Iraq Is Criticized for Slow Hire of Police

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

A senior U.S. commander in Iraq yesterday criticized the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for "foot-dragging" in failing to hire thousands of Sunni and other volunteers needed to expand and balance the police force.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, the U.S. commander for northern Iraq, said he initiated plans in April to boost by 6,000 the number of police in Diyala province, a volatile region that stretches east from Baghdad to the Iranian border. But despite Maliki's endorsement, he said the plan has not come to fruition.

"We're sitting here today, now in October, with an approval for 6,000 hires signed by Prime Minister Maliki, with no movement. In my book, that's foot-dragging," Mixon said in his final videoconference with Pentagon reporters before leaving northern Iraq, where he has commanded U.S. forces since September 2006.

The hiring of police in Diyala is a test of the U.S. military's effort to harness the emergence of tens of thousands of local volunteers to improve security across Iraq. Senior Pentagon officials have said that some 50,000 to 60,000 local residents -- many of them Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents -- have come forward over the past seven months to work with U.S. and Iraqi forces to help guard their neighborhoods.

"This fairly recent development is perhaps the greatest sign of progress during my time in Iraq," said Mixon, echoing recent statements by Gen. David H. Petraeus. Mixon said that the emergence of more than 15,000 volunteers in northern Iraq shows that popular support "is swinging in our direction."

Yet while the volunteers have helped pacify the western province of Anbar, which is 95 percent Sunni, commanders acknowledge that the Maliki government is more wary of incorporating Sunni volunteers in mixed sectarian areas such as Diyala and Baghdad. The momentum could erode unless volunteers are permanently hired as Iraqi police or soldiers, U.S. officials have said.

Currently many volunteers in Diyala are funded by temporary security contracts with the U.S. military that do not pay the full police wage. Some volunteers have quit in frustration at not being hired as police, U.S. commanders in Diyala said.

The obstruction is rooted in sectarianism inside the Iraqi government, Mixon said. "The problem we're dealing with now is what appears to be still sectarian divides in the Ministry of Interior that is responsible for the support to the police," he said, adding that "certain individuals may be trying to influence exactly who's being hired."

Mixon warned that time is running out for the Iraqi government to incorporate the local volunteers and take other steps toward political reconciliation -- such as holding provincial elections -- that can help solidify the security gains resulting from major U.S. military operations in Diyala and other parts of northern Iraq, where he said total attacks -- including those on U.S. forces, Iraqi forces and civilians -- have declined by 30 to 40 percent in the past four months.

Northern Iraq remains "a coveted terrorist sanctuary" with porous borders with Iran and Syria, as well as an area where unemployment creates a "fertile ground for an active insurgency," he said.

"We bought time for the government to act. They need to act and include the concerned local citizens and their security forces," Mixon said. "We are giving them an opportunity to resolve these issues," he said, but "that opportunity is now almost going to come to an end."

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