fire everyone and start over," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands U.S. military forces in a large swath of central Iraq, where he seeks to have five more police battalions assigned.
The report released yesterday by the 20-member Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, headed by retired Marine Gen. James Jones, described the national police force as riddled with sectarianism and corruption. The force, which is 85 percent Shiite Muslim, is the only branch of the Iraqi security forces that the commission deemed beyond repair.
In congressional hearings yesterday, lawmakers focused less on the report's details than on its broad proposals, which they used to buttress their positions on the Iraq war. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, emphasized the commission's recommendation to redirect U.S. troops toward protecting Iraq's borders and key infrastructure in early 2008, while turning over security to Iraqi forces, despite their deficiencies. "It is long overdue that we cut the cords of dependence," Levin said.
Presidential candidates from both parties seized on the report to battle over timelines for troop withdrawal.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Jones if a deadline for withdrawal would be in the interest of the United States. "Senator, I'll speak for myself on this, but I think deadlines can work against us," Jones replied. "And I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest."
But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said a deadline would force Iraqi leaders to reconcile their differences. "If we take away deadlines, we take away benchmarks, we take away timelines," she said. "What is the urgency that will move them to act?"
Overall, the report painted a mixed view of Iraq's security forces. It said the Iraqi Defense Ministry is increasingly capable and the Iraqi army has made measurable progress, although it will not be ready to take over domestic security from U.S. forces in the next 12 to 18 months. In contrast, it called the Interior Ministry "dysfunctional" and unable to control tens of thousands of its armed members. The national police was singled out as "beyond repair," testified commission member Charles H. Ramsey, the former D.C. police chief.
Yet the senior U.S. commanders said they neither expect Iraq's Shiite-led government to dismantle the national police nor think that the government should do so. Recruiting and training a new force would present major hurdles and would not necessarily prevent its reinfiltration by sectarian officers, they said.
Instead, the commanders said the sheer demand for Iraqi forces to back this year's increased number of U.S. troops -- now at 168,000 -- makes it unfeasible to do away with the national police, a paramilitary force led by a mix of police and army officers deployed throughout the country.
"The surge is not only U.S. but is also Iraqi. All of the national police units are committed forces as of today," said one U.S. military commander in Baghdad. "To pull them out of their sectors to send them to retraining is very difficult, as you can't just leave hard-won secure areas alone and expect the enemy not to move back," said the commander, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
That view was echoed by regional U.S. commanders, who said they are short of Iraqi forces and seek to have more -- not fewer -- national police deployed in their areas.
Lynch and the other senior military officials said national police units vary greatly in their reliability and degree of sectarian infiltration. "Some police are good, and some are totally corrupt and are making sectarian decisions," Lynch said in a phone interview from Iraq.
Two brigades of Iraqi national police operate in Lynch's area. One of them recently completed a process known as "rebluing," in which they are retrained and often given new leadership. "They are great . . . doing what we need them to do," Lynch said. But he said "there are other national police in the area who are purely doing things for sectarian reasons, and the local citizens see them as the enemy."
U.S. officials said that Iraqi leaders know the national police have committed sectarian abuses and that the Iraqi government, with U.S. military backing, has fired all nine of the national police brigade commanders, 18 of 27 battalion commanders and at least 800 others over the past eight months. This reform process is to be completed in October, when units will begin rotating through a higher level of training by the Italian carabinieri.
National police "have become better disciplined, and there are fewer reports of misconduct or sectarianism," said a senior military commander in Baghdad. But though overt sectarianism has decreased, it will take longer to identify those still engaged in such abuses secretly, he said.
In Sunni enclaves of Baghdad, such as Doura and Ameriyah, the national police are widely feared by residents, who accuse the police of abducting Sunnis from checkpoints, shooting them without reason and terrorizing the population.
"We feel surrounded. We can't go out of Doura," said a local taxi driver who complained about Shiite militias and abuses by the national police.
"The national police come here and detain people for no reason," he said. "They aren't here now because you are here," he told a U.S. soldier patrolling the area.