Iraq's New Cops, Under Fire

If the U.S. hopes to withdraw from Iraq, it needs to succeed in training a police force

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The police officers of Tall 'Afar, a city of 250,000 on the road from Mosul to the Syrian border, don ski masks or cover their faces with kaffiyehs before heading out on patrol. With them are members of the U.S. Army's Alpha 1-5 Company. The troops plan to hand out leaflets to residents of the town and ask them about the upcoming election. A dozen out of about 20 Iraqi police officers have shown up for the late-afternoon patrol, but Captain T.J. Siebold, commander of Alpha 1-5, stresses the upside. "It's baby steps with these guys," Siebold says. "The fact that they had that many willing to go out is a positive step."

If the U.S. ever hopes to withdraw honorably from Iraq, it needs to succeed in its attempt to train Iraqis to fight the insurgency. In Tall 'Afar, that effort is still more a hope than a strategy. Last fall the city's police force numbered in the hundreds, until insurgents closed down almost all the local police stations. The police run their operations from a station located in a hilltop castle in the center of town. Captain Amjad Hashem Taki says that 400 officers have quit or joined the insurgency. The Americans, he says, still bear "about 90%" of the security burden. Some of the soldiers in Alpha 1-5 say their presence is the only reason that the police force hasn't dissolved completely. "They've got a bigger set of cojones when we're around," says Staff Sergeant Korey Staley, an 11-year Army veteran. "If we weren't up here, they'd be scattered to the four winds right now."

To build up the Iraqis' confidence and demonstrate effective tactics, the Americans set out on a joint patrol of the city. The streets are mostly empty, with small crowds gathering at a distance. The troops loop around a cemetery full of old tombstones. One of the translators points to the houses overlooking the graveyard, saying they belong to former Baathists.

As the patrol turns onto a deserted thoroughfare, the silence is broken by a short burst of Kalashnikov fire. The U.S. soldiers immediately return heavy fire and spring into action. A detachment of evenly spaced soldiers moves down the alley in the direction of the shooting. Soon Kalashnikov fire and four rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), coming from insurgent positions in nearby alleyways and rooftops, rain down on the troops.

As civilians appear in the streets, becoming potential targets, an American voice calls out, "Remember ROE [the rules of engagement]. They've gotta have a weapon!" As the shooting continues, the company's noncommissioned officers remind their men not to bunch up in the face of enemy fire--reducing the potential destructive power of a hail of bullets or an RPG. The soldiers cover alleys and streets with their rifles as they dodge across open spaces. The Iraqis don't perform as well. With no officers to keep them organized and only a limited ability to communicate with their U.S. comrades, the police huddle together against walls. They fire their weapons sporadically. While the Americans take responsibility for specific areas and cover them with their weapons, the Iraqis seem to aim randomly. In the middle of the fire fight, an Iraqi police officer stands still against a wall, his ski mask on, smoking a cigarette.

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