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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 Seth SternStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 2003


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.

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"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.

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."