How to keep Iraqi streets safe - bullets not allowed

A Missouri facility trains new crops of military police, now in great demand from Baghdad to the Balkans.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With a wooden baton, Army Pvt. Adam Nielson practices confronting hostile civilians, and he gets scolded for doing what comes naturally to a soldier: aiming to kill.

"You are there to control and disperse the people - not to do harm to them," Drill Sgt. Andrew Chang barks at Private Nielson and 40 other soldiers of B Platoon at the US Army Military Police School.

During civil-disorder training here, every student's goal is to avoid using lethal force. Military police (MPs) learn how to disperse crowds with a $15.90 wooden baton that looks like a broom handle.

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Meanwhile, just outside their prefabricated metal classroom, another platoon of MPs armed with M-16 rifles practices urban combat. They secure a mock village of 16 multistory cinder-block buildings as hidden snipers shoot from windows and hurl smoke grenades to mimic artillery.

This dual training as police officers and soldiers makes MPs uniquely suited for the hazy zone between war and peace that US soldiers are patrolling in Iraq. In those situations, MPs say they can provide a lower profile than a combat unit driving tanks - but command more firepower, and more respect, than civilian police.

As happened with interventions in Haiti and Panama, experts say the Pentagon failed to deploy MPs early enough in Iraq to prevent looting and chaos. Even now, as MPs are fanning out in Baghdad, there are not nearly enough to quell disorder using nonlethal means.

"They can really make a difference, but Army doctrine and attitudes prevent them from being utilized," says Robert Perito, who studies peacekeeping at the US Institute of Peace.

The point is underscored on this day, as the training session on civil disorder coincides with an incident in Fallujah, Iraq: American soldiers fire on demonstrators after being shot at by militiamen hidden in the crowd, and a dozen civilians die in the crossfire.

The Army has tapped MP School Commandant Brig. Gen. Stephen Curry to determine whether the school needs to ramp up its production. For now, 6,000 MPs go through basic training each year, followed by nine weeks of specialized training. And the Army's corps of 40,000 MPs can barely keep up with its multiple missions: securing supply lines, handling prisoners of war, and keeping convoys moving in Iraq while policing fellow soldiers and guarding military installations worldwide.

Ready, aim, brandish

Learning how to confront crowds of angry civilians takes up only a single day. It's just enough time to figure out baton basics, the importance of advancing in small teams (never let the crowd pull you out of formation), and how to don equipment (place the gas-mask bag in front of you to protect your groin). Each MP gets shin guards, a plastic face shield, and a vest designed to deflect blows.

Unlike combat forces who must either shoot or withdraw, military police are also equipped with pepper spray, rubber bullets, and shotguns that fire bean-bag ammunition. Soldiers armed with firearms hover nearby as reinforcements.

But nonlethal equipment can sometimes do more to defuse hostile crowds than can heavily armed US troops, Mr. Perito says. "If you see five soldiers who you know are not going to shoot, you just run around them," says Perito. "If a crowd sees a line of men with riot-control shields and clubs who look like they're trained to deal with problems, crowds step back."

What's intentionally missing from the MP arsenal: firearms. "If you bring a weapon, they'll use it against you," Sergeant Chang tells the platoon as he teaches them about batons. "This is all you're going to get."

Chang's 40 pupils for the day sit on metal bleachers and use their Kevlar helmets as desks to take notes on the five fatal spots they must avoid striking: head, side of the neck, throat, chest, and armpit.

Nielson says this emphasis on peaceful dealings contributed to his decision to specialize as an MP. "We're here to save lives, not to hurt people," he says.

The MPs also learn other skills that come in handy as they police civilians. While the B Company patrols the urban village, other MPs train at the base's mock suburban strip - complete with shops, private homes, and a saloon. They role-play on how to handle domestic disputes, rapes, and public drunkenness.

Of course, the task of arresting rowdy soldiers doesn't exactly endear MPs to other troops. MPs say they get a bad rap as lightweights among soldiers who don't realize they're also trained for combat.

Boots on the ground, and shoes to fill

With Iraq combat operations over, MP commanders say their troops can play a central role in keeping the peace - as MPs did in Haiti and Bosnia, after being underdeployed early on. "There is a utility for MPs in environments where you are trying to recreate the rule of law and basic civil rights and stability," says General Curry.

In Haiti, Army MPs were eventually stationed in local police stations and conducted joint patrols, driving Humvees along with interpreters, international civilian policemen, and local cops.

They played a similar role in Bosnia says MP Drill Sgt. James Goodrich, who patrolled there. His unit backed up UN patrols, intervening when some ethnic groups tried kicking others out of their homes, or rioted in the streets. "Something about when you drive up with a Mark 19 [machine gun] on your truck - they tend to comply," Sergeant Goodrich says.

Curry's study of the Army's military- police needs will be completed later this year. But outside observers say it's clear that the supply of MPs has not kept pace with higher demand resulting from peacekeeping missions and a proliferation of assignments protecting troops from terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001.

As a result, MPs have one of the highest operational tempos, facing near-constant deployments overseas, says Robert Oakley, a visiting fellow at the military's National Defense University. Making matters worse, about half of the US Army's MPs are reservists, who often serve as policemen in their communities. So deploying them abroad means stripping local police of officers who might be needed for homeland security, Mr. Oakley says.

If the US does not increase the total number of MPs or deploy more to Iraq, an alternative might be to draw on units from countries where peacekeepers are trained like police, but organized like soldiers - a methodology that resonates with MP schooling. Italy and Spain both have such units, and they proved effective in patrolling Bosnia and Kosovo, says Oakley.

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