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Iraq: Domestic Security Forces Face Major Challenges

Iraqi police on parade in Karbala in October 2006 (epa) February 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As part of the new U.S. strategy to stem the violence in Iraq, U.S. military leaders are pushing Iraqi forces to take the lead in security operations, backed up when necessary by U.S. airpower or troops. However, recent events and reports call into question whether Iraqi forces are adequately prepared for this task.

On January 28, Diyala Governate police chief Ghanim al-Qureyshi announced that 1,500 local police officers had been dismissed for fleeing when the city of Ba'qubah was attacked by Sunni insurgents last November. He added that Ba'qubah Mayor Khalid al-Sinjari had been dismissed amid suspicions that he had collaborated with Sunni insurgents.

Also, recent events in Karbala and Al-Najaf indicate that the Diyala incident could be symptomatic of a larger problem among the security forces of the post-Saddam Hussein era. A new report by two members of the Iraq Study Group, former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, says the United States erred in the training of Iraqi security forces by assigning the wrong U.S. agencies to oversee the task, AP reported on January 31.

Wrong People, Wrong Approach

According to the report, Washington gave the task of reshaping the Iraqi police force to the State Department and to private contractors who "did not have the expertise or the manpower to get the job done."

"This group had more capabilities than the government," Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd al-Husayn Abtan, describing the militant group that attacked Al-Najaf late last month.

Even after the Defense Department took over this training in 2004 and invested more resources, it was clear that the U.S. military did "not have the right experience or personnel to provide the unique training that the Iraqi Police Service needs."

In addition, the new report stresses that Iraq lacks competent street-level, law enforcement personnel and a functioning judicial system free of corruption. It urges that the restructuring of the largely nonfunctioning Iraqi judicial system should be in the hands of the Justice Department, while U.S. law enforcement officials should be in charge of transforming the Iraqi police.

"Long-term security depends as much on the Iraqi police and judicial system as the Iraqi Army," the report says. "Unless we help create a capable, trained professional police force, and functioning criminal justice system, ordinary Iraqis will not live in peace, and will not have confidence in their new government."

On January 31, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart Bowen released a quarterly report that found that rampant corruption and mismanagement of tens of millions of dollars in aid have severely hampered Iraq's reconstruction efforts, including the training of Iraq's security forces.

Among the issues the 579-page report highlighted were the ongoing renovation of the $72 million Baghdad Police College, which was cited in the previous quarterly SIGIR report as being plagued with construction problems, including plumbing so inadequate that sewage on the second and third floors spills over into the rest of the building.

Even after the SIGIR brought the problem to the attention of the U.S. government, problems persisted, further delaying turning the facility over to the Iraqi government.

"The Baghdad Police College construction and renovation results were not consistent with the original contract objectives," the report said. "The project was poorly designed and constructed, and the contractor and United States Army Corps of Engineers did not effectively manage the project."

Missing Weapons, Equipment

In addition, the report indicated that "$36.4 million in weapons and equipment [intended for police use and training] could not be accounted for, including armored vehicles, body armor, and communications equipment."

On January 20, armed gunmen attacked a Provincial Joint Coordination Center in the southern city of Karbala, resulting in the abductions and deaths of five U.S. soldiers. As details of the attack surfaced, U.S. officials reported that the attackers wore uniforms resembling those worn by U.S. forces and drove in vehicles commonly used by U.S. contractors.

Iraqi security forces at a ceremony to hand over security responsibility in Karbala in October 2006 (epa)

An unnamed Iraqi official told "The New York Times" on January 31 that the attackers had also carried forged U.S. identity cards, U.S.-style M-4 rifles, and stun grenades of a kind used only by U.S. forces in Iraq.

The sophistication and coordination of the attack was unprecedented. The perpetrators passed through several layers of security before entering the military facility. Although, U.S. officials have alleged that Iranians or Iranian-trained operatives carried out the attack, the incident seemed to point to the continuing infiltration of Iraq's security forces by rogue elements.

In the past, accusations of infiltration were leveled at the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi Interior Ministry, which controls the Iraqi police. Both U.S. and Sunni-Arab officials have long accused the ministry and its security forces of being infiltrated by Shi'ite-militia elements that use the cover to carry out sectarian attacks against the Sunni-Arab population.

If the accusations that Iranians had a direct hand in carrying out the Karbala attack prove accurate, then Iran's influence within Iraq's security forces could well be much deeper than previously thought. Where Iran was formerly believed to be aiding some Shi'ite militias, it may actually be manipulating them to wage a proxy battle against the United States.

The Case Of Al-Najaf

The operation by Iraqi forces against the Army of Heaven outside the holy city of Al-Najaf on January 28, although ultimately successful, also raised serious questions about Iraq's security forces.

The mere fact that this well-equipped and, by some accounts, well-trained force was able to organize itself without attracting the attention of the Iraqi military indicates weak intelligence-gathering capabilities.

More importantly, reports on the ground indicated that Iraqi forces were nearly overwhelmed by the Army of Heaven and prevailed only with the help of U.S. air support. During a news conference after the battle ended, Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd al-Husayn Abtan tellingly said: "This group had more capabilities than the government."

With Iraqi and U.S. forces on the verge of launching a major military operation to secure Baghdad, the near-disastrous confrontation in Al-Najaf can hardly be seen as an optimistic indication that the Iraqi forces are adequately prepared.

Sectarian Iraq

Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.