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In Iraq, battling an internal bane
Spate of crime underlines need to purge corruption, extremists from security forces

By Nada Bakri
Thursday, October 22, 2009

BAGHDAD -- After helping to stanch a stubborn insurgency and harrowing sectarian fighting, security forces in Baghdad now worry they could face a challenge no less difficult: their own men.

A recent spate of high-profile crimes, including a brazen and violent robbery of Baghdad jewelry shops thought to have involved police collusion, has forced Interior Ministry officials to confront head-on the corruption within the ranks of the 663,000-strong security forces.

The problems, the officials say, include cases in which troops and officers are working at the behest of political leaders, as well as instances in which security forces are engaged in a range of crimes, from petty robberies at checkpoints to kidnappings and killings.

Corruption within the security forces is not new, but it has become more glaring amid the decline in the sectarian fighting that once ravaged Baghdad and other parts of the country.

Brig. Gen. Hussein Kamal, the Interior Ministry official in charge of intelligence, was blunt in acknowledging the problem. "There's a need to reorganize and cleanse the security forces and armed forces from extremists and criminals," he said in an interview. "We need 10 years to reach the level of professionalism that we aspire for."

Beyond the ramifications for security in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq, the security forces are a linchpin of U.S. plans to withdraw combat troops by August. The Iraqi forces have received billions of dollars in training and equipment from the United States. U.S. officials say the Iraqi army has made the greatest strides. Less impressive are the more numerous police forces, who often complain of mistreatment at the checkpoints they man, a sign of residents' contempt toward them.

Role of political parties

Kamal, whose unit is in charge of conducting security checks on policemen and recruits, said he dismissed 60,000 people this year from the Interior Ministry after determining that they had criminal records. He said 15,000 were expelled last year. U.S. military officials deferred questions about the dismissals to their Iraqi counterparts.

This summer, another senior official said, the Interior Ministry was forced to induct 1,500 recruits into the police force who were nominated by Iraqi political parties. None of them, he said, was competent, adding: "They were only there to carry out their parties' agendas."

"The police are the most corrupt," said a former Defense Ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did several others, because of fears that his statements might endanger him.

The official said political parties still had undue influence over the security forces. But these days, their agendas appear to be less sectarian and more motivated by their own standing vis-à-vis rivals, often from the same sect.

"We have two options in front of us: a new occupation or an enormous effort to get rid of corruption," he said. Neither seemed likely, he added.

The problem could worsen as the country heads toward parliamentary elections in January, lawmakers warn. Some worry that parties may draw on their followers in the security forces as a way of putting pressure on their rivals. Already in Anbar province, especially in the city of Fallujah, political violence has surged lately, residents say.

'They are all criminals'

The robbery of jewelry stores last week, in which eight people were killed and nine injured, was one of the most shocking heists in recent months in the capital.

A dozen men, dressed in white shirts and dark pants, arrived in the Shiite neighborhood of Shula, in northwestern Baghdad, in two blue minibuses. With guns equipped with silencers, they shot jeweler Ahmad al-Saadi, shortly after he had placed gold chains, bracelets, rings and earrings in his display window.

Mohamad Salman, a neighbor of Saadi's, recalled in an interview going to see what was happening, only to be shot at himself. The gunmen narrowly missed. But before the siege was over, they had shot and killed seven others, including a woman and her baby.

No one in the neighborhood knew the men, who did nothing to conceal their faces. But nearly everyone interviewed pointed fingers at the checkpoint just a few feet away from the market. Residents said it would have been impossible for the well-armed assailants to pass unhindered through the checkpoint, where cars going in and out of the neighborhood are usually inspected.

"I spend two hours sometimes at that checkpoint, and the policemen know me and know my car," said Mahmoud al-Hilfi, a resident. "They arrest people when they feel like it, they kill and steal. They are all criminals."

Kamal said security forces had arrested six policemen and another security officer who man the checkpoint on suspicion of involvement in the robberies. "We are still trying to establish the exact connection between them and the criminals," he said.

The incident recalled another one in July, in which policemen and bodyguards of Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi made off with at least $4.3 million from a Baghdad bank, after killing eight guards execution-style. Some of the men have since been arrested and convicted, and some of the money has been returned, but at least two men remain at large, and security officials think they may have fled the country.

U.S. military officials say the crimes may be isolated incidents. But Iraqi Interior Ministry officials are open about the scope of the problem. One official said two units have been instructed solely to target corruption. "They have lots and lots and lots of cases to deal with," he said.

"We didn't look closely at their backgrounds when we were recruiting," said Abbas al-Bayati, a lawmaker who is on the security and defense committee in parliament. "We were looking for anyone who could use a gun."

Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

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