As Iraq moves closer to its Jan. 30 elections, Iraqi police charged with protecting the vote are donning a new low-tech security device: the ski mask to hide their identities from would-be attackers.
The choice of headgear is in response to being targeted as never before. Since October, four Iraqi police and national guardsmen have died for every American soldier killed, based on a Monitor tabulation. As more and more police and guards hit the streets, that ratio appears to be going up. In the first 10 days of January, at least 108 Iraqi guardsmen and police have been killed compared with 23 US casualties.
Monday morning, the second-highest ranking police official in Baghdad was murdered on his way to work, along with his policeman son. Elsewhere in Baghdad, a suicide bomber hit the police station in the Zafarniyah district in a stolen police car, killing four more cops.
With less than three weeks until the election, the ability of the Iraqi forces to stand firm in the face of the onslaught remains an open question.
Col. Adnan Abdulrahman, spokesman for the interior ministry, says that while concerns about training and equipment are serious, he isn't too worried about the morale of police under his command. "We have people lining up to enlist - for every one that quits we have two or more that want to take his place,'' he says. Iraqi security forces make an average of $150 a month, a comfortable sum in a city where day laborers can make $2 a day and unemployment hovers around 40 percent."I wouldn't say the police are afraid. It's just that it's a difficult and dangerous job."
And it is getting more difficult. Colonel Abdulrahman says that about 100,000 policemen will be stationed at polling places on election day, and they're expected to be backed up by tens of thousands of Iraqi guards. The US and coalition presence will also be huge, with US troop numbers being increased to about 150,000 to secure the elections.
But current plans drawn up by the Iraqi election commission indicate that US troops will keep their distance from polling places, try to be as low-profile as possible, and defer to the Iraqi interim government on security for election day.
"It's a question of how you find the balance between providing decent security but not giving the sense that somehow we're controlling [the election],'' says a senior US diplomat at the Embassy in Baghdad. "If they say they don't want us somewhere, we won't be there."
Ali, a national guardsman who declines to give his name or unit, doesn't want to be manning a checkpoint on a Baghdad freeway. It's relatively balmy for Baghdad in winter, and most residents go about coatless. But Ali and three other of the Iraqi national guardsmen at the checkpoint are wearing the black ski masks that have become de rigueur for Iraqi forces.
"It's not that we feel too afraid,'' says Ali, a father of two who was unemployed until he enlisted last year. "I just have to be careful that I don't get myself or my family killed." Ali says he's proud to play his part in securing Iraq, something he says that will lead to an eventual US departure.
But he also says he took the job after months of fruitless search elsewhere, and that his wife regularly begs him to quit, particularly after a car bomb hit a National Guard post in Amil district on Jan. 3, killing 18 national guards, two of them his friends. "There have been a lot of martyrs from my unit already, and there are probably going to be more," he says. "But my first responsibility is money for my family."
Ali says the biggest changes that would make his work safer would be better equipment - he gestures in disgust at his aging AK-47 - and the right to take his weapon at night. While police are allowed to carry weapons off duty, guardsmen aren't, in part because officials have worried that some of them may be insurgents.
Not allowing guards to carry weapons played a part in a deadly attack last October, in which 50 guardsmen were executed after the bus taking them home from a US training camp in eastern Iraq was stopped at an insurgent roadblock.
While suicide bombings and roadside bombs are what have killed most of the guardsmen and police, Iraq's insurgents have also increasingly relied on targeted assassinations of high officials. Baghdad's deputy police chief Amer Ali Nayef and his son, Lt. Khalid Amer, were killed near their home in the Dora neighborhood at about 8 o'clock Monday morning.
Two cars pulled alongside their vehicle and riddled it with machine-gun fire before speeding away, police say. This month, the police chief in the southern town of Jebala, the deputy police chief in the central Iraqi town of Samarra, a police colonel in the central town of Baquba, and Baghdad's governor have all been killed in similar incidents.