Iraqi security forces risky, but vital part of reconstruction

The United States and their coalition partners have been working quickly to set up five indigenous Iraqi forces to put an Iraqi face on the occupation and its police and security functions.

Ahmed Ibrahim, a general in Iraq's reformed police force, was talking about the gunfight he had gotten into some weeks earlier with members of the anti-American fedayeen. "They shot me about two months ago," Ibrahim recalled. "But in seven days, I came back to my job." Ibrahim, who is now a deputy interior minister, had a warning for the guerrillas who had winged him-those holdouts of the same regime that had, under Saddam Hussein's rule, jailed and tortured him in the 1980s: "If you want to kill the tiger, you must kill him. But if you make a mistake and merely injure the tiger, that means the tiger will kill you."

Ibrahim is defiant-and fortunate. For the past five months, U.S. soldiers have been dying in Iraq in a steady drumbeat, but often overlooked is that many Iraqis have been dying at the Americans' sides as well. The Iraqis are "taking on the hard missions; they are fighting and taking casualties with us," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of the ideological architects of the invasion, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 9. "We have gone from no Iraqis fighting with us when Baghdad fell to currently more than 55,000."

Indeed, since major combat ended on May 1, Americans and their coalition partners have been working quickly to set up five indigenous Iraqi forces to put an "Iraqi face" on the occupation and its police and security functions. This effort is massive and ongoing, and will take a couple of more years to complete. And it doesn't always go smoothly. Even while they help U.S. forces fight guerrillas, criminals, and terrorists (the lines between them are often blurred), many of these Iraqis are ambivalent about America and divided in their loyalties. But Iraqis, Americans, and coalition partners involved in training these new Iraqi forces say that the effort is worthwhile and will pay dividends down the road.

The five main Iraqi forces fighting alongside the U.S. today are:

  • Iraqi police. Of Wolfowitz's "55,000-strong" Iraqi fighting force, more than 40,000 are ordinary police officers. A recruiting program to double the force by late 2005 is under way, but for now nearly all police officers are Saddam holdovers, who are struggling to shake off the bad habits of the old regime. It hardly helps this transition that jumpy U.S. troops have repeatedly gunned down Iraqi cops by mistake.
  • Facilities Protection Service. Another 9,000 Iraqis belong to this service, actually a conglomeration of security guard units, each of which answers to a different government ministry. Aggressive recruiting should double their ranks, in this case as soon as January. But the very idea of these forces-to protect government and important national installations-is a holdover from the old regime. The largest unit is the oil ministry's, which has thousands of miles of pipelines to protect.
  • Border and customs police. Newly created and rapidly expanding, a force of some 4,000 border and customs police is protecting just a few key crossing points of Iraq's 2,000 miles of borders.
  • The New Iraqi Army. So far only 700 strong, the new army will soon send its first battalion to join the border and customs police in guarding the Syrian-Iraqi border. The new army is scheduled to swell to 40,000 in a year.
  • Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. With the new army relegated to external defense, and the civilian police often overwhelmed, the U.S. is raising a kind of paramilitary superpolice, much like the French Gendarmerie Mobile or the Texas Rangers in America's Wild West of the 1880s. The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps is already 4,000 strong and is scheduled to triple to 15,000 in January. The corps, in addition, has an internal security mandate that could make it the most politically potent force in the new Iraq. Yet this new force is rife with ambivalence as well. In two of the few interviews with corps trainees to date (by the Chicago Tribune and by Fox News), one Iraqi recruit confessed that he "loves Saddam Hussein," while another said that U.S. bombing during the war had killed his girlfriend. Both men admitted bluntly that they had enlisted, first and foremost, for the money.

Cash and Clans

Money is a powerful motivator for Iraqis volunteering for all five of these forces. And that's good and bad. The money attracts many recruits in a stricken economy with rampant unemployment. But money doesn't always buy integrity or corruption-free behavior. Americans who helped run local police forces in Vietnam and other occupied countries in the 20th century could certainly attest to that.

Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel who served with Montagnard tribal forces in Vietnam, recalled, "Once a month, I drew a big zipper bag full of money [from Army payroll]. The [local] soldiers that did more did well, and the soldiers that did less got less.... You see the same thing every time we go into a country that has collapsed," such as Afghanistan or Iraq. "There's no shortage of people over there who'd be happy to fight for us if we paid a decent wage." And Iraqi police salaries, for example, are up tenfold in dollar terms from before the war.

But money has its limits-if only because coalition forces can be outbid, whether in cash, in kind, or in ties of blood. "What we're doing right now is hiring mercenaries," cautioned Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and a noted author. "I would worry about the values of Iraqi society: the pervasiveness of corruption, the family and clan as the organizing principle."

Iraqi Civil Defense Corps troops straight out of training, for example, have already been investigated for possibly taking bribes. Applicants for the Facilities Protection Service rioted in Baghdad recently after they paid recruiters for positions and did not get them. And some regular police are said to demand bribes to perform the most routine official functions for the public.

More subtle, and in some ways more dangerous, than simple greed is sincere loyalty to family, faction, and tribe. Saddam deliberately strengthened tribal militias, and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has continued to pay some of them-by some accounts, has paid them off-to protect oil pipelines from sabotage. The Kurdish and Shiite political parties that dominate the provisional Iraqi Governing Council have their own armed forces as well, which the provisional authority is more or less tolerating in the short term.

"We do not believe organized militias are consistent with an independent, unified Iraq," Ambassador Paul Bremer, the U.S.-appointed chief administrator, said in a September press conference. "However, ... individuals who are in the militia are welcome to, and have indeed already joined, the police force, and the New Iraqi Army, and the Civil Defense Corps."

Bremer is gambling. At best, the new forces will absorb and tame the old; at worst, the old will infiltrate the new. And with both Saddam diehards and Qaeda sympathizers running loose, the Iraqi security apparatus may well include some of the very people that Bremer wants it to fight. "Recruiting a police and military force after the guerrillas are established guarantees that guerrilla agents will be well represented in the ranks," wrote George Friedman, chairman of Strategic Forecasting (better known as Stratfor). This is especially true when outsiders- say, Americans-are doing the recruiting, he said. In the 1960s, the Viet Cong thoroughly infiltrated the South Vietnamese security forces, recalled retired Maj. Gen. David Baratto, a former Special Forces adviser. By contrast, said fellow Vietnam veteran Killebrew, forces recruited from tight-knit tribes such as the Montagnards were more cohesive and harder for Communist agents to penetrate.

The key is whether the society is coherent to start with, argues Bruce Gudmundsson, a retired Marine Corps major and military historian. In Vietnam, Marine-trained village militias functioned fairly well, united by traditional Confucian loyalties. But in Latin America's "blood-feud culture," such U.S.-trained paramilitaries often massacred their local rivals, he said. "Organize these units, hand out guns, and they're like a kid at Christmas. They go nuts." Witness the bloody clashes of paramilitaries in Colombia in the past decade. The clannish culture of Iraq, Gudmundsson fears, is all too similar.

One U.S. adviser who returned recently from Iraq has far more faith in the Iraqis. "The Iraqi people are great; I came to love 'em," he said. True, when he first started overseeing a government office, the Baath Party holdover in charge showed up for work only on Tuesdays and Thursdays; often, on the other days, "he would take workers home and work on his house." But when the U.S. adviser put his foot down, the ex-Baathist came in every day and stopped dragooning subordinates for personal projects. And when some employees began threatening colleagues who worked too closely with the U.S. authority, the rest of the Iraqis turned against them and turned them in. The threats stopped.

Not all such threats prove empty, however. Assassins-whether guerrillas or gangsters- have claimed officials from Iraqi Governing Council member Akila al Hashemi to the police chief in the Sunni Triangle town of Khaldiya. It is not that Iraq lacks honest citizens willing to work with the United States. It's that these Iraqis lead dangerous lives.

For members of the New Iraqi Army, living on bases and in barracks, the danger may not be so immediate. But it will be intense for those Iraqi forces who have to live (along with their families) in the same areas they patrol: that is, for the Civil Defense Corps and, above all, the police.


Ahmed Ibrahim rejoined the Baghdad police force the day after the city fell to American forces. "On 10 April, I had only 25 police," he recalled. "Many of them, they are afraid. But the 25 persons follow me, and we fight, many times," battling Baathist diehards and organized criminals. "The Iraqi police have courage."

But few Iraqi police are so aggressive. They were conditioned for three decades not to be. It was Saddam's secret police who went out among the people and kept them cowed. Regular police stayed in their stations until their Baathist masters called. Such a role kept police officers largely innocent of the regime's atrocities, but it also kept them largely ignorant of basic patrolling and detective work.

"At the scene of the Jordanian Embassy bomb [on Aug. 7], I spoke to the investigating officer about his plan to secure the scene and do the investigation," said Douglas Brand, a veteran British cop now advising the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. The Iraqi replied, "I've never done this before. We were never allowed-it was the secret police."

When Iraqi police do hit the streets hard, guns blazing, chasing criminals, they sometimes run afoul of U.S. forces who mistake them for guerrillas. In the bloodiest single incident, in Falluja on Sept. 12, American troops mistakenly killed eight Iraqi officers. The already-troubled town erupted in outrage. But Ibrahim points to some reasons for the confusion: Although the officers' AK-47 rifles were in view, their car was unmarked, without lights or sirens. A major effort is under way to give police distinctively marked patrol cars, and to exchange their old military-looking green uniforms for a distinctively civilian blue.

All of these problems call not just for re-equipping the Iraqi police, but for reacculturating them. Officers from the Saddam era are being given an intensive three-week course in respecting human rights and in collecting actual evidence instead of simply squeezing a suspect to confess. And the coalition plans to recruit almost 40,000 officers. For these new enlistees, recruiters will target better-educated Iraqis than did the old regime, and they will put them through an eight-week training program on Western principles and with Western instructors.

Finding enough foreign teachers has been a problem, however. Although U.S. and British military police are overseeing the Iraqis, they are stretched thin. Brand admitted that he is one of only "about 30" international civilian police officers in Iraq, a country with 24 million people. Compare that figure to the more than 1,800 international police who were in place in Kosovo, the Yugoslavian province with a population of 1.9 million, six months after fighting ended there in 1999. And the Kosovo force was widely criticized at the time as being too small and its expansion too slow. For Iraq, contractor DynCorp is recruiting a thousand American civilian police trainers on behalf of the State Department; Brand's plans will require U.S. diplomats to persuade other countries to contribute 500 more officers.

The task ahead is huge, but not hopeless. After all, the Iraqi police force has already built itself back up from next to nothing. "At the end of the war, most of the police ... sort of melted away," Brand said. In the rampant looting after the war, he said, "all the vehicles disappeared; all the weapons disappeared; and police stations ... were completely trashed," with even the copper wiring ripped from the walls. But the word went out for officers to return, reconstruction funds flowed in, and now 40 of Baghdad's 60 police stations are staffed and back in operation.

There is an irony to this success, though. Change the word "police" to "military," and Brand's description of postwar devastation could apply equally well to Iraq's army and its bases. Yet whereas the coalition revived the police, it decided to disband the army and start again from scratch. That controversial choice is shaking, and reshaping, the Iraqi security apparatus to its foundations.

The Army

In the 20th century, the army was the strongest institution in Iraq; even after Saddam shunted it aside in the 1980s in favor of his personal security forces, it retained a certain prestige and pride. Few people expected it to take the field against the U.S. juggernaut. Most experts, and U.S. planners, expected Iraqi troops to stay in their barracks.

Instead, most of them went home. "We did not disband the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army disbanded itself," insisted Walter Slocombe, chief adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, in a Sept. 17 press conference. Unlike civilian police, who volunteered for service where they lived, soldiers under Saddam's regime were drafted and sent to serve far from home. If the coalition had tried to reassemble the military the way it did the police, on a volunteer basis, said Slocombe, "you might have gotten a lot of officers, but there would have been no troops." Bremer's edict dissolving the armed forces, Slocombe argued, was a mere formality.

That decision has been sharply criticized. Prewar planning counted on at least some Iraqi army units staying intact to help restore order, to rebuild roads, to clear Iraqi-planted land mines, and to perform other tasks. Even in the chaos that actually emerged, the coalition recruited ex-soldiers to perform certain jobs. Given the desperate unemployment that still prevails, "if you'd put out a call for the Iraqi armed forces, they'd have shown up" in the early days of occupation, just as police and ministry bureaucrats did, said one American official involved with reconstruction. Now, instead, "these are guys with guns and no hope in life. I'm not sure that was a great decision."

Coalition officials maintain that they are making progress with the new army. In September, Slocombe announced that he would double the pace at which the first army battalions were being trained, and that all 27 would be fielded within one year instead of the scheduled two. This is possible, he said, because of the surprisingly sound foundation of military skills left behind by the old army. "What we learned," Slocombe said, "is that the Iraqi army was not much good for some things, but it did a perfectly competent job of basic training." The glaring shortfalls under Saddam were in the lower ranks of leadership- those sergeants and lieutenants who run an army on a daily basis. So the new, accelerated training scheme will focus on training them, then fill out the ranks with privates drawn from the old army who will be run through a "brief refresher" course.

The New Iraqi Army will be distinctly limited: fewer than 40,000 men, mostly "motorized infantry"-Pentagonese for guys with rifles who ride in trucks-filled out by support troops, a few tanks, artillery pieces, and helicopters, and a small coast guard. With Iraq sandwiched between well-armed Turkey, Syria, and Iran, no one expects this army to be more than a stopgap force, a place-holder for what may come later after Iraq has an elected, sovereign government.

The coalition is deferring the question of high-level military leadership as well. The new army will initially fall under coalition control, with no Iraqis holding the rank of colonel, let alone general. Although Slocombe left the door open to rehiring a handful of senior officers from the old regime, he emphasized that the new army will truly be a different institution.

So for all the chaos it created in the short run, the decision to disband the old army and start over might have been a good one-the one move bold enough to break an 80-year tradition of military entanglement in politics. But if the New Iraqi Army is to stay out of the domestic arena, coalition leaders figure, the beleaguered police will need heavily armed help from some other force: a paramilitary hybrid with military-strength weapons but police-type powers. That hybrid is the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

Civil Defense

In an ideal world, soldiers fend off foreign enemies, police catch homegrown crooks, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Reality is not so clean. Even in constitutionally scrupulous America, the lawless Western frontier turned scattered U.S. Army forts into high-powered police stations and the Texas Rangers into a mini-military. Criminal gangs and hostile Indians operated in groups too small for an army to catch and too big for a lone lawman to overcome. The need was for an intermediary force, operating in larger units and with heavier weapons than police, but smaller and lighter than a regular army-what is called a "constabulary" force. And if the principles of the Wild West apply anywhere on Earth today, it has to be in Iraq.

With its white helmets and fully automatic AK-47 rifles, the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps is just such a hybrid force. It is, in essence, a coalition-controlled militia. The U.S. commander in a given area recruits local Iraqis to help patrol their home region. He then organizes them in auxiliary units under his command to support his own U.S. forces. This local recruiting is to spread out in an "ink blot" pattern from region to region. The idea is to start with relatively friendly populations-the U.S. 101st Airborne and 4th Infantry divisions organized the first civil defense units in the friendlier Kurdish and Turkic parts of northern Iraq-before taking on trouble spots such as the "Sunni Triangle" west of Baghdad, where recruiting got under way in mid-September.

"It's a crawl-walk-run approach," said Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel now serving as a special adviser to the Defense Department. Initial civil defense missions were mostly site security and border patrols, but ultimately, said Anderson, "I'd like to see them out patrolling in the neighborhoods." To grow into such an active role, dealing with restive civilians on a daily basis, "they're probably going to take a lot longer to train, and a lot longer to mentor," Anderson added. The more effective we want the Iraqis to be on their own in the long run, he continued, the more intensively we must work with them at the outset.

Anderson's approach draws on eight decades of U.S. experience in raising local forces, both in Vietnam-where the Marine Corps's combined-action platoons, partnering a U.S. squad with village militia, were considered one of the few successes of the war-and in the Caribbean. In U.S. interventions during the 1920s and '30s, marines created pro-U.S. constabularies in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama.

But this history is not a happy one. "In each one of those cases, the U.S. had to subsequently go back in and take down those regimes" decades later, said Robert Perito, whose forthcoming book-"Where Is the Lone Ranger When We Need Him?" -chronicles constabulary forces from the Texas Rangers to the present. The Nicaraguan constabulary eventually made its chief, Anastasio Somoza, a dictator; the popular backlash handed power to the Sandinistas, a Communist threat that obsessed the Reagan administration. And by 1965 in the Dominican Republic, by 1989 in Panama, and by 1994 in Haiti, forces descended from American-trained constabularies were propping up dictators so terrible that the U.S. itself sent troops to oust them.

"We did not do a particularly good job of overall nation building" in the Caribbean, Anderson acknowledged. "We saw the problem as essentially a security problem, to secure various commercial and financial interests." Anderson insists that the United States is not replicating this myopia in Iraq. The Civil Defense Corps is intended as a stopgap for the current crisis, not as a permanent fixture of the new Iraq. And it will be one part of a wider program of institution-building, not the sole legacy that U.S. forces leave behind.

Indeed, the most significant departure from the Caribbean model is that the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps will not have a monopoly on military power. Iraq will have its army and other police and border forces. In Nicaragua, by contrast, the U.S. had only the constabulary force, and did not allow an independent police force even in the capital, Managua. Likewise, when the United States had finished creating constabularies in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Panama, "there was no other armed force in those countries.... Given human nature, it was too great a temptation for those people not to take over," Perito noted. "There will be other armed groups in Iraq that will be a counterbalance."

Anderson agreed with Perito's analysis. "A lot of people say, hey, there's just too many of these things running around" in Iraq, Anderson said. "But look at all the overlapping jurisdictions we've got in the United States." In the United States, federal agents, state troopers, and local cops all check and balance one another; in the Soviet Union, the Red Army, KGB, and Interior Ministry kept each other under close watch for decades; and in the new Iraq, the three main forces-army, police, and civil defense-could form another such tripod. At the very least, such balance will improve the chances for stability. And at best, the diffusion of military power will prevent the concentration of political power in the hands of some new Saddam.

Enlisting Iraqis in the battle for Iraq entails some real risks. But ultimately, it is their country and their war to win or lose. Said Anderson, "There's great danger in not getting the Iraqis involved in the fight at all."