Can the Iraqis police Iraq?

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Members of the Iraq Civilian Defense Corps prepare to leave on a mission

These are the men in the middle now. Warrant Officer Kamal Aziz, a 29-year veteran of the Saddam-era police corps, spent a few weeks retraining last May, learning American-style arrest techniques and the basic art of urban warfare. "It was almost the same training as we had before," he says, standing guard outside the Yarmuk police station in west Baghdad. But now that stations like his are top targets for insurgents fighting the U.S. occupation, he says, "the challenge is bigger." A few men at his station wear borrowed U.S. body armor, but many have yet to get uniforms or the Glock pistols promised by the U.S. The bluff policeman, 46, claims the spiraling risk to men like him only "makes me stronger." But he's not sure his salary of about $100 a month—three times his former pay—is enough to justify putting his life on the line. "If I find a new job that pays better," says Aziz, "I'm going to quit."

Baha Ali Abbas, 25, was jobless before the war, so he was eager to join the Facilities Protection Service, the 20,000-man Iraqi security force hurriedly set up by the U.S. to guard such sites as embassies, ministries, banks, aid offices and oil fields. When Abbas signed on in the summer, he says, "they trained us for a week in how to shoot AKs, how to talk to people properly, how to handle yourself if someone attacks you." Two months ago, a rocket-propelled grenade flew over his head and slammed into a street near the bank he was guarding. A few weeks later, while he was inside the bank making tea, an attacker tossed a grenade over the coiled razor wire surrounding the building, shattering its windows. Abbas knows he's a prime target but says, "Since I want to live, then I must work, whether it's dangerous or not." Sergeant Kenneth Smith, one of the U.S. soldiers posted at the bank, sums up the Iraqi guards' grim situation: "You can have all the training in the world, but all you're basically doing is standing here waiting to stop the bad guys."

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President Bush is counting on men like Aziz and Abbas to halt the escalating violence convulsing post-Saddam Iraq. Just as U.S. forces thought they were getting a handle on security, a series of coordinated, deadly attacks last week raised the Administration's Iraq troubles to an alarming new level. One day after rockets slammed into Baghdad's al-Rashid Hotel, where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying, the city was hit by four bombings within 45 minutes—three at police stations and one at the headquarters of the Red Cross. Thirty-four Iraqis and one American were killed, and more than 200 people were wounded. The insurgency looked bolder and more sophisticated as it advanced from simple hits to complex, orchestrated strikes.

Despite a flood of speculation by officials in the U.S. and Iraq, no one really knows who is responsible for the increasing pace and skill of the resistance, which makes it doubly hard to devise an effective defense. As polls show American popular approval for the mission in Iraq beginning to sag and as political sniping in Washington intensifies, the Bush Administration is struggling to cast dismaying events in a hopeful light. "The more progress we make on the ground," declared the President, "... the more desperate these killers become." That struck many as an Orwellian way to measure U.S. success.

To keep the accent on the positive, the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by proconsul Paul Bremer, is opening a media center in Baghdad similar to the one set up in Qatar during major combat operations. "We have a story to tell," says a senior official. Part of the story last week was a fresh campaign to unearth Saddam Hussein; if it succeeds, officials hope, the resistance will dissipate.

Apart from that, Defense Department officials say the options are meager. Send in more troops? With U.S. forces already stretched globally, that's hardly possible militarily and not likely politically. Field more non-U.S. peacekeepers? Washington is trying unsuccessfully to recruit volunteers. Begin pulling out U.S. troops? Doing so anytime soon would probably destabilize Iraq entirely. That leaves little alternative but to speed up plans to train Iraqis to protect an ever growing share of the country. Even Bush critics say that's the only long-term solution. Last week, to show the Administration is not sitting idly by as the resistance grows bolder, Bremer announced a stepped-up training program.

The timetable is tight. Washington needs to get capable Iraqi security forces up and running before the insurgents score enough hits to discourage the U.S. commitment and frighten off Iraqi recruits. And Bush needs to find adequate replacements before tired G.I.s are due to rotate home next spring, smack in the middle of his re-election campaign. Yet rushing ill-trained, ill-equipped Iraqis into the breach could create new problems. Senator Joseph Biden, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the Administration's "stampede" to put locals in charge of pacifying Iraq "runs the risk of having the house of cards come down (if) the Iraqi people not only conclude that we can't do it but that those who are working with us are not competent."

Yet if Iraqi security forces manage to crush the insurgency using repressive measures, the Administration will be hard-pressed to say it has fulfilled its pledge to create a democratic Iraq. Already some Iraqi police complain that Americans are hindering their work by insisting on such things as due process.

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