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Iraqi police say they're not all the US claims them to be

While US troops have touted the progress made by Iraqi police in the past few years, the units themselves face daunting hurdles – including a 'trust gap' between them and residents.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / October 14, 2010

A woman carries food distributed by the U.S. army and Iraqi police during a food and medical relief distribution mission in Baghdad's Za'afaraniya district October 14.




At Joint Security Station Loyalty, there are two schools of thought on the ability of Iraqi security forces to keep the peace when the US military leaves.

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"They are more than ready," said US Army Capt. Rory McGovern of Haverhill, Mass., a company commander with the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which has trained and advised Iraqi federal police at this joint military outpost in eastern Baghdad since January. "They're making great operational and tactical strides. It's great to see."

The Iraqi unit, however, wasn't so sure. Asked what his men needed to stop the recent surge in rocket and mortar attacks from their area, 1st Sgt. Haitham Ghanem of the 1st Iraqi federal police division launched into a list of complaints.

"We need more experience, more staff. We need new equipment, training and better weapons," Ghanem said through a US military translator, whose expression slowly grew pained. "We have a big war ahead against the militias. How can you fight this with old machines and an old system?"

Gap between US claims, Iraqi capabilities

Troops complain in every country, every language and every war, but as the US military prepares to withdraw all its soldiers from Iraq by the end of 2011, a significant gap remains between American claims about the Iraqi security forces' capabilities and the opinions of the Iraqis themselves.

Many, including some Iraqi soldiers and police, question whether their forces can overcome the leadership failures, corruption and sectarian rivalries that continue to plague much of Iraqi society more than seven years after the US invasion.

Some American commanders say that Baghdad's most capable force is the federal police — a paramilitary organization that's expected to handle counterinsurgency and rapid-response operations — and that it just needs better marketing.

Two weeks ago, police units, acting on their own intelligence reports, made one of the biggest finds of the year: a series of caches in eastern Baghdad that included two completed suicide vests and enough explosives to build 50 roadside bombs.

Their shortcomings, however, have had a higher profile. In recent weeks, suicide bombers have targeted police outposts and recruitment centers. In the 30 days ending Sept. 29, there were 21 rocket and mortar attacks in Baghdad, compared to 13 in the previous 30 days, according to the US military.

"One thing that's not resonating well is the attacks lately, in which the police have not fared well," said Stephanie Sanok, a former US Embassy official in Baghdad who specialized in military issues.

"The police in particular have come a long way from a capability perspective. But if you're not making the people feel secure, you have a problem," she said.

Progress since 2007

To be sure, the federal police have made strides since 2007, when an independent commission headed by retired Marine Gen. James L. JonesPresident Barack Obama's outgoing national security adviser — argued that the force had been so deeply infiltrated by members of Shiite death squads that it should be disbanded. US and NATO training programs purged the force of militiamen and restored much of its credibility.

Ali Azghar, an officer with the 1st federal police division who served in Baghdad and Mosul during some of the worst periods of Iraq's sectarian war, has learned to defuse explosives, conduct interrogations and search homes. He still worries that corruption could undermine police work.

"We are willing and prepared," Azghar said. "The obstacle is, what if you catch someone and take him in, and then your supervisor says, 'Oh no, that's my cousin,' or, 'That's my in-law.' And they release him. Your hard work could be diminished by someone higher up."