The Buffness Deficit

What Iraq needs is a homegrown professional police force. What is has is something else: think Police Academy meets The Dirty Dozen 

The conversation was taking place in Khaldiyah, and the subject was resistance. "The American forces and the American citizens, if they come here and treat us without respect, and we raise the white flag," a retired Iraqi army general was fulminating, "they will not respect us."

Khaldiyah lies about an hour and a half northwest of Baghdad, on the road between Fallujah and Ramadi, two points of the much discussed "Sunni Triangle." Given the setting, the general's opinions were not surprising—but given his job description, they were a little discomfiting. The general was Ismail Turki Bou al-Khalifah, and this was the first appointment of his first day as the chief of the Khaldiyah police department. Even as he vowed to fight crime wherever he found it, he made clear that he would not find it in resistance attacks on U.S. forces. He had no plans to apprehend Iraqis engaging in such attacks, nor did he plan to share information about them with locally stationed U.S. intelligence officers.

Pressed on this point, the general pressed back: "If you had a brother in this country in my position, and his country was occupied by foreigners, would you be happy that your brother would take reports to the Americans?"

Ismail retired from the army in 1993 but was now still dressed in his olive-green army uniform. He is fifty-three and has a modest paunch, an almost fair but deeply freckled face ("A baby face!" he blurted out exuberantly at one point, in English), and intent, shiny-penny eyes that he has a habit of widening and making pop at his frequent points of emphasis, as if he were constantly surprising himself. Despite the brand-newness of his job, there was no hint of a fresh start in his surroundings, and no feeling of initiative in the air. His office had been deprived of its door, and its walls, originally white, looked as if they had been scrubbed down with dirt. Eight men, wearing the uniform of the new, postwar Iraqi police or the uniform of the old Iraqi police or the uniform of the Iraqi army or no uniform at all, were either sitting on a stripped, iron-framed bed opposite the general's battered wooden desk, standing in a row next to the bed, or hovering in the doorway. At a certain point one of them disappeared and returned with ice-cold cans of Mountain Dew.

The general's desk was clear of everything except a battered red telephone and a glass ashtray full of dead cigarettes, which was getting steadily fuller as he smoked. When the red phone rang, the general usually picked the receiver up an inch and put it down again without causing the slightest break in the flow of his conversation; this made plain that he either was or wished to seem abundantly certain of himself. When, for instance, he was told that it must be tough to take a job like his at a time like this, he replied, "Every great man can face a difficult circumstance."

In the difficult circumstance of reforming the Iraqi police force, the country could use more than a few great men. The institution faces the daunting task of vaulting—fast and while under fire—from a squalid record of performance to a stellar one. And although attacks by insurgents on the Iraqi police have become a staple of the news coverage of Iraq, in the long term such attacks may well be the least of the force's worries. Likely to be more abiding are the problems stemming from the corruption, ineptitude, and laxity that have long corroded the police force from within (and the depth of which would be hard to overstate); the rampant criminality that has emerged since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime; and the challenges posed by nonpolice groups that many Iraqis feel are far better suited (practically and morally) to fight crime. Most notable among these are the local and foreign ranks of the mujahideen, and the many ad hoc religious and political security details that have recently come into being.

I myself saw courage, industry, and good intentions in abundance among the Iraqi police, and more than once encountered officers who, recently attacked and still in bandages, were already back in uniform and on the job. Nevertheless, it's not unfair to say that the quality of Iraqi police work in the past ran the gamut from actively dreadful to passively dreadful, and that those serving in the ranks ranged from enthusiastic mafia-style enforcers for Saddam's regime to unenthusiastic mafia-style enforcers for Saddam's regime. Either way, officers were pathetically trained, pathetically equipped, and pathetically paid. Bribery routinely determined which crimes were investigated. According to one American MP, immediately after the war officers at one Baghdad police station were stealing cars so as to have something to patrol in.

I got a sense of the situation when I struck up a conversation with an Iraqi shop owner one morning as we both waited for admission at the gates of the police headquarters in Baghdad. From his shop not long before, the man had been able to see the activities of a car-thieving ring; in plain sight criminals were divvying up the cars they had stolen, chopping up the old ones to resell the parts, and selling the new ones whole. He reported this to the police, and that very day the car thieves were arrested. But a few days later he was horrified to receive a visit in his shop from the thieves, who informed him that they had paid $5,000 to the police for their release—and that they now expected him to pay them $12,000, unless he wished to be killed, along with his entire family.

Until recently the police headquarters in Baghdad was situated on the same grounds as the police academy, which is center stage for U.S. efforts to help reform the Iraqi police. By turns these efforts come across as admirable, futile, and darkly hilarious—as I saw for myself when I visited a human-rights class at the academy. I watched as an American MP prepared his students for an examination by going over the exact questions that would be on the exam. These questions included the following:

"True or false—police have to treat everyone fairly and the same except for those who have an opposing opinion of the government." (False!)

"True or false—there are no limits on a person's freedom of religion." (True!)

"True or false—you have to follow all orders of those appointed over you even if they are illegal." (False!)

Many hands shot up each time, and the answers were almost always right, but one could practically see the concepts involved whizzing over the students' heads, crashing into the walls, and falling to the floor in a crumpled heap.

A week or so later I observed a training session conducted by Brenton Fitzgerald Tyrrell, a member of Meteoric Tactical Solutions—a private security firm, made up largely of former members of South Africa's Special Forces. MTS has been engaged to help train what is envisioned as the "sharp edge" of the Iraqi police force: the elite who will raid houses, scale walls, free hostages, and so on.

"Every single guy smokes in Iraq, and no one believes in physical training," Tyrrell told me. He's a compact, fastidious man who looks dry-cleaned even in jeans, and his muscle-to-fat ratio appears to be about the inverse of that of his trainees, who on the day of my visit consisted of a dozen chatty, egg-shaped young men for whom twenty sit-ups was clearly an Everest of exertion. Despite their aggregate buffness deficit, however, the men could not be accused of inactivity. Already employed by the police, and considered indispensable, they had to squeeze their training in among their current duties, some of which were precisely the "sharp edge" missions they were now training for. A number of them showed up not having slept in days, and the stress of this was plain. When granted a water break during their training, almost all began to smoke before they drank.

The situation appeared hopeless—but the South Africans insisted it was not. At first, Tyrrell told me, most of his trainees can hardly run a lap around the field without vomiting, and have such bad aim they couldn't shoot an elephant that was standing still. Yet after a few weeks of sit-ups, drills, and target practice, he said, their performance improves dramatically—with often graphic results. One day soon after a training cycle had been completed, for instance, Tyrrell was eating his lunch when a few of his former students ran up to him, full of excitement, and urged him to come see what they had just accomplished. Tyrrell followed them to their car—and there, crammed inside the trunk, were a few well and truly shot criminal corpses, riddled with bullets and dripping with blood.

As it happened, the day that I spent with Tyrrell was the day on which his latest batch of trainees were supposed to take the first big step toward such moments of triumph. After their warm-up, Tyrrell told me with discernible pleasure, the men would not be staging the usual make-believe raids on make-believe houses. Instead they would be heading out to the target range, where they would start learning to take real aim with real firearms. But when they arrived, there was one problem. For reasons known only to the procurement gods, there were no guns for them to shoot with—or bullets either.