Insurgent attacks continue to intimidate
The International Herald Tribune
December 1, 2004
By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and James Glanz
Iraqi police and National Guard forces, whose performance is crucial to securing January elections, are foundering in the face of coordinated efforts to murder and intimidate them and their families, according to U.S. officials in the provinces facing the most violent insurgency.
For months, Iraqi recruits for both forces have been the targets of assassinations and car bombs aimed at lines of applicants as well as police stations. On Monday morning, for instance, 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 the training is progressing and there have been cases in which the Iraqis have proved tactically useful and fought bravely, local U.S. commanders and security officials say the 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, have not received adequate training or weapons, present a danger to U.S. troops they fight alongside or are otherwise unreliable because of corruption, desertion or infiltration.
Given the weak performance of Iraqi forces, any major withdrawal of U.S. troops for at least a decade would invite chaos, a senior official at the Interior Ministry said in an interview under condition of anonymity.
South of Baghdad, where U.S. troops are still trying to drive out insurgents after the recent offensive in Falluja, U.S. 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 last month. Iraqi leaders were forced 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.
Those brave enough to come to work have little to do but ensure their own safety, one U.S. military official in Mosul said.
In a telephone interview on Saturday, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander overseeing training of the Iraqi security forces, acknowledged the shortcomings in the Iraqis' performance, particularly that of the police in Mosul and in Anbar Province, which stretches west from Ramadi to the Syrian border.
But Petraeus said Iraqi commando units had done well elsewhere, including Falluja, Najaf, Kut, Hilla, Karbala and much of southern Iraq, where the security situation was not so dangerous.
Iraqi security forces at all levels needed better officers to lead the units, he said. "It's all about leadership," he said. "Where you see that, they really do well."
U.S. 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. Police officers 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 U.S. troops. "You can't have them feeling that if they're surrounded, no one's coming to the rescue," he said.
Among individual battalions of the Iraqi National Guard troops and Iraqi commandos, there are some bright spots. When operating under the direct control and oversight of U.S. forces, some have helped in raids and other missions and continue to be used when U.S. commanders want to enter mosques and other culturally sensitive targets, as happened in Falluja.
But places like Mosul are a particular worry for U.S. commanders, who so far have been unable to slow the insurgents' campaign of intimidation. In recent days, the bodies of at least 69 murdered Iraqis have been found around Mosul, some with notes attached condemning their work with Iraqi forces or with their military identification cards placed atop their corpses.
Even where there have been apparent successes, there are complications. U.S. officials in Mosul, for example, single out one Iraqi National Guard battalion, the 106th, as performing with professionalism. But in an interview, the battalion commander said half of his troops are Kurdish, not Arab.
U.S. commanders praised the Iraqi commandos who took part in a battle to repel insurgents who attacked a police station here two weeks ago. But a U.S. company commander who joined the fight, Captain Bill Jacobsen, noted that out of a force of slightly more than 100 commandos, 10 were killed and 27 wounded. "They got the wood put to them," he said.
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 U.S. Special Forces, said that he tells his wife he is a firefighter, offering her nothing more to explain absences that last weeks.
"I don't tell anyone," the commando said. "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."
U.S. Marine Corps officers here maintain that the police are improving. In the current military sweep, an Iraqi SWAT team was given credit for a series of raids that rounded up many people suspected of being insurgents.
But a different assessment was revealed 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-47s carried by many of the recruits. "Recommend 'Duck & Cover,"' it concluded.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Smith, the commanding officer of a Marine task force here, said the slide was a product of frustration 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 1st Battalion of the Army's 503rd Infantry are briefed to be just as cautious in dealing with Iraqi police as they are with anyone else.
Richard A. Oppel Jr. reported from Mosul 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.
Copyright © 2004 The International Herald Tribune