Progress of Iraq's Army, Police Inspires Optimism
A key reason that President Bush gave in his speech last January for increasing troops in Iraq was that it would stem the violence long enough for Iraq's army and police to take over their own security.
In September, a report prepared for Congress found that while the army had made some progress, it was far from ready to protect the country. The same report concluded that Iraq's national police force was so corrupt and infiltrated by sectarian death squads that it should be disbanded.
On the Ground, Americans Optimistic
Alston Middleton, a Marine major at Camp Besmaya, an Iraqi army base, acknowledges that the 152,000-member Iraqi army has a long way to go. But he's hopeful.
"I also see the training that's going on, and the units that are coming through are getting a lot more confident, and they're really starting to put a good army together," he says.
Training was a key problem listed in the so-called "Jones report," an assessment of the Iraqi security forces that was led by retired Marine Gen. James Jones.
The September report said that Iraq's army wasn't ready to defend the country and wouldn't be ready for more than a year.
But it said the army was getting better.
Brig. Gen. Robin Swan is the commander of the Military Assistance Training Team. He says the Iraqi army has come a long way since September.
"The brigade that just preceded this one was formed and trained in about a month and a half, and they are currently in the area of operations in Baghdad, and they're conducting patrols, they're working with coalition forces, and they're doing quite well," Swan says.
Abd al-Qadir al-Mufriji, Iraq's minister of defense, told reporters that his immediate goal is to build Iraq's military to the point where it can replace the U.S.-led occupation forces, without leaving any gaps in security. He told his troops at the graduation ceremony that what he wants from them is performance and fidelity to a unified Iraq, welded together by all its ethnic groups.
Cleaning Up the Iraqi Police
While the Ministry of Defense and the Iraqi army got a mixed grade in the Jones report in September, the investigators had no reservations about the Ministry of Interior and its national police force. The reviews were uniformly bad.
One key passage in the Jones report reads: "The Ministry of Interior is a ministry in name only. It is widely regarded as being dysfunctional and sectarian, and suffers from ineffective leadership."
For the past year and a half, Shiite politician Jawad al-Bolani has led the ministry. He acknowledges that the ministry hasn't always had clean hands, but he insists that he's been making steady progress.
"I'm telling you, the cleaning process is going on," Bolani says.
Bolani also argues that his ministry manages tens of thousand of police and firefighters who have been front-line responders to every terrorist attack. He says his men have taken the brunt of casualties.
Bolani inherited a lot of problems, the greatest of which may have been the 25,000-member national police, a quasi-military organization that is designed to fight terrorism and help counter the insurgency.
The Jones report said the national police force was too riddled with crime — too deeply intertwined with Shiite death squads — to ever be reformed.
Alessandro Pompegnani, a major general in the Italian army and the deputy commander of the NATO training mission in Iraq, acknowledges that the Jones report was probably correct at the time it was written.
But, he says, "we are confident ... that the national police could not be disbanded, but differently educated."
Pompegnani wears confidence the way he wears his sweeping white mustachios, but he's backed up by trainers from one of the toughest police forces in Europe, Italy's Carabinieri.
Bolani didn't accept the Jones commission's recommendation to disband the national police, but some American commanders say Bolani has been aggressively cleaning house in his police agencies.
"He just, in October alone, fired almost 200 policemen," says Lt. Gen. James Dubik. "He's changed out the commanders of both national police divisions, [nine of 10] brigade commanders, either retired them or not."
The interior minister is paying a steep price for his reforms, Dubik says. Some of his key assistants have been assassinated.
Distrust for the National Police Widespread
Dubik argues that it will take time to root out corruption and sectarianism in the police. It may take a lot more time to change the perceptions of ordinary Iraqis, many of whom have learned to fear their national police.
Ahmed Ali Nasr is a former army officer, but at 47, he's now unemployed. He rejects claims that the national police are being reformed.
"This is just something they say for the media," Nasr says. "They claim 15,000 police have been dismissed. That's a lie! You show me one policeman who's been kicked out because of corruption."
Not everyone agrees. Radwan Shakir, 24, operates his own small grocery story. He says he's more inclined to trust the national police than he used to be.
"We used to avoid national police checkpoints, but now the police are bringing in good people and getting rid of the bad ones," he says.
A Challenge to Jones
Bolani issues an invitation — and a challenge — to Jones:
"I'm calling upon Mr. Jones again to come over here and to check about his report — the last report — and right now. Because right now a huge difference has been made."
The timing of the invitation is symbolic. Wednesday was Iraq's Police Day, a yearly holiday to honor law enforcement.
Earlier this week, Iraqis also saw a larger-than-usual turnout for marches and events marking National Army Day, a day that was marred by a bombing that killed several soldiers and civilians at a commemoration ceremony.
Iraqis have been waiting a long time for something to honor in their security forces.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.