Iraq's best hope and biggest target


Police: Despite the high risks of joining U.S.-allied security forces, recruits pour into Baghdad for training.

December 25, 2004|By John Hendren | John Hendren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Before he arrived at the fourth checkpoint, Najah Ghazy had the routine down: Act relaxed, apologize to the black-masked men for having his beard shaved and say he was traveling from the Iraqi city of Babylon to visit family here in the capital.

When he returns to Babylon in eight weeks, he told himself, he will be charged with arresting such Islamic insurgents. Or, possibly, killing them.

Similar treks are made by thousands of Iraqi police recruits to the training academy in Baghdad, invariably these days with their uniforms hidden in plastic bags or gym totes.

"Too many of the other students have been discovered," said Ghazy, 22, who is following his two older brothers into the police force. "How else can we live? There are no other jobs."

If he lands the $200-a-month job, the future will be one of continual peril. The police force stands at the front line of a dozen Iraqi security forces trying to combat insurgents, keep the peace and secure notoriously porous borders.

The security troops are crucial to the Bush administration's goal of sharply reducing the U.S. military presence in favor of an effective domestic force. But they are likely to remain too undermanned and under-equipped to meet that goal until well after national elections slated for January.

"`Iraqization' either has to be made to work, or Iraq will become a mirror image of the failure of `Vietnamization' in Vietnam," Anthony Cordesman, military analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a report issued last month. "Coalition military victories will become increasingly irrelevant."

Iraqi security forces face a concerted campaign of assassination. Nationwide, hundreds of police officers, national guardsmen and military trainees have been slaughtered. In one case in October, as many as 51 soldiers were killed execution-style near the Iranian border.

In the northern city of Mosul, dozens of bodies were discovered last month, mostly the remains of police officers and others accused of collaborating with U.S. authorities.

The campaign was remarkably effective. Three-quarters of the Mosul police force abandoned their posts.

In the western town of Hit, a suicide car bomber targeted police collecting their paychecks at a station, killing a dozen officers and wounding 10.

In nearby Ramadi, police and national guardsmen have faced threats against their families that have driven them from the forces or kept them quiet about their knowledge of insurgents.

"The local [forces] here, their families are rooted here, their fellow tribal members are here, and they are subjects of insurgent fear and intimidation," said Army Col. Gary Patton, commander of U.S. forces in Ramadi.

U.S. military officials recently deployed Iraqi national guardsmen from outside the city so that their family members would not be targeted.

Despite problems with Iraqi security forces, U.S. military commanders say members have increasingly shown their commitment to defend Iraq. Although hundreds of Iraqi army troops left the force in the week before the assault on Fallujah early last month, at least 1,000 served alongside Marines in the campaign, and some died tracking guerrillas.

More than half of the nation's 87,133 police officers are trained, equipped and on duty, according to U.S. military figures compiled in Cordesman's study. The Pentagon says 135,000 officers are needed.

When the Iraqi army and other fledgling forces are included, about two-thirds of the 173,903 Iraqi security personnel are trained, equipped and on duty. The Pentagon says Iraq needs 275,708 to be at full strength.

Those numbers can mislead as to the daily presence of Iraqi forces. At any given time, a number of personnel are on leave, in part because they are paid in cash and often must travel long distances to deliver the money to their families.

Lack of equipment also remains a problem. Many police officers do not have the bulletproof vests that are mandatory among their American military counterparts, and they roll through central Baghdad in new but unarmored police cars.

"I think we're being unrealistic in asking them to fight an insurgency without the right equipment," said Capt. Kevin Hanrahan of the 89th Military Police Brigade, who oversees 18 of the Baghdad police stations west of the Tigris River.

"My personal opinion is that the Iraqi people respect power, and power is an AK-47 or a Glock 9-millimeter gun," he said.

At the national police training center in Baghdad, instructors are trying to even the score. Persistent mortar and small-arms attacks have forced classes indoors. But the trainers say the Glock 9 mm pistols that graduates get to keep and the AK-47 rifles they use at stations have instilled a greater confidence.

The campus used to start training 1,000 recruits each month. Last month, it was training 3,000.

"A lot of us feel the eight weeks isn't enough, but you need to get police out on the streets," U.S. Army Lt. Brandt Wathan said.

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