Iraq balks as U.S. seeks more policing by Sunnis
By Michael R. Gordon | October 27, 2007
HABBANIYA, Iraq: The U.S. military's push to organize Sunni Arabs into local neighborhood-watch groups has been one of its most important initiatives in Iraq — so much so that President George W. Bush flew to Anbar Province in September to highlight growing alliances with Sunni tribal leaders.
But now that the United States is trying to institutionalize the arrangement by training the Sunnis to become police officers, the effort has been hampered by half-hearted support and occasionally outright resistance from a Shiite-dominated national government that is still inclined to see the Sunnis as a once and future threat.
It was the U.S. military that pressed to open the new Habbaniya Police Training Center, where Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents are to be trained to serve as police officers in Anbar. And it was the United States that provided the uniforms, food, new classrooms and equipment for the police recruits.
While the Iraqi government has agreed to basic police instruction at the academy, it has balked at training more-senior officers there. The government has also scaled back plans by Anbar officials to expand the provincial police force by almost 50 percent.
"The Ministry of Interior deals with the Sunni provinces different than they deal with the other provinces," said Brigadier General David Phillips, a U.S. Army officer who oversees the training of the Iraq police. "The only reason the Anbar academy opened is because we built it, paid for it and staffed it." He said the Interior Ministry "was very hesitant about it."
The ministry says that it pays the salaries of the Iraqi personnel here and that more money will come as soon as proper administrative procedures are established between the government and the academy.
Anbar is not the only source of contention. In Diyala Province, north of Baghdad, U.S. military officers have pushed the Iraqi government to hire more than 6,000 local Iraqis, many of them Sunnis, as police officers. Despite promises of action by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, none have been hired by the Interior Ministry.
Major General Benjamin Mixon, who is winding up a tour as the senior U.S. commander for northern Iraq, said in an interview at his headquarters that the "foot dragging" stems from "highly sectarian" hiring in Baghdad. "They want to make sure that not too many Sunnis are hired," he said. "The situation is unsatisfactory in terms of hiring Iraqi police."
The growing tensions over efforts to hire more Sunni police officers comes at a critical moment in war in Iraq. With the number of U.S. combat brigades set to decline by a quarter by mid-July, commanders are eager to build up the Iraqis' capability to secure their neighborhoods.
One way has been to organize local Sunnis into neighborhood-watch groups, what the U.S. military calls "Concerned Local Citizens." The benefits of this approach have been evident near Yusufiya and Mahmudiya, in an area south of Baghdad that was once so violent it had been known as the "triangle of death" and has been overseen by the Second Brigade of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division. Before neighborhood-watch groups were organized in this region in June, more than 12 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were killed each month in the area, according to an analysis circulating within the U.S. military command. After June, the casualties declined to one soldier killed each month. The number of vehicles destroyed from roadside bombs was running at 11 per month before June and is averaging less than one per month now.
But organizing local Iraqis into neighborhood-watch groups is just the first step. The ultimate U.S. goal is to codify the arrangement by training these groups as police officers. The United States also hopes that by persuading the Iraqi government to hire Sunnis as police officers, it will encourage a new, ground-up form of political accommodation. Shiite-dominated ministries in Baghdad will develop new working relations with largely Sunni police forces in the field, easing the sectarian divide and laying the basis for a more representative national government, or so the theory goes.
At its best, the process of hiring new Sunni Arab police officers is a bureaucratic one. Prospective recruits have their fingerprints taken and undergo retina scans that are included in an intelligence database. The list of potential recruits is submitted to the Interior Ministry, which in turn generally submits them to a Committee of National Reconciliation overseen by close Maliki aides.
With persistent U.S. pressure, the process has led to some new hires. In the town of Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad, 1,738 of the 2,400 Sunnis who had been put forward to serve as police officers in the town were hired. Plans have been made to add 12,000 new police officers in Baghdad over the next six months, and it is estimated that about half would be drawn from the ranks of local Concerned Local Citizens.
But as Diyala indicates, the process does not always run smoothly. U.S. forces pushed through western Baquba, the capital of the province, in June in an effort to sweep the city clear of militants from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a mainly Iraqi insurgent group with foreign leadership. More than 4,600 Concerned Local Citizens have since been organized in Diyala Province.
But hiring them as police officers has proved difficult. Maliki ordered that the Diyala police force be increased by more than 6,000, and in July, provincial officials submitted a list of names to the Interior Ministry in Baghdad that included many Sunnis. But some Interior Ministry officials have questioned whether such a substantial increase is needed, and some members of the National Reconciliation Committee have argued that the original Maliki decree may no longer be valid, putting the hiring plan in limbo.
While no action has been taken on the list, the Iraqi government surprised the United States by hiring 548 Iraqis who were not on the roster. When U.S. officials analyzed the new hires, they determined that the list was predominantly made up of Shiites.
It was not the only time that the Interior Ministry hired Shiite police officers despite the concerns of local officials. The ministry sent 663 Shiite police officers in recent months to the city of Tal Afar in the northern Nineveh Province.
Wathiq al-Hamdani, the police chief in Nineveh, said in an interview at his Mosul headquarters that the decision was made over his objections and would undermine efforts to establish a force that was more balanced on sectarian lines. "We are trying to have some Sunni police officers in Tal Afar, but we have a lot of problems in doing that," he said.
Diyala and Tal Afar are mixed areas where both Sunnis and Shiites live, so they have drawn the attention of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. But even Anbar, an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab region in western Iraq, has been of concern to wary Iraqi officials in Baghdad.
Initially, provincial police officials in Anbar proposed adding 9,000 officers to the police force of 20,911, an expansion they said was needed because of the vast territory in western Iraq. But the Iraqi government ordered that the provincial force be increased by only 4,000, and issued orders to start the expansion by hiring 3,000 of them.
As for the rest of the 9,000, 2,000 are eventually to be hired by the National Police, which reports to the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry. And 3,000 are to be given civilian jobs that involve no law enforcement or military training.
Financing for the Anbar police has also been carefully controlled. The police chief is given his budget in increments of 250 million dinars, or $200,000, and is required to provide receipts. No other province has its police financing so carefully metered, U.S. officials say.
To augment its ability to train its police and supplement the training at the Baghdad police academy, the Iraqi government has decided to build two new police academies. They are to be located in the southern city of Basra and the northern city of Mosul.
That is of little help to the Sunnis in Anbar. So the United States pushed this summer to establish a police academy at a former Anbar air base that the British established at Habbaniya during their colonial occupation. At a cost of just over $10 million, the United States financed the complex and paid for the international police advisers, who are mostly Americans. The base, which is situated between Falluja and Ramadi, is also used for training the Iraqi Army and still features the sturdy structures erected during the British occupation, as well as a British cemetery.
Brigadier General Khalid Adulami, dean of the Habbaniya academy and a former officer in the Republican Guard during the days of Saddam Hussein's rule, said many of the prospective recruits were picked by Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, the leader of the Sunni tribal movement in Anbar who was assassinated in September. The academy will soon graduate its second class of recruits, more than 700, and plans to expand its enrollment.
Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf, a senior official at the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, said the Iraqi government was already paying the salaries of Iraqi personnel at the academy, and he said the ministry was working to solve other financing problems.
But Adulami said the U.S. military seemed to be more concerned than Iraqi government officials that his recruits were properly clothed, fed and trained.
"We know the Americans better than the Iraqis," he said. "Nobody at the Ministry of Interior asks us what we need."