Iraq withdrawal: A US unit prepares Mosul police for self-rule

As Iraq withdrawal looms in August, US readies police to confronts drugs, corruption, and insurgent clout in one of Iraq's most volatile cities.

Sebastian Meyer
An Iraqi soldier takes pictures of a man (foreground, left) receiving a radio donated by US forces as part of a hearts-and minds operation in the insurgent stronghold of Mosul, a city on the Tigris River.

Perched on a couch in a small Mosul police station far from his home in Forest, Miss., Sgt. Wesley Majure sighs with frustration. "That's it? Only three to train?" he asks in his Southern drawl.

The Iraqi police chief, dressed in a Juventus tracksuit, shrugs. "You didn't tell us you were coming."

"Well let's go train the hell out of those three then," Majure huffs as he lifts himself off the couch and makes for the door.

This episode doesn't reflect poor planning; Majure couldn't tell his Iraqi colleague when they were coming – a rule laid down after a US soldier and his interpreter were killed by an Iraqi policeman in a Mosul police station in February 2009.

That's just one of the challenges this unit of US military police face on the front lines of preparing for America's exit from Iraq. They are a part of the STT, or Security Transition Team, which has been tasked with training Iraqi police to take on insurgents in Iraq's most dangerous city.

Ammunition money used to pave driveways

While attacks have fallen here since the peak of sectarian violence, Majure and other American advisers to the unit have other problems on their hands – everything from insurgents threatening the policemen's wives and children to generals using ammunition money to pave their driveways.

"Right now, the [Iraqi] security forces are not good enough to take on the insurgents," explains Vic Morrow, ex-Special Forces and now an adviser to the transition team. "Some of them are up to it, but what'll fail it is corruption. And the price of failure is astronomical."

Many believe a dysfunctional security force in Iraq would allow insurgents, as well as neighbors such as Iran and Syria, to fill the power vacuum as the US withdraws. This could lead to a return of sectarian fighting.

Corruption, lack of funds

For those who advise the federal police and Iraqi Army, one of the largest worries is money and corruption. Iraqi commanders claim the problem stems from Baghdad, where politicians still haven't formed a government nearly four months after the March 7 parliamentary election.

"We are ready to take full control of our country's security," says a federal police commander from Baghdad. "But the government isn't serious. They're corrupt and are only looking out for themselves. We need a strong government like we had under Saddam."

Sunnis in Mosul fear oppression by the country's Shiite majority, especially from the Army and federal police who have come from Baghdad.

"Mosul is not safe," says Abu Ali, a Sunni farmer. "The Shia [Shiites] are in control of the security forces and Iran is in control of the Shia. We need to bring back the old officers from Saddam's time and kick out the Shia and Kurdish forces from our city."

Violence has decreased, but ...

Violence in Mosul has decreased remarkably over the past two years. In the first quarter of 2008 there were 1,167 recorded attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In the second quarter of 2010, there were only 78.

"We're starting to see the fruits of [our] labors," exclaims Col. Dave Sanders, the STT's Texan commander. "Victory! I'm starting to taste it!"

But not everyone can.

Sgt. Chris Culbert has served four tours of duty in Iraq, including during the 2003 invasion of Mosul. Now he is part of a unit advising the 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi Federal Police.

"After we leave, it will be business as usual, but then it will deteriorate," he says. "Funding is a problem. Corruption is a problem. There's even a drug problem among the police."

Outside the Mosul courthouse, Mohammad Saleh, a 20-year-old policeman who had been shot in the leg by insurgents, confirmed this. "We like to take Valium," he said. "Pills to make us brave. Pills so we don't feel pain."

Majure admits that drugs and alcohol are a problem among the police, who are routinely attacked by insurgents. Once the Iraqi police he was advising were so drunk that they got lost in the dangerous western part of the city and Majure was forced to abandon them.

Police intimidated by insurgents

But a bigger problem is that insurgents have intimidated police to the point where the transition team can't fully trust them. Unlike the federal police and Iraqi Army, who come from other cities and live on protected bases, Iraqi police live unprotected in the city itself.

"It's not collusion. They haven't been infiltrated," Sanders explains. "But when [insurgents] get hold of your family, of your wife and children, and threaten to do stuff to them ... what would you do?"

On a recent afternoon, the Iraqi Army and their transition team drove their Humvees back to the American base from a series of house searches in the western part of Mosul. Many of the windows in the Iraqi vehicles were spider-webbed where the bulletproof glass has been tested; the tires on one were completely bald.

But neither the glass nor the tires had been replaced, due to a lack of funds.

The convoy turned onto Baghdad Road, a place bearing grave re-minders of the violence that once plagued the city. The only houses that weren't scarred by bullets and shrapnel were those that had been destroyed by car bombs.

'The insurgents are not done'

As the US packs its bags and starts to ship its men and materiel east to America's other war, transition team leaders are convinced that Baghdad Road is a reminder of the past, and not a glimpse of the future.

Backed by the success of the past year, they believe that after their departure, the Iraqi forces will continue to successfully battle the insurgency.

"But the insurgents are not done here," warns Morrow, the ex-Special Forces adviser. "Look at Afghanistan. They went on hiatus and then came back."

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