BAGHDAD–The Iraqi police force has more 200,000 people on its payroll and very few of them have a bank account. Checks are unheard of and unwelcome. So how do they get paid?
This may seem like a mundane question, but if you play Columbo sometimes you find interesting things. I found that Westerners have to adapt to Iraqi ways as often as the reverse is true. Also, when establishing institutions in Iraq, you must take nothing for granted. The Iraqis and their allies are often struggling with problems too basic for critics to even imagine, such as simply paying employees.
Investigating the police pay question led me to Brigadier General Robert P.M. Weighill, a British officer who is in charge of advising the Iraqi police. I found him at a briefing in the Green Zone at the Combined Press Information Center, a concrete parking garage larded with container-sized trailers. Some are offices, others are showers and toilets. The hum of air conditioners and generators is constant as is the swarm of malicious black flies.
At first, he seems surprised by my question. Most reporters want to know about insurgent infiltration, dirty cops or corruption. One persistent National Public Radio reporter wanted him to confirm that the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and intelligence services, is divided between Sunni and Shia and that members of one confession are afraid to visit floors where they would be in the religious minority. “That is a myth,” Gen. Weighill said. “I walk every nook and cranny on all eleven floors and I have never heard one complaint from staff” on this subject. Nor did he see any evidence. People from one floor join him for meetings on other floors. Nor are staff segregated by religion, but by specialty.
The male NPR reporter, whose name I didn’t catch, seemed both suspicious and disappointed by Gen. Weighill’s answer.
So how are they paid?
Surprisingly, all of them are paid in cash. This is how the police and nearly every other government employee was paid in the Saddam era. As a result, there is something comfortingly solid about receiving a stack of dinars in your hand. And it is a stack. At the current exchange rate, it is roughly 1300 dinars to the dollar. Police are paid between $300 and $600 per month, depending on rank–almost double the salary rate in Saddam’s regime.
Even more of a surprise: in a country where law and order often seems more like a slogan than a description, it is a miracle that a “pay wagon” has never been hijacked or bombed.
So how does the ministry safely ship cash to roughly 1000 Iraqi police stations every month? The “pay wagons” are manned by ordinary police, driving standard police cars. “Nothing distinguishes them” from regular patrol cars. In fact, they are ordinary police cars, dents and all. Armored cars would draw too much attention and cost too much to operate anyway.
The money is delivered without fanfare, much like Chinese food is delivered in the U.S. “They just pitch up in the pay wagon, open the boot and the shurtas are happy as Larry,” Gen. Weighill explained. Shurtas are young police offers.
The movements are kept secret and do not move according to a fixed schedule. Police are not likely to inform the enemy about the pay wagon’s schedule; they would be robbing themselves.
“There are virtually no pay complaints,” Gen. Weighill said. The commander pays all of the police out of the same sack of money and each member of the precinct sees the others being paid.
Gen. Weighill’s one worry about pay is a planned modernization effort. By the end of 2008, the Interior Ministry wants to pay all of its employees electronically. That means setting up more than a quarter million bank accounts that can receive direct deposit. That is certain to lead to problems, he says. Even in a modern country, like Britain, it does. He explains the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is migrating from one electronic system to another in the coming month. He has already received an e-mail that his next pay check will be a month late.
What if that happened in Iraq?