Criminals infiltrate Iraqi security

Their heavy presence hinders efforts to root them out of Ministry of Interior, officials say

September 17, 2006|By Edward Wong and Paul von Zielbauer | Edward Wong and Paul von Zielbauer,New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Shiite militiamen and criminals entrenched throughout Iraq's police and internal security forces are blocking recent efforts by some Iraqi leaders and the American military to root them out, a step critical to winning the trust of skeptical Sunni Arabs and quelling the sectarian conflict, Iraqi and Western officials say.

The new interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, who oversees the police, lacks the political support to purge many of the worst offenders, including senior managers who tolerated or encouraged the infiltration of Shiite militias into the police under the previous government, according to interviews with more than a dozen officials who work with the ministry and the police.

No one expected a housecleaning to be easy, and some headway has been made in firing people. But despite that progress, recent difficulties reveal the magnitude of the task facing al-Bolani and Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. When he took office in late May, al-Maliki said one of his top goals was to reform the Shiite-led Interior Ministry, which had, to the minority Sunni Arabs, become synonymous with government complicity in abduction, torture and killing.

The ministry recently discovered that more than 1,200 policemen and other employees had been convicted years ago of murder, rape and other violent crimes, said a Western diplomat who has close contact with the ministry. Some were even on death row. Few have been fired.

Despite the importance American commanders place on hiring more Sunni Arabs for the overwhelmingly Shiite police force, the ministry has no way to screen recruits by sect or for militia allegiance. Such loyalties are the root cause of the ministry's problems.

A senior American commander said that of the 27 paramilitary police battalions, "we think five or six battalions probably have leaders that have led that part of the organization in a way that is either criminal or sectarian or both."

Death squads in uniforms could be responsible for the recent surge in sectarian violence. Yesterday police recovered 48 bodies from across Baghdad, bringing the toll of clandestine killings since Monday to at least 180 - most of them shot execution-style.

As police recovered the bodies yesterday, several bombs targeted civilians, politicians and security forces in the capital.

There is little accountability. The government has stopped allowing joint Iraqi and American teams to inspect Iraqi prisons. No senior ministry officials have been prosecuted on charges of detainee mistreatment, in spite of fresh discoveries of abuse and torture, including a little-reported case involving children packed into a prison of more than 1,400 inmates. Internal investigations into secret prisons, corruption and other potential criminal activity are often blocked.

The Americans view an overhaul of the Ministry of the Interior as a crucial step in helping rein in the growing sectarian conflict.

"I think there are some definite issues in the MOI," Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the second-ranking commander in Iraq, said in an interview. "I think there probably needs to be some leadership changes. But I know the minister of interior himself is working those."

Al-Bolani, a Shiite engineer appointed last May, sincerely wants to purge the ministry of Shiite partisans brought in by his predecessor, the officials interviewed said.

But his independence from powerful Shiite political leaders - the very quality that earned him the job - also means al-Bolani has limited power to remove politically connected subordinates and enact changes.

An American adviser to the ministry said al-Bolani was unavailable for an interview last week.

Some tentative progress has been made under the new government. Death squads in police uniforms no longer kidnap and kill with absolute impunity in parts of Sunni-dominated western Baghdad, many Iraqis say. The American military estimates that there was a 52 percent drop in the daily rate of execution-style killings from July to August.

Officials attribute the decline to a new Baghdad security plan, more police oversight by American trainers and policy changes in the ministry. Military officials say the killings in the past week took place in neighborhoods not cleared out by security sweeps and are not necessarily the work of policemen - imposters are rife throughout Iraq.

"The performance has improved slightly," said Ayad al-Samarraie, a legislator and senior official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab group that is sharply critical of the Interior Ministry. "Less people are kidnapped, and there are less raids by the militias on the people."

Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said the ministry had fired 1,500 employees since June. They include senior officers like the police chief of Anbar province. Al-Bolani is pushing to enact a law that would ban the ministry's 167,000 employees from belonging to a political party.

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