Whether we ultimately stay or go, we need to contain the burgeoning forces of chaos now—and that requires fixing Iraq’s policing problems. An expert explains how.

In combating an insurgency, the police are a crucial force. After Baghdad fell in 2003, Ambassador Paul Bremer, the president’s emissary to Iraq, tried ineffectually to turn sad-sack local cops into the primary force for establishing order. In 2004 and 2005, the insurgents, led by al-Qaeda extremists, carried out ruthless attacks that drove those police forces, poorly led and haphazardly trained, to the sidelines. Torture, mass executions, and public beheadings were common. Throughout the Sunni Triangle, the police hid in their stations and refused to get involved, casting a blind eye to the insurgents burrowed in like ticks among the population. Police forces in major Sunni cities like Fallujah and Ramadi made as few as ten arrests a month. “No police chief in the U.S. could keep his job with such performance,” Ralph Morten, a senior detective in the Los Angeles Police Department on his sixth visit to Iraq, told me.

But the police are reticent for good reason: they are deathly afraid of the insurgents, who threaten to kill them and their families for cooperating with the Americans or the Maliki government. Not long ago in Fallujah, the deputy police chief was executed. When the police arrested two men for the murder, a local judge hurriedly dismissed the charges. Half the police force walked off the job in protest, explaining to American troops that this was why they didn’t make arrests. Colonel Larry Nicholson, the top marine in Fallujah, says he understands why the police weren’t making more arrests. “First, they have to stay alive,” he told me. “The new chief has told his men to live in the barracks and have their families live out of town. You can’t be a decent cop in this city and expect to go home at night.”

Meanwhile, according to U.S. military sources, the Iraqi Interior Ministry permitted Shia militias to infiltrate the police throughout Baghdad and southern Iraq, and then let criminals and Shia death squads operate with impunity—and in some cases actively cooperated with them. (Prime Minister Maliki, himself a Shiite, told me that Bremer had caused the police failure by recruiting “bad elements” and providing poor training.)

As a result, the police in Baghdad are among the most wretched in the world. New York City cops send some 26,000 criminals to prison every year; in Baghdad, with twenty times the murder rate, that number is at best 2,000. (New York City’s population is 8 million; Baghdad’s is about 6 million.) During the month I spent in Iraq in the fall, U.S. forces in Baghdad killed 110 Iraqis and detained about 1,100. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Winski, whose battalion guards the southern approach to the city, told me that he knew of police chiefs who had been relieved of duty by the Maliki government for cracking down on militia members.

In the Sunni district of Doura, in southern Baghdad, I found row upon row of middle-class houses with Humvees parked at the end of every other street. “Our presence has cut down the murders,” Colonel Michael Beech told me with evident pride. “We can’t do it for them forever, though. The question is whether the Iraqi politicians want their own police to succeed.”

Beech had deployed one American company (140 men) and an Iraqi police company for every two city blocks throughout Doura, an area comprising roughly 1,300 houses and 17,000 people. At that rate, it would take a force of about 100,000 to control the entire city. At the time of my visit, there were only 14,000 Americans and 40,000 Iraqi police in Baghdad.

Presented by

Bing West

F. J. “Bing” West, who served as a marine in Vietnam and as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, is the author of The Village and No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In