2 top police fired in Iraq

Forces are seen as infiltrated by Shiite militias

October 18, 2006|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq --The Iraqi government removed the country's two most senior police commanders from their posts yesterday, in the first broad move against the top leadership of Iraq's unruly special police forces.

The two generals had commanded Iraq's special police commandos and its public order brigade, both widely criticized as being heavily infiltrated by Shiite militias. Their removal comes at a crucial time for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has fallen under intense U.S. pressure to purge Iraq's security forces of the militias and death squads that operate within their ranks.

Iraqi politicians, Shiite and Sunni, have shown signs in recent weeks of their growing anxiety that eroding U.S. public and congressional support for the war might prompt a major shift in U.S. policy, particularly if November midterm elections bring gains for the Democrats.

Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a visit to Baghdad this month, have given stark warnings to the al-Maliki government of growing U.S. impatience, especially at the government's failure to stop death squads operating with the knowledge or support of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police.

The U.S. military also applied pressure on militia networks yesterday. Iraqi and U.S. troops arrested a senior aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-U.S. Shiite cleric. The aide, whom the military did not name but was identified by a spokesman for al-Sadr, was arrested on suspicion of having directed kidnappings, killings and torture of Sunnis and Shiites, and of attacking Americans.

Against the Bush administration's public expressions of support, al-Maliki has had to weigh the criticisms of senior U.S. commanders who, in background briefings with reporters in recent weeks, have spoken with exasperation about the Baghdad government's failure to tackle issues that have exhausted public confidence among Iraqis, above all the virtual impunity with which Shiite and Sunni death squads are allowed to operate.

The reordering of the police forces, beginning with the suspension of an entire Iraqi police brigade this month on suspicion that some members might have permitted or even participated in death squad killings, appeared to be among the first serious attempts to address some of the U.S. concerns.

The two generals, Rasheed Fleyah and Mahdi Sabeh, both Shiites, had been in their posts since the previous government, under which abuses by largely Shiite police forces began. Iraq's Sunnis fear the police commandos that grew out of control soon after a coalition of Shiite parties came to power last year.

Al-Maliki faces a nearly impossible task in weeding out the militias. Their influence runs deep in Iraqi society; they are present in the guard forces of Iraqi politicians, at the doors of mosques and on college campuses. Iraqis of different sects and ethnicities do not trust one another after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein and militant violence since the U.S.-led invasion.

Another serious problem for U.S. officials is al-Maliki's refusal to allow a crackdown on the militia of al-Sadr. This has been a long-smoldering issue for U.S. officials, who faced two major uprisings by the Shiite militia in April and August 2004, only to have al-Sadr escape defeat when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, intervened, allowing al-Sadr to keep large parts of his militia intact. Since then, the militia has mushroomed, with parts splintering into criminal fiefdoms.

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