By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
U.S. military commanders in Baghdad have concluded that Iraq's 27,000-member national police force has made progress in weeding out officers involved in sectarian violence and should not be disbanded, countering the judgment of an independent commission that last fall deemed the police corrupt beyond repair and recommended that the force be eliminated.
The Iraqi efforts are "bearing fruit," said Army Maj. Gen. Michael Jones, commander of the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, which advises the Iraqi Interior Ministry. "We have seen a significant change in their performance and behavior. For the most part, they are doing a good job."
The new assessment follows a classified U.S. military review of Iraq's Interior Ministry and its security forces completed in late October. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, ordered the review after the commission, led by retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, issued a report on Sept. 6 that described the Interior Ministry as dysfunctional and said the police force was "not viable in its current form."
Although U.S. commanders in Iraq acknowledge serious problems within the national police, they said such issues in part reflect larger struggles in Iraqi society and are unlikely to be eliminated by scrapping the police force and starting over. Instead, the Interior Ministry intends to adjust the mission of the national police, gradually withdrawing its forces from neighborhoods and moving them to regional garrisons across the country, where they will serve as an emergency response force, according to Maj. Gen. Michael Jones, who advises Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani. As part of the shift, the force may be consolidated, he said.
"They will be like a national guard . . . with a brigade or battalion in each province," Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said in an interview Saturday.
In September, Petraeus said the national police and other elements in the Interior Ministry had been "hijacked by sectarian influences" in 2006 and that the review would constitute "a hard look" at what structural changes were needed.
The conclusions reflect U.S. commanders' growing confidence in the willingness of Iraqi officials to carry out reforms and also suggest waning U.S. leverage to oust sectarian officers or mandate major changes as the United States begins reducing its forces in Iraq. "The most important thing is not necessarily our recommendations but what the Iraqis intend to do," Maj. Gen. Michael Jones said. "They intend to take a different approach and reform the national police. It is their force, ultimately they have to decide."
Yet members of the commission led by Gen. James Jones warned that a decision by U.S. military commanders to retain the national police will backfire in the long run.
"The national police have so much baggage and the Ministry of Interior is dysfunctional to the point where they can't correct it themselves," said former Washington police chief Charles H. Ramsey, who led the commission's team of police professionals that recommended unanimously to disband the force.
In its September report, the commission found that "pervasive" sectarianism and corruption had "crippled" the Interior Ministry's ability to function. It cited abuses such as when a ministry official demanded that a new brigade be composed of "99 percent" Shiites and a 2006 incident in which a national police unit kidnapped 26 Sunnis and killed seven of them.
Ramsey said: "There is so much resentment of them, so much fear over accusations of death squads," that the police, 85 percent of whom are Shiites, are unable to patrol Sunni areas effectively and are too focused on paramilitary operations. The commission recommended shifting about 6,000 of the officers into small specialized units and putting the rest into the army or provincial police forces.
Maj. Gen. Michael Jones acknowledged that the Interior Ministry has "huge challenges," but he said they stem from its rapid growth and staffing along political party lines.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Interior Ministry security forces increased from about 60,000 to 350,000, as they took on more active policing roles. The ministry's key appointed positions were allocated to competing political parties, whose divisions have hamstrung Bolani, Maj. Gen. Michael Jones said.
"Minister Bolani is non-sectarian, but he has to work extra hard to get things done in a system where you have a variety of political problems," he said, adding that garnering support is hard "when you are not politically aligned."
Still, the ministry has taken steps toward overhauling its ranks, conducting more than 5,000 internal investigations and dismissing 2,3000 people this year, according to the U.S. military.
The national police has its origins in a decision by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in late 2003 to begin creating heavy police units as a paramilitary force to deal with rising insurgent violence. In 2004 the Interior Ministry created police commando units, and in 2006 these units were combined into the national police, which are now mainly deployed in and around Baghdad.
A significant portion of the national police's top leadership has been ousted for sectarian or other improper behavior over the past year, including two division commanders, all nine brigade commanders, and 18 of 27 battalion commanders, as well as 1,300 rank-and-file police officers, according to the U.S. military. Meanwhile, all national police units are being retrained, with leaders going through a NATO-sponsored program run by Italian carabinieri that began this month. Efforts are also underway to recruit more Sunnis for the force, Maj. Gen. Michael Jones said.
Still, some sectarian police officers are "harder to ferret out," including another national police brigade commander who had been retrained but was fired in October, he said.
The fired commander led a notorious national police unit known as the Wolf Brigade, which was retrained but in recent months had scores of members arrested by U.S. soldiers for various crimes, including tolerating and encouraging attacks by Shiite militia on Sunnis in west Baghdad, and expelling Sunnis from their homes, according to the U.S. military.
"We ought not underestimate that it is hard to do," Maj. Gen. Michael Jones said of the reform effort. "There are people putting pressure on them" and trying to intimidate police members and their families, he said. "There are still people in militia and sectarian organizations hidden in the ranks," he said, but he added that "they will over time get rid of them."
Some military analysts, however, said they doubt Iraq's security forces can rise above the sectarian mistrust that permeates the society. Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Petraeus, said the national police force is likely to remain ineffective in policing Sunni populations.
"Trying to create a hermetically sealed Iraqi security forces . . . where the country is riven with sectarian factionalism is not going to work," he said.