Wary Iraqis are recruited as policemen
By Michael R. Gordon The New York Times

Published: July 24, 2006

HIT, Iraq Faisal Mahmoud Mutayeb has a vivid recollection of how dangerous it can be to serve as a policeman in Hit.

The former policeman still bears the scars from the bullets that ripped through his arm when insurgents overran his police station last year, one of many such attacks in the region. But lured by a salary of $360 a month and the opportunity to serve, he turned out for the police recruiting drive here in early July.

It is a second chance for the American military, as well. It was the lack of sufficient American forces in this swath of the violent Anbar Province, in western Iraq, that allowed the insurgents to attack the police stations in the first place.

Recruiting a new police force to battle the insurgents has become a central element in the United States' plan to eventually reduce American forces. It is a complex mission that requires American commanders to secure a modicum of cooperation from a wary, if not antagonistic, population, and to contend with a vicious campaign by insurgents to assassinate and intimidate the members of Iraq's fledgling security services.

"For us to have any kind of exit strategy we need a police force, and for them to take control of the city," said Capt. Avery Jeffers, a Marine officer in charge of the police training team here. "We need their brothers and sons to become policemen. That is how they will see less and less of us."

The Bush administration in March announced a new strategy for victory in Iraq: "clear, hold and build." Contested towns would be swept of insurgents and held by new Iraqi security forces, while the United States worked to solidify the gains by helping to fix the infrastructure and build civic institutions.

The military history in this region, however, is complex. American forces have been stretched thin across the vast province. To mass enough troops to storm Falluja in 2004, American commanders were forced to make do with fewer troops elsewhere.

As a result, the insurgents took advantage of the Americans' limited numbers, in the long stretch along the Euphrates River that runs from Rawa to Hit, to attack the police. Police stations were overrun and destroyed. In Haditha, I.P.'s, as American soldiers call Iraqi policemen, were lined up and shot at the town's soccer field.

The Interior Ministry "saw what was happening, and they basically fired all the I.P.'s in Anbar Province for their safety," said Joseph D'Amico, a former Alaska state trooper who is the assistant police implementation officer for the Marines' Regimental Combat Team 7, which is the major command for this area of Iraq. "They said, 'Go home, don't police anymore,' because the I.P.'s were getting killed at a pretty alarming rate."

Lt. Col. Glen G. Butler of the Marines noted in an article in Marine Corps Gazette in July that "the lack of sufficient manpower along the Euphrates River corridor in mid-2004 through early 2005" allowed insurgents to take over several towns, including Haditha, Haqlaniya and Rawa. That "led to a repeated cycle of 'clear, clear, clear' (with no forces to hold or build)," he wrote. "Ultimately, this situation resulted in a bitter and frustrated local populace."

Corruption among senior Iraqi police officers compounded the problem. After Mr. Mutayeb's police station in Hit was attacked, he was allowed to live on an American base for his protection. He left to pursue his back pay. With the police authorities in Ramadi, the provincial capital, and in Hit accused of corruption, Iraqi officials in Baghdad stopped issuing pay, leaving him not only vulnerable but impoverished.

Rebuilding the police force is clearly a major undertaking. New recruits attend a 10-week course in Baghdad or Jordan; former policemen may undergo an abbreviated course. Guarding against infiltrators is vital. New police stations must be built. After many months, policemen who have continued to serve are receiving back pay, American officials say.

In Sunni-dominated Anbar, a major challenge is finding recruits who are willing to serve. According to statistics gathered at the end of June by the Marine command that oversees the province, there were about 5,200 policemen for an area roughly the size of Louisiana.

A vast majority were in the Ramadi and Falluja areas. No policemen were in Rutba at the end of June, none were in Ana and none in Haditha, where the latest recruiting drive was a complete failure. There were only a few dozen in Rawa, where insurgents captured a police lieutenant, beheaded him and displayed the severed head in a fruit basket in front of a local mosque.

There were about 250 policemen 30 miles away from Hit in and around the town of Baghdadi, and almost 700 policemen in Qaim, where the Marines mounted an operation to clear the region of insurgents late last year and followed up with a police recruiting drive.

Even in areas where a substantial police force has been put to work, however, the insurgents' campaign is as determined as ever. There are about 1,700 police officers in the Falluja area, but the city's deputy police chief was assassinated a few weeks ago. Many of the officers at the checkpoints on the outskirts of Falluja wear masks to conceal their identities.

American commanders, who have called this the "year of the Iraqi police," say they are determined to double the force in Anbar to about 11,000. They noted that police recruits here are generally drawn from their local Sunni communities, which means they know the area and can readily identify outsiders. An overwhelming majority of the Iraqi Army troops in Anbar, in contrast, are Shiites who were recruited in southern Iraq or Baghdad.

Here in Hit, a town of 40,000 with no police officers, constant troop rotations - another reflection of an American military force that has been stretched thin - had made it hard for the Americans to establish ties with local leaders. Over just a few months, a National Guard artillery unit from Mississippi handed off to a Marine expeditionary unit, which handed off to another Marine expeditionary unit.

But in February, Army Task Force 1-36 arrived for a yearlong deployment. Its commander, Lt. Col. Thomas C. Graves, said the re-establishment of a police force and the training of the Iraqi Army were top priorities.

"You kind of figure out you are not going to stop the attacks by some sort of attrition-based warfare," said Colonel Graves, who did a previous tour of duty in Ramadi. "I have committed my entire battalion to building these institutions."

Shortly after arriving, the colonel took his first step to win support for a police recruiting drive, meeting with local leaders at the Islamic Cultural Center.

"I told them that we want the same thing," Colonel Graves said. "I want to go home to my family. You want me to go home to my family." He showed pictures of his children to drive the point home.

"But," he told them, "we are not going to get there without security."

Initially, the town leaders said that nobody from Hit would join the police force and that if the colonel wanted officers, he would have to bring in outsiders. But over time, they softened. The Americans, they said, could go ahead and try to recruit local policemen.

A major recruiting drive was planned for early July. Roads to the city were blocked to prevent suicide car bomb attacks - two such attacks have occurred since the task force arrived - and other insurgent assaults.

In the first two hours, several hundred applicants showed up. Applicants must pass a literacy test (about a seventh-grade reading level is required), a physical fitness examination and a security screening that involves fingerprinting and a retina scan. The initial pool was whittled down to 165 recruits, who went by convoy to the sprawling Marine base at Asad, about an hour away, and eventually to a training center in Jordan.

But only four were from Hit. Virtually all the rest were from the nearby Phurat region, on the other side of the Euphrates River. That area is distinct from Hit and is under the control of the Nimor tribe, which has been working closely with American Special Forces there.

Town leaders in Hit have yet to nominate a potential police chief. The recruiting drive has also come at a cost. Several members of a police training team were injured and evacuated to Al Asad after their vehicle struck a mine.

The police training is being carried out in parallel with efforts to train an Iraqi Army company here. Indeed, spreading the word about the police, and encouraging townspeople to follow the example of their neighbors in Phurat, is one of the tasks for the Iraqi soldiers who conduct joint patrols with American forces in the city.

During a recent patrol under the baking sun, an Iraqi lieutenant chatted with a local shopkeeper, who rendered a guarded verdict. The establishment of a new police force, the shopkeeper said, was a good idea, but people in the town were still too afraid to join.