New York Times
November 30, 2004
MOSUL, Iraq, Nov. 29 - Iraqi police and national guard forces, whose performance is crucial to securing January elections, are foundering in the face of coordinated efforts to kill and intimidate them and their families, say American officials in the provinces facing the most violent insurgency.
For months, Iraqi recruits for both forces have been the victims of assassinations and car bombs aimed at lines of applicants as well as police stations. On Monday morning, a suicide bomber rammed a car into a group of police officers waiting to collect their salaries west of Ramadi, killing 12 people, Interior Ministry officials said.
While Bush administration officials say that the training is progressing and that there have been instances in which the Iraqis have proved tactically useful and fought bravely, local American commanders and security officials say both Iraqi forces are riddled with problems.
In the most violent provinces, they say, the Iraqis are so intimidated that many are reluctant to show up and do not tell their families where they work; they have yet to receive adequate training or weapons, present a danger to American troops they fight alongside, and are unreliable because of corruption, desertion or infiltration.
Given the weak performance of Iraqi forces, any major withdrawal of American troops for at least a decade would invite chaos, a senior Interior Ministry official, whose name could not be used, said in an interview last week.
South of Baghdad, where American troops are still trying to drive out insurgents after the recent offensive in Falluja, American officers warn their own troops to be prepared to "duck and cover" to avoid stray shots fired by Iraqi recruits.
In the northern city of Mosul, almost the entire police force and large parts of several Iraqi National Guard battalions deserted during an insurgent uprising this month. Iraqi leaders had to use Guard battalions of Kurdish soldiers to secure the city, kindling ethnic tensions with Arabs. Police stations in western Mosul have perhaps several hundred officers in an area that is supposed to have several thousand.
For those brave enough to come to work, "right now, all they're doing is looking out the window and making sure the bad guys aren't coming to get them," said an American military official in Mosul, who did not want his name to be used.
In a telephone interview on Saturday, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander overseeing training of the Iraqi security forces, acknowledged the shortcomings in the Iraqis' performance, particularly by the police in Mosul and in Anbar Province, which stretches west from Ramadi to the Syrian border.
But General Petraeus said Iraqi Army, National Guard and police commando units had done well in other places, including Falluja, Najaf, Kut, Hilla, Karbala and much of southern Iraq, where the security situation was not as dangerous.
Iraqi security forces at all levels need better officers to lead the units, he said. "It's all about leadership," he said. "Where you see that, they really do well."
American military and Iraqi government officials, he added, are taking steps to address the weaknesses. Police training courses are being toughened to "focus much more on survival in a very lethal environment," he said. The police are also being provided larger weapons and more secure police stations.
In addition, there will be greater efforts to ensure that the Iraqi police will be backed up by other Iraqi security forces and American troops. "You can't have them feeling that if they're surrounded, no one's coming to the rescue," he said.
There are some bright spots among individual battalions of the Iraqi National Guard troops and Iraqi commandos. When operating under the direct control and oversight of American forces, some have helped in raids and other missions and continue to be used when American commanders want to enter mosques and other culturally sensitive targets, as happened in Falluja.
But places like Mosul are a particular worry for American commanders, who so far have been unable to slow the insurgents' campaign of intimidation. In the past 11 days, the bodies of at least 69 Iraqis have been found around Mosul, some with notes attached condemning their work for the Iraqi forces or with their military identification cards placed atop their bodies.
Even where there have been apparent successes, there are complications. American officials in Mosul, for example, single out the 106th Iraqi National Guard Battalion as performing with professionalism. But in an interview, the battalion commander said half of his troops were Kurdish, not Arab.
American commanders praised the Iraqi commandos who took part in a battle to repel insurgents who attacked a police station here two weeks ago. But an American company commander who joined the fight, Capt. Bill Jacobsen, noted that of a force of slightly more than 100 commandos, 10 had been killed and 27 wounded.
Many of the young Iraqi troops feel they are marked men, even without combat. To prevent insurgents from discovering their identities, many lie to everyone, wives and family included, about their real jobs.
In an interview, one member of the Iraqi 36th Commando Battalion, an elite group trained by the American Special Forces, says he tells his wife that he is a fireman, offering her nothing more to explain weeks-long absences. Another commando says he tells his family that his business requires frequent travel to the Syrian border. Some commandos, from the south, say they tell family members their factory foreman in Baghdad will not let them come home.
"I don't tell anyone," said the Iraqi commando who tells his wife he is a firefighter. "Just my brother, and he doesn't tell anyone because they will attack me."
He also complained about equipment shortages. "These weapons are not enough," he lamented. "They didn't give us a pistol. These Kalashnikovs are old and not good for shooting. If we attack, we must have good guns and good weapons. Tell the American government you must give us good weapons."
The Iraqi 36th Battalion worked with American Special Forces to take control of Falluja General Hospital on the first night of the invasion there, encountering no resistance. They often accompany American Special Forces soldiers on raids in Baghdad and other cities.
In October, the commando battalion helped United States troops storm a large mosque in Samarra, where 4 insurgents were killed and 25 captured. A Special Forces sergeant who helped lead the raid said some of the Iraqis "didn't jump in right away, but urged on by the more senior guys, they did."
In the "triangle of death," the area south of Baghdad named for its lawlessness, the police have been the targets of constant attacks and are now absent from the streets entirely, even though Marine bases in the area give police training courses.
John Chapman, a deputy sheriff in Johnson County, Tex., who was hired through the private security firm DynCorp to consult with the marines here, was asked what would count as a success for the recruits in the training program. "Show up for work," Mr. Chapman said. "Anything besides show up on payday."
At a training base in Mahmudiya, Mr. Chapman led a drill for about 40 recruits, many of whom drifted away into the shade for a smoke or giggled during a drill. Marines shouted at the recruits to pay attention. Mr. Chapman pestered them about their slovenly appearance, to little avail.
"To say we're there right now would be misspoken," said Maj. Dan Whisnant, intelligence officer for the Second Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, which is involved in the training.
Marine officers here maintain that the police are improving. In the current military sweep, called Operation Plymouth Rock, an Iraqi SWAT team was given credit for a series of raids that rounded up numerous insurgent suspects.
But a different assessment was disclosed in a slide that one of those Marine officers presented at a daily briefing just as 150 new Iraqi police recruits were due to arrive by helicopter at an American base at 9 p.m., or in military parlance, 2100 hours:
"2100: Clown Car arrives," the slide said, referring to the helicopters. "2101: Be ready for negligent discharges," the entry continued, warning of accidental shots from the AK-47's carried by many of the recruits. "Recommend 'Duck & Cover,' " it concluded.
Lt. Col. Mark Smith, commanding officer of a Marine task force here, said the slide was a product of frustration among marines over the slow pace of training the police. "You just have to lower your expectations on the timetable on when they're going to get things done," he said.
There is still little police presence amid the devastation in post-invasion Falluja. Down the road, in Ramadi, an American commander said the police had proved useless. There, American troops with the First Battalion of the Army's 503d Infantry are briefed to be just as cautious in dealing with the Iraqi police as they are with anyone else.
The police "are clearly intimidated to the point where they don't want to come to work," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Justin Gubler.
He said the Iraqi National Guard, known as the I.N.G., has only a "little bit more training." They also have serious problems of loyalty and competence. Just a few months ago, he believes, the local National Guard force was complicit in the abduction and killing of its own battalion commander west of Falluja.
"That's what you get out of the I.N.G.," Colonel Gubler said. "They gave up their battalion commander, laid their weapons down, and 23 cars and trucks and massive amounts of ammunition went to Falluja. It's just pitiful."
Infiltration remains a problem. After the uprising, the Mosul police chief was quickly dismissed and was later arrested on suspicion of complicity with the insurgents.
When a captain in the Mosul police force, Abu Muhammad, was asked if the police had been penetrated by the mujahedeen, he took a long, deep breath.
"Yes, and this is the problem, and I do believe that they have contacts with senior policemen in Mosul," he said. "There is kind of cooperation between the two parties."
Richard A. Oppel Jr. reported from Mosul for this article and James Glanz from Baghdad. John F. Burns contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times also contributed.