By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 26, 2007 – Iraq's growing police force is technically competent and functioning as it should within the country's legal system, a top U.S. police trainer said yesterday. The operational problems they have experienced are primarily the result of an unusually tumultuous security situation in Baghdad and elsewhere, said Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, deputy commander of the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team and the senior military police officer in theater.
"I believe the Iraqi police are getting very capable in handling the law enforcement type mission and traffic mission. The problem you have is ... that there's a lot of terrorists and insurgents who want to see them fail," Phillips said, speaking to online journalists from Baghdad.
The Iraqi army, Phillips explained, is trained to contend with terrorism.
"When you compare the Iraqi army, who are over here fighting in an insurgency and against terrorists, we are training the police to perform law enforcement," he said. "The training we give them - although they get tactical training - is primarily focused on being a police officer."
Under normal conditions, Phillips said, the police would be engaged in "investigating crime and traffic patrols."
In these capacities, the general said, the police are performing dramatically better now than even two years ago, when Phillips was last deployed to Iraq. He cited examples of traffic cops waving his convoy through traffic circles, and patrol officers walking their beat in a Baghdad neighborhood while local children played nearby.
With nearly 170,000 regular police on the country's rosters, Phillips noted that in many areas of the country the Iraqi security forces operate virtually independently of U.S. and international guidance.
"Approximately 75 percent of the country gets very minimal coalition force presence," he said. Those areas are "under the control of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, and they're out there doing what you'd expect them to do."
It is in Baghdad and other particularly restive areas, Phillips explained, that though "it is truly Iraqis in the lead now," the coalition continues to provide support.
And in areas such as violence-prone Anbar province, Phillips said, tribal sheikhs are now encouraging their relatives and affiliates to create local units to stand up to terrorist and insurgent activity - in effect, a "community watch."
Such forces, he said, are being created under the umbrella of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior and will function as an extension of the standard police force.
An official government sanction is crucial to the success of these initiatives and will be forthcoming, Phillips said, though he noted there are worries among the sheikhs as to where and how their associates could be used.
"They want to come into the system, be sanctioned as police; they want to be trained as police," Phillips said. "Their concern is if they're trained will they be sent out of that area and then have to work in an area - they're predominantly Sunni - would they have to work in a predominantly Shiia area? That's where they object."
The Iraqi leadership, with coalition assistance, is trying to work out the command and control relationships for these organizations, Phillips said.
The general admitted the question of sectarian loyalty remains an issue throughout the force, but said its effect is less severe than commonly believed.
The police, Phillips explained, are trained at academies close to their homes and return to those homes at the completion of their courses, as opposed to Iraqi army soldiers, who train as a unit and then deploy to different locations.
For the graduating policeman, he said, "you go back to the same community you were in, ... and you're policing in the neighborhood where your family is, with the same influences you had, with people who are like you."
Sectarian bias will naturally apply in these cases, Phillips said.
"When you look, is one police force in this city predominantly Sunni and one in another city predominantly Shiia? Yes, it's going to be natural that way. But we also have mixed forces in the towns that are mixed."
Baghdad is a prime example of a mixed-force town, Phillips said, and working out the dynamics there among diverse populations will remain a challenge.
Useful progress is being made in screening out known risks from the police recruiting pool, however, Phillips said. He noted an Iraqi-operated "Automated Fingerprint Identification System" and other biometric information are being used to check potential recruits against a database of known or suspected criminals.
"I think the vetting process is not perfect, but it's catching quite a few who you would not want to be one of your community cops on the corner," Phillips said.
Addressing another common criticism of the Iraqi force, the general said overcrowding in police detention facilities does still occur, but is the product of temporary delays in legal processing rather than a flawed system.
"Yes, there's overcrowding," Phillips said, "And the reason is because of the number of investigative judges." The number of judges is not equal to the backlog of criminal cases, he said.
To compensate, Phillips noted, in addition to training more judges, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, Multinational Force Iraq commander, is expediting work on a "Rule of Law" complex in Baghdad that will house investigative judges, investigators, trial judges, police and detention facilities all in one compound. The proximity of all the key players in the Iraqi criminal justice system should streamline the legal process and help keep detention centers operating at normal levels, he explained.
"If there's a delay there, that's where you start seeing crowding in the jails," Phillips said. "The system in place as templated is a pretty good system; we just have to get the number of judges, the facilities and all of that, stood up."
Capacity issues aside, Phillips noted, the police are performing admirably in their assigned roles in a situation that is grossly outside their traditional mandate.
Until that security situation stabilizes, Phillips noted, U.S. forces will continue to support the police in their mission.
"If they're out there doing a simple operation and all of a sudden a terrorist starts shooting at them, of course they do not have the firepower to return - they're police officers - but they contact us and we respond," he said.
Still, despite the underlying security challenge, Phillips said, there is reason for optimism regarding the police's long-term effectiveness.
"If you took the equation of the terrorists and the insurgents out of the mix," he said, "You have a nationally trained police force that, I think, would be able to do quite well."
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)
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