The Best Police Force in Iraq

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RAMADI, IRAQ — In late July when I visited a police station in the town of Mushadah just north of Baghdad I worried that Iraq was doomed to become the next Gaza. As many as half the police officers, according to most of the American Military Police who worked as their trainers, were Al Qaeda sympathizers or agents. The rest were corrupt lazy cowards, according to every American I talked to but one. No one tried to spin Mushadah into a success story. By itself this doesn’t mean the country is doomed. How important is Mushadah, anyway? I hadn’t even heard of it until the day before I went there myself. But Military Police Captain Maryanne Naro dismayingly told me the quality of the police and their station was “average.” That means one of two things. Either Mushadah is more or less typical, or roughly half the Iraqi Police force is worse.
I had a much better experience when I embedded, so to speak, with the Iraqi Police in Kirkuk. I trusted the Iraqi Police in that city enough that I was willing to travel with them without any protection from the American military, even though Kirkuk is still a part of the Red Zone. Kirkuk, though, is an outlying case. The Iraqi Police there are Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq are the most pro-American people I have ever met in the world. They are more pro-American than Americans. There is no Kurdish insurgency, and the only Kurdish terrorist group — Ansar Al Islam, which recently changed its name to Al Qaeda in Kurdistan — is based now outside a town called Mariwan in northeastern Iran. The Iraqi Police in Kirkuk may be corrupt, but they aren’t terrorists or insurgents.
The Kurds have problems of their own, even so, and not every Arab region of Iraq is the same shade of dysfunctional. Every complaint I heard about the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police in and around Baghdad was balanced with genuine praise for the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police in and just outside Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, which until recently was the most violent war-torn place in all of Iraq. If these Iraqis were typical — and make no mistake, they are not — the American military might have little reason to stay.
Captain Dennison and his men took me to the Al Majed station just outside the city on the banks of the Euphrates River.
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“They recently changed the name,” he said as we parked the Humvees outside. “The station used to have a tribal name, but they’re trying to move away from that now.”
The Al Majed station is so much cleaner than the one in Mushadah I could hardly believe what I was looking at.
Order and tidiness aren’t everything, but police officers who live and work in a sloppy dump of a station don’t inspire much confidence. If they can’t clean up their own space, how can they be expected to clean up a neighborhood infested with terrorists, insurgents, and criminals? They can’t, at least not in Mushadah, especially since as many as half the police themselves are terrorists, insurgents, and criminals.
The Al Majed station wasn’t as clean and orderly as a hotel, but it was at least as clean and orderly as a hostel. I would have been perfectly comfortable staying there for a week. The station in Mushadah was a nasty place I couldn’t wait to get out of. Even some of the American outposts in Ramadi were disgusting.
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A Humvee outside the Al Majed station in a lagoon of “moon dust” that will be a lake of deep mud in the winter
Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel Jumaa Abdul Rahman, the man in charge of Al Majed, invited me, Captain Dennison, Sergeant First Class Kitts, and First Sergeant Rodriguez into his office for tea. He sat behind his desk, and the four of us sat on couches that circled the room. A young boy brought us dark brown tea with sugar in small plastic cups.
As usual in the Middle East, the greeting ritual was considerate and elaborate. Hello. Welcome. How are you? Fine, I hope. Did you sleep well last night?
“Our success in this region is because of you,” Captain Dennison said to Lieutenant Colonel Rahman. His statement was completely sincere. He was not being perfunctory or merely polite.
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Captain Dennison
“And also because of you,” Lieutenant Colonel Rahman said, also sincerely. “Please don’t leave us.”
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Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel Jumaa Abdul Rahman
Several minutes of idle chit chat followed, which is typical even when the real point of a meeting is business. But there didn’t appear to be any business to discuss. The lieutenant colonel led us outside after a while to admire the view of the river and the orchard of fruit trees behind the station.
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“We see Iraqis smile now,” Sergeant Kitts said to me on our way out. “And seeing Iraqis smile…that’s a big deal. These people haven’t had anything to smile about for a very long time. This is where we are finally earning our money.”
“I agree,” First Sergeant Rodriguez said. “It’s a lot less volatile now, so we can actually move this place forward.”
I walked among the tidy rows of grapes, figs, dates, and olives with Lieutenant Colonel Rahman and an Iraqi interpreter named Jack.
“Now that the fighting is over,” I said, “what kind of work do you focus on?”
“Mainly on gathering intelligence on sleeper cells and support networks,” the colonel said. “It is much easier now. People here are very appreciative and cooperative with what happened and with what is happening now. If Iraqi Police officers or coalition soldiers go to people’s houses they are welcomed with open arms for food and for tea. Before the people here were not allowed to even look at coalition forces or they would be murdered by Al Qaeda.”
“What do you think about the possibility of Americans withdrawing their forces?” I said. He had already said please don’t leave us to Captain Dennison, but I wanted at least a little elaboration.
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Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel Jumaa Abdul Rahman
“That is not in the best interests of Iraq right now,” he said. “We need some more time. If they pull out there will be a real possibility of serious sectarian warfare. Anbar is secure. Only Baghdad and the surrounding area remains to be secured. As soon as that happens, the fight will be over.” He is right to suggest that most of the violence is in the Baghdad area and its surroundings. But it’s still game-on in Mosul and in parts of Diyala Province. Southern Iraq suffers a lot less violence than the center, but Shia militias still control parts of it.
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Jack, an Iraqi interpreter, picks fruit in the orchard
“Are you optimistic?” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Why?” I said.
“I’ll tell you why,” he said. “I could not even dream of seeing what has taken place here in Anbar. Couldn’t even dream of it. If in Anbar, why not in Baghdad?”
“Baghdad is hard,” I said. “It is so much more complicated than here.”
“Yes,” he said and nodded. “Here we are strictly anti-terrorist. In Baghdad the police still favor their sectarian militias.”
I asked Captain Dennison if American troops were still needed in Ramadi, which has not only been cleared of terrorists and insurgents but transformed into one of the most staunchly anti-terrorist communities in the world.
“We still take care of around 80 percent of the logistics for the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police here,” he said. “They’re doing great work, but they still need some help getting organized.”
“What are we doing here today, anyway?” I said. “Do you have anything to do here at the station?” So far all the Americans had done is say hi to the Iraqis and show me around.
“We’re just checking in,” he said. “The Police Transition Teams are out here are training them to do slower more normal police work, less kicking in doors and beating up bad guys. The Iraqi Police are still in a bit of shock from the hell of a few months ago. They are definitely gung-ho anti-terrorists. If anything, at this point, they need to dial it back.”
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An Iraqi Police poster
Until recently the Iraqi Police in Ramadi were more like soldiers than police officers. They weren’t issuing traffic tickets or doing slow procedural work. They were fighting terrorists in a war zone that was every bit as bad as the one in Fallujah just down the road.
“It’s been four months since a single mortar round hit the station,” Captain Dennison said. “None of the Americans or the Iraqis out here have been in a fire fight for several months.” This was in early August.
There wasn’t much dramatic to see or do. Counter-insurgency soldiers often go into hostile areas looking for fights that draw combatants into the open where they can be captured or killed. But the Americans and Iraqis couldn’t find a fight in Ramadi now if they tried. So they do not try.
What can I say about Iraqis and Americans who cooperate with each other professionally and have their act together while ironing out minor problems? Peace is much harder to cover than war. Not much of note happens. Once again, I understood why war correspondents write off Ramadi as boring and why major networks don’t broadcast from there.
The most compelling material I got in that city were war stories several months out of date. Anbar Province may be an ideal location for a historian or reporter who wants to research an oral history of the Iraq war or write human interest stories, but not so much for reporters who need to break news every day. It’s no wonder, really, that so many journalists hole up in the Green Zone and rely on local stringers scattered all over the country to keep them apprised of the most recent car bombs and firefights. It is not, or at least not necessarily, because they are lazy or gutless.
The stories I heard about the battle of Ramadi from these soldiers were harrowing. It’s one thing to relate all this to a journalist. How do they explain what they experienced to their families? It isn’t easy, as Sergeant Kitts explained to me over lunch.
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Sergeant First Class Kitts
“I’m outnumbered at home with a wife and two daughters,” he said. “I love going home, but sometimes it’s hard. My littlest girl asks how long is Daddy going to visit. Visit! It’s my family and my house and I only visit. She doesn’t quite understand what I do. I tried to explain. I said Daddy goes after bad guys. She thought about that. Do the bad guys have guns? she said. Yeah, I said.” I could tell it hurt him to say this. “Don’t forget yours, she said.”
“We went from having 200 police officers last year to having 8,000 today,” Major Lee Peters said. “And that’s not counting those with the orange bands.” The men who wear orange bands instead of blue uniforms are semi-official community watchmen who were deputized by the tribal authorities. The people of Anbar want another layer of hyper-local security in a province Al Qaeda desperately wants to reconquer after their humiliating eviction.
I attended a brief ceremony where hundreds of newly minted Iraqi Police officers graduated.
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Some finished the training and are still waiting to be formally hired. Each unit marched around the room a little bit awkwardly. They looked a bit like amateurs, but everyone who said anything about them insists they are dedicated and reliable.
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Established Iraqi Police officers. Not much uniform discipline.
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An Iraqi police officer just outside the graduation ceremony
“We worry about potential future infiltration by AQI,” or Al Qaeda in Iraq, Colonel John Charlton said. “But we’re very certain this is not a problem right now. The tribal influence on IPs [Iraqi Police] is strong. Every single one of the tribal leaders is against AQI. In Anbar Province it is very shameful and dishonorable to be a terrorist or an insurgent.”
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Captain Dennison also took me to the Farraj police station just outside Ramadi in an area that was sort of a suburb and sort of the countryside.
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Just inside the front door was a large portrait of the much-admired Iraqi Major Quather who was killed by a car bomb during the fighting in early 2007.
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The captain handed me over the First Lieutenant Bryan Schnitker who gave me the grand tour.
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These Iraqi Police officers insisted I take their picture
No one seemed to think the Iraqi Police had been infiltrated, but I wondered if they were corrupt in other ways. Almost everyone with power in the Middle East is at least financially corrupt to an extent.
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An Iraqi Police poster
“The Farraj station doesn’t skim the money we give them,” Lieutenant Schnitker said, “if that’s what you’re asking. We monitor it closely enough that we know they aren’t corrupt. I can say this with confidence. We use to cut them checks, but there’s no bank in Ramadi anymore. It got robbed twice, and that was it. It literally got robbed out of existence. There is no insurance in Iraq, let alone anything like FDIC. So we give them cash, and we watch how they spend it.”
Iraqi Police Colonel Saidi Saleh Mohammad al Farraji, who long ago was a captain in Saddam’s army, invited me and the American officers for lunch in his office. The usual Iraqi fare was served — chicken and lamb kebabs with bread, fried tomatoes, and salad.
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“What’s your biggest challenge,” I said to the colonel, “now that Al Qaeda is gone?”
“It was counter-terrorism,” he said. “Now we just need to make sure the area stays secure so they don’t come back. We have sources in the community who will tell us if they come back. Civilians cooperate with us now, but they didn’t before we built this station. They didn’t feel safe.”
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Colonel Saidi Saleh Mohammad al Farraji
“How much longer do you think the Americans need to stay?” I said. “Would it be okay if they left Anbar Province?”
“Within a year?” he said. “No. We don’t get enough support from the Iraqi government. If we had the support we need from Baghdad it would be okay here. But the government is too infiltrated with militias. It is very dangerous for us to go there.”
Most of his answers to my questions were stock and uninteresting, but he did say something that surprised me a bit when I asked if he had anything he wanted to add.
“All your reporters are men,” he said. “Every reporter I have seen in Ramadi is a man. You should send American women so they can talk to our women. Someone needs to find out what they think about what’s happening here.”
First Lieutenant Schnitker led me to the roof where I could take pictures. It’s hard to photograph the landscape in Iraq because most of it is flatter than Iowa.
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The roof was cooler than I expected thanks to the netting that blocked most of the sunlight. A barbecue and a weight set without weights were the extent of the furniture.
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An Iraqi Police officer manned a machine gun and watched the surrounding countryside.
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We were three stories up. A man bellowing at us in Arabic from ground level.
“What’s he yelling about?” I asked Jack, our Iraqi interpreter.
He laughed.
“He is an IP who got in trouble today,” he said. “I’m not sure what he did, but he was put into detention for an hour. He is saying Let me out! It was supposed to be for one hour, but I’ve been in here for several. It is degrading to be in here with these people.
“Who is he in the cell with?” I said.
“They locked him up with Al Qaeda.”
I froze.
Al Qaeda was just down the steps? I was suddenly overwhelmed with morbid curiosity. Ever since September 11, 2001, I have wanted to look into the eyes of the kinds of people who would murder thousands of innocents and think their reward would be virgins.
A few years ago a friend of mine — an academic, not a journalist — met Qays Ibrahim up in Kurdistan. Qays is an Al Qaeda member or sympathizer who tried to murder Dr. Barham Salih, who was then the Prime Minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and who is now Deputy Prime Minister in Baghdad’s Maliki government.
Qays missed Barham but shot and killed a handful of bodyguards. He’s in prison now just outside the city of Suleimaniya. Barham refuses to sign Qays’s death warrant even though the caged Al Qaedist stridently insists he will again try to murder the Deputy Prime Minister if he ever gets free.
My friend who met the blunt-speaking and chillingly unrepentant Qays in his cell described the encounter as “very scary,” as though the terrorist were an Iraqi version of Hannibal Lector.
“Can I see the prisoners?” I asked Lieutenant Schnitker.
“I don’t see why not,” he said.
Captain Dennison concurred. It would not be a problem.
“Can I take pictures?” I said.
The answer was yes. Military lawyers later gave me clearance to publish them through the public affairs officer.
Now that I had the chance, though, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to meet them, especially since I had no idea what to expect, had no time to prepare myself, and didn’t know what to say if they would talk to me.
We descended the stairs and approached the freestanding cell.
“All they get is a hard floor, a few blankets, some food, and a fan,” said Jack, our Iraqi interpreter. I wondered from the tone in his voice if he thought they deserved even that much.
Sergeant Kitts joined us.
“Can I interview them?” I said as we approached the door.
“You can, but there is no point,” Sergeant Kitts said. “They won’t tell you shit. Hardly any Al Qaeda guys admit to being Al Qaeda. They’re doomed if they do. All they’ll do is deny it.”
“I at least want to see them,” I said.
“They look just like everyone else,” he said.
Of course they look like everyone else, but I still wanted to see. It’s hard to picture Al Qaeda terrorists looking like me or like some random Arab after all they have done. Even many Iraqis I know think of them as an alien race of monsters. Obviously they are not aliens or Orcs or any other kind of non-human monster. They are as human as I. I don’t have to look to know they don’t have horns or a tail. But they saw off the heads of Iraqi children with kitchen knives. I wanted to look. I still don’t understand why.
One of the soldiers unlocked the door. I let them go inside first. I had no idea what to expect.
We stepped through the door. Six young Arab men groggily stood up and faced us in silence. I almost said “Salam Aleikum,” but then I checked myself, unsure if it’s even appropriate to say Peace Be Upon You to the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
I noticed, after a few awkward moments of silence, that they did not say Salam Aleikum to me.
“Why are you here?” I finally said as politely as possible. “Why have they arrested you?”
“We are accused of being Al Qaeda,” said one.
“We are innocent,” said another. “We ask that our case be heard in court soon so we can go home.”
Sergeant Kitts warned me they would deny being terrorists. Maybe they’re liars. Maybe they really aren’t terrorists. There is no way I can know. I wished I could meet someone who didn’t deny it and who was unrepentant like Qays Ibrahim. We could have an interesting, if disturbing, conversation.
They looked tired and bored, and somewhat like marginal people who had been picked on in school and who could not get a job. None looked remotely threatening. Only weapons in their hands could make them look threatening. I thought they looked more like gas station attendents than head-choppers.
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Prisoners alleged to belong to Al Qaeda
Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil came to mind. I was almost disappointed that I wasn’t face to face with a handful of Hannibal Lectors. It would have been a clarifying moment. But life is rarely so poetically simple and obvious.
“Are you treated well here?” I said lamely. None appeared to have been beaten or tortured.
“Yes,” one said and shrugged. He clearly wasn’t happy to be there.
Prisoner abuse is strictly prohibited by the American Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it still happens sometimes in war zones. Many American soldiers have told me that the Iraqi Police, especially, have a hard time restraining their officers.
I lifted my camera. None of the prisoners hid their faces, but one crossed the room to get away from the others.
“He isn’t Al Qaeda,” Jack said. “He is just a common criminal. Don’t think he is one of them.”
I decided, then, not to take that man’s picture.
“Those four are Al Qaeda,” Jack said.
I snapped their pictures.
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A prisoner alleged to belong to Al Qaeda
“That man was caught firing mortars,” he said.
“Say hello to the camera, Ass Munch!” Sergeant Kitts yelled in disgust.
The accused mortar launcher smirked slightly when I took his picture.
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A prisoner alleged to have been caught firing mortars
The American and Iraqi officers, fairly or not, are sure these men are guilty. But they have not been convicted. They only allegedly belong to Al Qaeda.
I need to be careful here, but I want to put the Americans’ and Iraqis’ words into context:
I have seen dozens of Iraqis arrested and brought blindfolded and hand-cuffed into various stations. Almost all are quickly released. American soldiers have told me the overwhelming majority of Iraqis who are arrested aren’t terrorists or insurgents. I never once detected any presumption of guilt just because someone was arrested.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. An interview with alleged terrorists is useless if they deny it. I don’t want to offend innocent Iraqis and falsely accuse them of terrorism. Nor do I wish to publish lies by people who really are killers.
We briefly returned to the main station said our goodbyes to the Iraqi officers.
“Thank you, sir,” I said to Colonel Mohammad and put my hand on his shoulder.
“You are welcome,” he said and shook my hand firmly.
Then we drove back to the base.
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An Iraqi Police checkpoint through the window of a Humvee. Al Qaeda exploded dozens of car bombs at checkpoints like this one during the fighting.
Sergeant Kitts slept in a trailer just around the corner from mine. “That’s where I’ll be,” he said as we walked back, “if you need anything in the middle of the night.”
I took a hot shower — the only kind available in that country in August — and cleansed Iraq from my skin.
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