Visiting congressmen stepped out of armored cars Tuesday into the mud of Camp Dublin, home to the Iraqi police's elite special forces unit. US Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, the ex-linebacker responsible for training 200,000 Iraqi police, greeted them and assured the lawmakers that his Iraqi under- studies will soon be in charge here.
"We'll have these forces trained by the end of 2006," dubbed the year of the police by US officials, "and I have full confidence that they will begin to assume control of security in Iraq," he says.
The police have become a new priority, as the US begins turning over more security control to Iraq. Scrutiny of the police intensified after the discovery of secret jails and the torture of Sunni Arab prisoners.
Shiite control of the police force is also complicating efforts to persuade Iraq's factions to put their divisions behind them and to form a government of national unity following the Dec. 15 parliamentary vote.
On Tuesday, President Bush addressed the issue in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He called on Iraqi police "not to address old grievances by taking justice into their own hands.... That's unacceptable to the United States government."
Meanwhile the insurgency rages on, singling out police on an almost daily basis. Wednesday, an attack killed two. On Monday, a pair of suicide bombers killed 29 at the Interior Ministry, and last week 70 recruits were killed in Ramadi. All told, some 3,500 Iraqi police have been killed in the past 16 months.
In the face of these attacks, US moves to reign in the Iraqi police are irking Ministry of Interior officials and leading Shiite politicians, who seem eager to step up the fight. They say they are ready to do so without US support.
"There is huge interference from the American forces with the work of the Ministry of Interior in a way that does not allow the security forces to deal with security," says Jalal al-Din Saghir, a leading Shiite preacher and member of parliament.
At the heavily guarded Interior Ministry, Mohammed Ali al-Khafaggy, the minister's deputy, says he could "put tens of thousands of police in Ramadi and Diala within hours," referring to two insurgent hot spots. "But we are not doing this because of political circumstances.... We can't defeat the terrorists unless the security forces are allowed to do what has to be done," he says.
Mr. Khafaggy's heavily secured ministry rises up from behind concrete walls and razor wire. It has an estimated 152,000 police on its payrolls, among them border guards, highway patrol, traffic cops, and special paramilitary units. With that number expected to reach 300,000, the Ministry of Interior is one of the country's most coveted posts.
But the Shiite-controlled ministry and its growing cadres of police are widely believed to be infiltrated by the Badr militia, the armed wing of the main Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Ministry officials vehemently deny this. "Where is the evidence?" Mr. Khafaggy asks.
But for many Iraqis, seeing police in the streets of Baghdad continues to provide little comfort.
"The police are just a bunch of gangs rolling around in pickup trucks waving Kalashnikovs," says Subhi Nazem Tawfiq, an ex-Iraqi general and the author of 14 books on Arab politics, history, and militaries. After the fall of Saddam Hussein he worked with US officials to reestablish the Ministry of Defense. "These are people charged up with militant Shiism," he says of many within the police ranks. "They hate Fallujah people, they hate people from Mosul, they hate Sunni [Arabs]."
Inside her dimly lit home in a mixed Sunni Arab-Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad, a Sunni Arab mother huddles on the floor, weeping as she tells how police dragged her 23-year-old son from his bed at 1:30 a.m. last June.
She searched for him for six months. Finally, 10 days ago she found his picture with a police report at a Baghdad morgue. The report was dated June 17, the day of the arrest. It said simply that an unidentified body had been found strangled, wrists bound, in a roadside ditch not far from her home.
"I cannot look at [the police]," she says, choking on her anger. "The hate inside these policemen, this is what made them kill my son."
As leading Shiites rattle their sabers in response to last week's death toll (it was one of the country's deadliest weeks), Sunni Arab leaders fear retaliation by police. They have already begun to take a stand against police dragnets and alleged excesses. The Sunni Arab fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party says they have put together armed groups to protect neighborhoods targeted by Iraqi police.
"It's a necessary response to the massacres that have occurred in a number of neighborhoods," says Amr al-Jaboori, a member of the party's human rights committee. "The police should protect citizens, not terrorize them."
While the US is giving Iraqi police a greater role in putting down the insurgency, doing so may be counterproductive to American goals if the police continue to be viewed as simply a glorified Shiite militia.
The US says it's dealing with that issue by recruiting more Sunni Arabs, Turkomen, and Kurds to the police. It also plans to increase the emphasis on human rights in the 10-week police academy and partner US battalions with police special forces units.
"These recruits get 32 hours of human rights and rule-of-law training," Major General Peterson tells the concerned congressmen. "I've been serving for 34 years, and I don't have 32 hours of human rights training."
He points to one of his Iraqi protégés, Colonel Nomaan, the Iraqi commander of the police force's Emergency Response Unit. "This unit is representative of the Iraqi population."
But Nomaan admits that for now, at least, his unit is an exception. "I insisted on this unit being ethnically balanced, but other leaders aren't like me," he says. "It won't get better as long as we keep distributing ministerial posts based on sect, and not on competency."