Policing Iraq's Police
Saturday 24 May 2003
US tries to train force to maintain local security
KARBALA, Iraq -- American forces last month authorized lightly armed local militias to help patrol several cities and neighborhoods in Iraq, US commanders say, but some of these irregulars have evolved into fierce paramilitary groups that the Army and Marines are now grappling to wipe out.
The struggle is especially keen in this holy city of majestic shrines and busy tourist hotels, where US Marines recently discovered torture rooms with lashes, knives, and other weapons, operated by men who were quite familiar to American officials based here.
One US official acknowledged that Americans had only recently depended on some groups like Karbala's to gain a streetwise sense of Iraq's cities.
With paramilitary groups active across Iraq, US officials are now looking to Karbala for lessons on how to replace these irregulars with newly trained police, such as those who spend each morning in Army classes on such law enforcement basics as refusing bribes and handcuffing criminals.
US commanders said yesterday that although they initially supported Iraqi militias, the groups have become a destabilizing force and should be disarmed. ''We've gone from a government that organized crime, to organized crime, period,'' said Marine Major Mike Samarov, a Braintree native who is the executive officer for the 3d Battalion 7th Marines.
With its echoes of the way White House support for Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iraq war ultimately turned against the US in the 1990s, the conflict over the Karbala Protection Force has deepened anti-American feelings among Iraqis here, especially the force's members, who thought their razor-edged tactics to enforce law and order had the blessing of the Americans.
Disbanding the protection force is now proving harder than some soldiers expected, for reasons deep within the Iraqi psyche.
From mosque imams to restaurant owners, many of Karbala's leading citizens say they prefer the protection force -- with its comforting religious ties and familiar authoritarian style -- over the police, who residents accuse of being corrupt.
''If they were given the chance, the protection force would stop the crime, would organize the queues at the gas stations,'' said Kasim Al-Dafa'ae, an influential sheik at the Shrine of Hussein here. ''The Americans trusted them before. What happened? '' US officers authorized the protection force in April to control thousands of pilgrims streaming into the city's stadium-sized Shi'ite mosques honoring Hussein and Abbas, half-brothers whose deaths at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD deepened the Shi'ite-Sunni split within Islam.
A small security force was needed, US officials say, because the local police were so discredited as extortionists and thugs. But the protection force, made up of members of the Hawza leadership of Shi'ite Muslims, soon went beyond its mandate, soldiers say. It set up a protection racket and detained not only criminals but also Iraqis with whom they had grudges, ''beating them to the point it could be described as torture,'' Samarov said.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Leslie, a West Brookfield, Mass., detective who is retraining the police here, estimates the militia had up to 800 members at one point, many in their 20s and 30s. Known by their lime-green reflective vests, the force stockpiled hundreds of AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and other weapons, most of which have been confiscated by US troops.
''The protection force is functioning in the shadows now,'' Leslie said. ''What they're trying to do is discredit the local officers. And I'll be damned if I'll let them do that.''
Yet the force remains an influential fixture in the community. This week, scores of members turned out for three days of demonstrations near the Marines base, demanding better security after a spate of carjackings and alleged murders.
As a leader of the protection force, 43-year-old Kareem Resan swears he never took a bribe or beat an innocent man. Recently, Resan says, he apprehended a man who had reportedly stolen seven cars and exploded a grenade that injured an Iraqi bystander in the leg. The protection force turned the man over to the police last weekend, Resan says, only to see him released. ''The Americans met with us, wanted us to take control,'' Resan said. ''Now there is no control. ''
Marine Lieutenant Colonel Mike Belcher, the commander in Karbala, says the protection force did play a useful role arresting criminals, but its tactics turned ''almost Mafia-like.'' The goal now, Belcher says, is empowering the new police unit by training them better, and by persuading the City Council to demand a clean police department.
''There are a few subversives on the council,'' he said, ''but we're letting them stay because this city wants free speech. We're willing to deal with some agitators [in order] to have all voices represented.''
American officials are being careful, as well, to avoid a broader entanglement with the Hawza. Belcher calls the force a ''tool'' of the religious sect. The chairman of Karbala's Hawza, Sheik Khalid Al-Kadhimi, agrees, but also describes the militiamen as ''educated people'' who follow Islamic law.
Al-Kadhimi says the Americans are setting themselves up for trouble by trying to abolish the force. ''The KPF was chosen by the people,'' he said, ''and the police have not been chosen by the people.''
Army Sargent Nick Cione, a Philadelphia police officer, hopes to turn around that impression. Almost every morning he drills two dozen Karbala cops on how to disarm suspects or use kickboxing to subdue particularly difficult customers. Most of the officers carry Iraqi-made 9mm Taqir handguns, and tend to shoot first, though their aim is uniformly poor, he said.
''We're trying to make them more confident,'' Cione said, ''and show them how to be tough and civil, and not just shoot.''
Ali Kadhin, a major on the force, says the training is preparing his officers to face down the Karbala Protection Force. But he worries, too, that the American crime-fighting techniques are falling into the wrong hands.
''Most of these men are honest,'' Hadhin said, as he watched Cione deliver a hard kick to a punching bag. ''But two-thirds of our current force, they are corrupt men. Purifying the police force and gaining the city's support will take more work than this.''
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