Iraqi police walk most perilous beat

Attacks on stations, bad equipment, and the killing of officers are challenging a new force.

They never found Jassem Mohammed. The body of the 25-year-old policeman simply vanished when the white Land Cruiser packed full of TNT and rockets exploded five yards from him at the entrance of a police station in this dusty town 30 miles north of Baghdad.

It was one of two nearly simultaneous suicide bombings on Saturday against Iraqi police stations in Baquba and a neighboring town that killed up to 17 people, 10 of them policemen.

Iraq's lightly armed and ill-equipped police force represent easy pickings for the guerrillas operating in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the volatile sector north and west of Baghdad that is witnessing the bulk of violence against American troops and their Iraqi allies.

Still reeling from the loss of their colleagues and friends last weekend, many policemen in Baquba say they continue to feel vulnerable and fear further bomb attacks. US troops also face challenges in and around the city: On Sunday, a roadside bomb near Baquba killed a US soldier and injured two others. But Iraqis face what may be a more complicated fight: battling insurgents while avoiding accusations of "collaboration" with US forces. The recent bombings have driven the stakes even higher for Iraqi police.

"We were expecting to be attacked but not like this," says Capt. Ali Jassem, a duty officer at the bombed police station in Baquba. "We thought maybe they would fire mortars or rockets at us from a distance. Of course, we are worried that something like this could happen again."

The Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-run interim authority in Iraq, intends to increase the size of the police force and provide it with training and new equipment so that routine security tasks can be transferred from the coalition forces to the police.

Although there is an Iraqi chief of police in Baquba, real power lies in the hands of Lt. Susan M. Greig, who has the formidable task of transforming the police into an effective crime-fighting and security force operating throughout the Diyala province, northwest of Baghdad.

"Before the war, the police were not respected at all," she says. "If you had a case against someone, you had to pay to get an official paper, pay the judge to sign it, pay the police to arrest the suspect, pay for the taxi they took to pick up the person."

All police under Saddam Hussein's regime were required to be members of the ruling Baath Party. After Mr. Hussein's regime was overthrown, only junior level policemen were retained to form the basis of the new police force.

The revamped force in the province presently consists of 4,051 policemen, and Lieutenant Greig hopes the figure will double soon. New recruits and former policemen are put through a three-week training course at the police headquarters in Baquba before returning to their stations.

"We have just graduated four females into the police and we have another 13 women ready to go," Greig says.

Despite indications of progress, the police have yet to win the active support of the local population. That's hardly surprising, perhaps, given the sentiments expressed in the spray-painted graffiti covering walls and road signs throughout Baquba.

"Long live Saddam. God is Greatest. Here is the jihad," says one with "Down with the USA" added beneath in English.

"The people sympathize with us," says Jassem, the police captain. "But so far they have not been giving us information about attacks. We hope God will help us."

The lack of basic policing equipment, especially protective measures, also saps morale. The police station struck by the suicide bomber lies on the other side of the road from an American base housing military and civilian personnel. The American compound is surrounded by concrete blast walls, the heavily guarded entrances protected with steel gates and coils of razor wire. In marked contrast, the police building is exposed to the road and has no protection other than a couple of guards with automatic rifles.

"They say they are going to put up concrete walls around all the police stations now. But we still don't have proper communications equipment like walkie-talkies, there are not enough vehicles for us, and we don't have bulletproof vests," says Sgt. Jalil al-Hamdani.

Another policeman said that they were limited to one uniform only for both the scorching hot summer and often bitterly cold winter.

"The weather is getting colder now and we have no jackets," he says.

Greig acknowledges their complaints but insists that additional equipment is coming. The CPA is close to signing a contract with Motorola to provide walkie-talkies, and vehicles are being purchased.

"When they put on that badge, they are taking a big risk," she says. "They have no body armor like we do, they don't have Humvees. But we really need their help."

That help is taking on added urgency, given the growing number of roadside bomb attacks against US troops.

Once consisting of rocket-propelled grenades or mortar rounds set to explode with a timing device, the bombs are becoming more complex and deadly. Some comprise several 155mm artillery shells connected together and planted either on the side of the road or buried in the ground along a dirt track used by US troops. The militants, hidden up to 500 yards away, wait until a target passes by and then detonate the bomb using a command wire.

"Definitely the IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] are the preferred method to engage the coalition forces," says Capt. Josh Felker of the 4th Infantry Division. "They are even using cellular phones or pagers to detonate bombs, so they can be miles away at the time," he says, adding that the number of bombs exploded or discovered since April is "well into the hundreds."

The militants have begun encasing the bombs in concrete to resemble curb stones. The bombs are planted beside the road and are almost impossible to detect.

An internal memo to the CPA notes that roadside bombs are on the increase partly because there are not enough US troops and Iraqi police to patrol the province's numerous remote roads.

"This allows the Iraqi enemy to emplace their IEDs during the night and then detonate them during the day when the coalition forces are traveling," the memo says. "Currently it seems that not only are the Iraqis attacking the coalition forces but they are also attacking the Iraqi police and the ICDC [Iraqi Civil Defense Corps]. Many of our ICDC are leaving their jobs because they are scared of being attacked."

The increased police strength will allow the creation of a highway patrol to deter militants from planting bombs, Greig says.

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