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Iraq's hottest front line: the police

The US shifts $1.8 billion from reconstruction to train Iraqi police forces increasingly targeted by insurgents.

By / September 17, 2004



BAGHDAD

The applicants just keep coming for a job that may be the deadliest in Iraq, perhaps in the world.

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Since the war's end, 700 Iraqi police officers have died. This week alone, a car bombing outside Baghdad's central police station took 47 lives. It was followed hours later by an assault on a police van in a city north of Baghdad that left 11 policemen and their driver dead.

Alarmed at the deteriorating security environment, the United States will shift nearly $2 billion from reconstruction programs to add more security forces.

It's a strategy that depends on many more Iraqis like Zuhair Glum Altimimi taking the considerable - and growing - risk to literally stand in line to join the Iraqi police.

"There are no jobs, so any time there's a chance to do anything to keep your family alive you'll do it," says the young man who has traveled 300 miles from the city of Basra to personally push his application along.

The motives of those willing to take Iraq's most dangerous jobs reflect not only a desire to feed their families, but a vision of a self-sufficient nation that doesn't rely on American troops for its security.

In the battle for Iraq, insurgents are targeting the new police - attempting to undermine support for the interim Iraqi government cooperating with the US. But Iraqis generally hold their own security forces in high esteem. Even though these forces are rebuilding, opinion polls show higher respect for and confidence in the new Iraqi forces than in the US-led forces.

Still, what Iraq is only now coming to grips with as it rebuilds institutions like the police, is "nothing short of the destruction of the Iraqi state," says Riyadh Aziz Hadi, dean of the college of political sciences at Baghdad University. "The US committed these big errors - like dissolution of the Army and police - that we are all now paying for."

Iraqis want their own security forces, Dr. Aziz Hadi says, "so that the Americans can leave. No one can accept to see his own country occupied." But he sees little that can be done to accelerate the process of making Iraqis once again responsible for themselves.

"Of course many of us want to serve the new Iraq and help make it more stable, but I won't lie," says Mr. Altimimi sitting with a group of young police candidates at a tea and falafel stand outside the Baghdad Police Academy. "Most people do it because, even with the danger, it's some way to earn a living."

A rookie policeman earns about $140 a month, but can quickly see that rise to over $200 a month, according to Amer Ali al-Juburi, Baghdad's deputy police chief - well above what some of these young men could earn as security guards or street vendors.

In a week of violence and signs of increased sophistication among Iraq' s insurgent groups, the Bush administration announced plans to divert $3.5 billion of $18 billion in reconstruction funds from infrastructure projects. About $1.8 billion of the money would go to create 80,000 new posts in local security forces: 45,000 new police, 20,000 additional national guardsmen, and 16,000 additional border police.

For the police, the questions now are whether enough educated young men with clean records can be found, how they will be trained and equipped, and whether the $1.8 billion means they will make a difference any time soon. Some US officials say the training capacities are not yet available to quickly add new security forces. Iraqis complain of bureaucracy, favoritism, and corruption. NATO is reportedly close to sending up to 300 instructors to Iraq, but that program would mostly target the nascent armed forces.

Police officials say the average training program is two months, which has been accelerated under the current demand for more police. "The program used to last from three to six months, but we've had to speed things up," says Mr. Juburi.

The police are taking steps to try to reduce the risks for police applicants, Juburi says, but he adds that the efforts are often foiled by the sheer numbers of young men pressing for a job. "The morning of the bombing I went out myself to beg these young men not to stand in large groups, for some of them to return another day, but they wouldn't listen," he says. "They all thought they would be disadvantaged if they didn't come in that day."

Newspapers and radio are sparingly used and television not at all to inform the public of new recruiting, Juburi says, because they don't want to tip off "Iraq's enemies."

"We ask the officers to pass the word among their families and friends and not to broadcast the news, but still it gets out," he says. "Obviously word of Tuesday's acceptance of applications got in the wrong hands."

The problem with a "family" approach to recruitment is that it feeds young Iraqis' suspicions about the application process. "It's all a matter of connections," says Aidan Mosan, another young man at the academy falafel stand. "I would go to hell to get this job, I have a mother and five sisters to support," he says. "I've been waiting to hear something for weeks, but instead others who know somebody inside go in ahead of me."

The news that the US will be pumping an additional $1 billion at least into creating new police posts seems to cheer some of the would-be policemen.

But for others it appears too late. Zaidun Khaled is a stocky, intelligent young man who seems to have the makings of a good policeman. But after applying and being passed up, he says he's changed his mind.

"My family tells me I'd just make myself a target of the criminals anyway, and some of the other guys I know that got in can't even write their own names," he says. "It's true there aren't many other jobs, but I'm now thinking, why would I want to be associated with them?"

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