Iraq now woos officers once spurned

In need of leaders, the Army seeks officers from Saddam Hussein's corps.

Iraq's security forces have been plagued with charges of human rights abuses, corruption, and disloyalty ever since they were hurriedly assembled by US advisers in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall.

Many of the problems within the fledgling Army and police are the result of not having enough skilled officers to command inexperienced ground troops, experts say.

As a result, Iraqis and their US advisers are stepping up efforts to bring many ex-officers from Mr. Hussein's Army back into the fold,a measure they say will improve the quality of the country's forces.

Their hopes rest in people like Mohammed Abbas Elawi, a former warrant officer who left the Army before the US invasion. He's now willing to return. "We face death every month, so I'd rather take part in one of the forces to defend myself and my family," he said at a recruitment drive Sunday.

The officer shortage – and much of the trouble in rebuilding the Iraqi security forces in the first place – is largely due to the decision by the Bush administration and Paul Bremer, then the top US official in the country in 2003, to disband the Iraqi Army. It is generally agreed that that decision led to a number of problems, not least of which is the current shortage of officers.

At the Baghdad Police Academy, for example, officials are focused on graduating new officers by dramatically expanding the academy. That will help to "professionalize" the force, they say, and potentially reduce the problems within its ranks since it was revamped under US leadership. Many Iraqi police, both officer and non-officer, lay their allegiances to their sect or tribal family, sometimes ignoring national laws they are paid to uphold.

Each officer is required to sign a document swearing his loyalty to the country, says Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Iraq Interior Ministry.

"The document concluded that he should work under the Iraqi flag, not Sunni or Shiite," says General Khalaf. "If he disobeys, then he will be fired from the service."

Such claims have been made before, but it appears the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, is getting serious. Since last June, says Khalaf, the ministry has fired as many as 14,000 officers. Many were fired for being Baathists, members of Hussein's party. But others were fired after the police force's new internal affairs unit investigated a number of them for mistreating citizens, bribery, and other criminal acts.

The ministry's policy is to send police officers to work in the neighborhoods in which they live, which also helps to reduce the number of crimes and abuses conducted by officers in uniform, Khalaf says. But he acknowledges that putting more officers into the mix will not be a cure-all.

"We don't have angels," he says.

The academy – only a small cluster of old classroom buildings in 2003 – is now a major complex with dozens of barracks buildings, a 1,500-seat dining facility, and a K-9 training facility for nearly 20 dogs. But just keeping the lights on at the academy can be difficult.

Earlier this week, someone attempted to drain the water reservoir that feeds the Iraqi side of the compound, and it lost more than 250,000 gallons of water. Officials believe the valve was turned on by extremists who don't want to see the academy succeed.

Still, US officials want the Iraqis to act even more aggressively by speeding up the rate at which it graduates new officers. Currently there are more than 4,000 Iraqis in training. Within a year, the Americans want to see more than 7,000 being trained.

"Initially, we wanted volume and we wanted it fast," says Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, the principal US adviser to the Iraqi police force, who first began the effort in 2003. "Now they're working on quality."

General Phillips says he believes the Iraqi police force is performing extremely well under the circumstances, attempting to maintain law and order during an insurgency – and as a result says it's more than comparable to other metropolitan police operations.

"If we did not have an insurgency going on, the police in Baghdad would rival any police force in a like-sized city in any part of the world," he says.

Iraqis and American advisers have also begun to hold "mobile recruiting drives," such as the one Elawi attended on Sunday, which are intended to be more difficult for insurgents to target. Even after the Iraq government invited former Army officers back last year, few came. Now, instead of waiting for Iraqi Army recruits to come, a recruiting office comes to them.

At one of these roving drives recently, scores of Iraqis lined up to apply for the Army, including a few dozen officers. Marine Capt. John Helm, an adviser to the Iraqi recruiting effort, says they are working.

"The critical shortage is in the lack of leadership," says Captain Helm, who has held about a dozen such drives around the country in recent months that he says have been successful at attracting applicants who might not otherwise show up. "The Iraqis are doing pretty well with recruiting; what they need help with is getting in the former guys."

It's still tough going. Helm often has to push Iraqi recruiting officials to move faster, reminding them to make extra copies of recruiting forms or urging them to start their drives earlier in the morning.

As early as next month, a group of senior US advisers will provide an independent assessment of Iraqi security forces to members of Congress. The effort, led by James Jones, a widely respected retired Marine general, will be an attempt to determine if the Iraqis really are growing their forces satisfactorily and will be one more factor Congress and the Bush administration will use as they decide the future of US policy in Iraq.

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