Billions of dollars later, Iraqi security forces fall short

Despite US investment, Iraq's security forces remain corrupt, and Iraqis accuse them of abusing their power.

Mohammed Adnan/Reuters
Iraqi security forces look at a map during a raid and weapons search operation in Baquba, about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, Sept. 6, 2013.

Khalid al-Mashhidani’s experiences with Iraqi security forces have been so bad that he says the least of his concerns is the day they broke into his house, damaged much of his furniture, set fire to his garden, and stole $40,000 in cash along with some gold he kept in the house.

Mr. Mashhidani lives about 10 miles from the Taji prison that militants raided in late July. In the weeks after the raid, security forces searched the area for escapees and accomplices. Mashhidani says the damage and alleged theft occurred during these searches while his family was not at home.

“I couldn’t do anything at that moment,” he says, describing how he felt upon seeing his house after the search. “I just looked at my damaged house and took a deep breath.”

Mashhidani is one of many Iraqis who has suffered a near total loss of faith in Iraqi security forces. The United States spent tens of billions of dollars during its time in Iraq trying to develop a capable security force that could create and maintain stability. But 10 years after the American invasion, Iraqis say they’ve been left with a security force not only incapable of providing security but also prone to corruption and extortion.

“Today the security forces are a failure,” says Hamid Obaid Mutlag, an Iraqi parliamentarian from Anbar who sits on the Defense and Security Committee. “We have about 1.5 million individuals in all of our security forces, which is a very large number, but they are unqualified. They don’t follow the law; they don’t respect human rights; and they’re mostly corrupted. That’s why they’re unable to bring stability to Iraq. They only believe in using force.”

Too little intel

After years of relative quiet, violence has erupted in Iraq, reaching levels unseen since 2008.

So far about 5,000 Iraqis have lost their lives this year to war-related causes. The death toll peaked in July, with more than 1,000 people killed in that month alone.

Of all the areas affected by the uptick in violence, Baghdad has suffered the most. Regular bombings take place despite numerous security checkpoints throughout the city.

“The main problem in our security forces is that we don’t have any high-quality bomb detection devices. Our enemy is unknown to us and we need the tools to discover him quickly,” says one Iraqi soldier who withheld his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “We receive no support from our government and the explosions will continue without bomb-detection equipment.”

During the $60 billion American reconstruction effort in Iraq, the US invested $20.19 billion in the Iraq Security Forces Fund and another $1.31 billion in the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement account. American soldiers in Iraq put in a significant number of work time providing direct training and mentorship to help Iraqi security forces develop.

Iraqi security forces, which include the police, Army, and other related organizations, suffered many of the same problems during the American presence that they do today. But some Iraqis say American oversight made the situation slightly better. Although the American de-Baathification program, which barred members of Saddam Hussein's regime from joining the new government, blocked a number of qualified soldiers from joining the new army, the Americans did help to ensure that competent people were placed in many key positions, says an Iraqi security expert.

“The good thing about the US being here was that they provided good intelligence about terrorists and these types of things. The security improved because of this,” says a private security adviser who served in the Iraqi Army while Mr. Hussein was still in power. He spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Bribing for justice

Since US forces left Iraq in the end of 2011, problems that had long existed within Iraqi security forces, such as corruption and extortion, have grown far worse.

Shortly after security forces damaged Mashhidani’s house, they returned to his village and arrested his brother along with nearly 200 other people they suspected of being involved in the prison break. His brother and his cousin were accused of allowing Al Qaeda militants to use their houses as bases. Military explosive experts were brought in to demolish their houses.

Defending his brother and cousin’s innocence, Mashhidani says that shortly before their arrest and the destruction of their houses, militants connected to Al Qaeda murdered three people in the Mashhidani family. “How could you support Al Qaeda when they’ve already killed your family members?” he asks.

When some of those arrested alongside Mashhidani’s brother were released, they reported that jailers were torturing his brother, hanging him upside down and electrocuting him to force him to confess.

Mashhidani had several close friends in the military who said his best option would be to pay authorities $10,000 for his brother’s release, but he says he couldn't afford the bribe after authorities ransacked his house and stole his savings. He settled on paying prison officials $3,000 so they would torture his brother less.

Now Mashhidani says security officials in Diyala, a province north of Baghdad, have accused his brother of involvement in a terrorist plot there. He swears that his brother has never even been to Diyala, but aside from appealing to international courts he says there’s nothing left he can do for his brother.

Meanwhile, he adds that men wearing official police uniforms, using what appeared to be government-issued equipment, recently came to his village, took six of his cousins, and murdered them. Security officials say such attacks are carried out by criminals wearing military uniforms.

Mashhidani says that even during the worst of Iraq’s violence, he never considered leaving his country. But after what’s happened to him and his family in recent months, he now hopes to seek asylum in the United Arab Emirates.  He says that he fears security forces are following a sectarian agenda against Iraq’s Sunni population.

“I think the current government has plans to clean out all Sunnis from Iraq. This what’s happening now,” he says.  “It’s not my home anymore. I’m threatened by arrests and killing.... I have nothing to do here. Why should I stay?”

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