Why Iraq's Police Are a Menace

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Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, right, has been accused of turning Iraq's national police into Shi'ite death squads

The bodies began to show up early last week. On Monday, 34 corpses were found. In the darkness of Tuesday morning, 15 more men, between the ages of 22 and 40 were found in the back of a pickup truck in the al-Khadra district of western Baghdad. They had been hanged. By daybreak, 40 more bodies were found around the city, most bearing signs of torture before the men were killed execution-style. The most gruesome discovery was an 18-by-24-foot mass grave in the Shi'ite slum of Kamaliyah in east Baghdad containing the bodies of 29 men, clad only in their underwear with their hands bound and their mouths covered with tape. Local residents only found it because the ground was oozing blood. In all, 87 bodies were found over two days in Baghdad.

The grisly discovery was horrible enough, the latest and perhaps most chilling sign that Iraq is descending further into butchery — and quite possibly civil war. But almost as disturbing is the growing evidence that the massacres and others like it are being tolerated and even abetted by Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated police forces, overseen by Iraq's Interior Minister, Bayan Jabr. On his watch, sectarian militias have swelled the ranks of the police units and, Sunnis charge, used their positions to carry out revenge killings against Sunnis. While allowing an Iranian-trained militia to take over the ministry, critics say, Jabr has authorized the targeted assassination of Sunni men and stymied investigations into Interior-run death squads. Despite numerous attempts to contact them, neither Jabr nor Interior Ministry spokesmen responded to requests for comment on this article.

Jabr's and his forces' growing reputation for brutality comes at a particularly inopportune moment for the Bush Administration, which would like to hand over security responsibilities to those same police units as quickly as possible. That has raised the distinct and disturbing possibility that the U.S. is in fact training and arming one side in a conflict seeming to grow worse by the day. "Militias are the infrastructure of civil war," U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told TIME recently. Khalilzad has been publicly critical of Jabr and warned that the new security ministries under the next, permanent Iraqi government should be run by competent people who have no ties to militias and who are "non-sectarian." Further U.S. support for training the police and army, he said, depends on it.

But ever since Jabr was appointed Interior Minister after the January 2005 election brought a religious Sh'ite coalition to power, Sunnis allege, he began remaking the paramilitary National Police into Shi'ite shock troops. A member of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Jabr fled to Iran in the 1970s to avoid Saddam's crackdown. Jerry Burke, a former civilian senior police advisor to the Interior Ministry, said Jabr's experience with Saddam's government has left him bitter and distrustful of anyone he suspects has ties to the previous regime. That would most certainly include the former members of Saddam Hussein's Special Forces and Republican Guards which initially made up the bulk of the National Police when Jabr took charge.

To help facilitate his transformation of the police forces, Jabr made sure to enlist the help of SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Organization. Members of the militia have been a growing presence in the National Police, which now consists of nine brigades, with about 17,500 members divided between the Special Police Commandos, the Public Order brigades and a mechanized brigade, which will soon be transferred to the Ministry of Defense. "Leadership in the commando positions has been turned over to Badr," said Matt Sherman, a former CPA advisor to the Interior Ministry. "And new recruits are mostly Badr."

Indeed, outside the ministry headquarters, banners proclaiming solidarity with Imam Hussein, one of Shi'ites' holiest figures, snap in the spring breeze alongside — and sometimes instead of — Iraqi flags. Most of the guards' beards are invariably cut in the close-cropped Iranian style, making them stand out in Baghdad, where beards are less common.

Like so many things in Iraq right now, it wasn't supposed to be this way. As far back as December 2003, David Gompert, the former National Security Advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority, realized the dangers sectarian militias posed to Iraq's stability. And in the waning days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, American viceroy L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer issued Order 91, which was intended to demobilize or integrate nine militias totaling about 100,000 men into the Iraqi security forces. But the Kurdish pesh merga and the armed wing of SCIRI, the Badr Organization, still exist today because the order was never completely or competently carried out.

For that, Gompert puts the blame squarely on the Iraqi government, then under Iyad Allawi, as well as the American embassy. With the U.S. military engaged in several major operations in 2004 and the government transitioning from the CPA to a more traditional diplomatic presence with the arrival of U.S. ambassador John Negroponte at the end of June, Gompert says, neither Allawi nor the U.S made the reintegration program a priority. Job training programs run by Allawi's Labor Ministry were cancelled over personal feuds and pension programs and other aspects of the program of DDR — "demilitarization, demobilization and reintegration" — were bounced around from one command to another.

Making matters worse has been the fact that the police — unlike the Iraqi Army, which is still under U.S. command and supervision — were practically ignored almost from the beginning of the occupation, says Burke. And what supervision the National Police did get came from U.S. military intelligence officers, not civilian police advisors.

This grave oversight, which stemmed from the military's unfamiliarity with civilian police methods and its unwillingness to learn, has led to numerous abuses and little accountability. The U.S. State Department, in a report released two weeks ago, documented numerous incidents in 2005, dating back to early May when Jabr was first appointed Interior Minister, where Sunni men were killed execution-style by Interior Ministry police or Shi'ite militias. In each case, Jabr ordered an investigation, and in each case the investigation had yet to report any findings.

Thanks in part to the Interior Minister's "nonfeasance," said Burke, the former Interior Ministry adviser, Jabr was at least indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of military-age Sunni men whose bodies have turned up at the sewage plant in southeast Baghdad since late December. Men in police uniforms and vehicles routinely travel through the city in daylight hours with bodies in the back of trucks for disposal at the sewage plant, he said. Prisoners often disappear, Burke said, because they're picked up at night and no one has an accurate account of who is arrested and where they are taken. "The Special Police Commandos," he said, using their old name, "are most definitely out of control."

So black is the reputation of the National Police, that after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, many Sunnis said the perpetrators were Interior Ministry troops who were looking for a pretext to start a civil war. Their fears were further fueled in the bloody two days after the attack, when Iraq became a sectarian slaughterhouse. Instead of protecting citizens from each other, National Police units stood by as Shi'ite rioters — and rival militiamen from Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army — stormed Sunni mosques and swarmed over Sunni neighborhoods, according to numerous reports, including some confirmed by U.S. Gen. George Casey, commander of American forces in Iraq.

The American efforts to try and help stem the deadly sectarianism will likely do little good — and in some respects may well exacerbate the problem. Instead of increasing the number of civilian advisors to Iraq's local police forces, a spokeswoman for the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) said more U.S. military police and military personnel will be assigned to train them. The Special Police Transition Teams (SPTTs) are the model that will be followed. "The SPTTs have been very successful in their efforts," the spokeswoman said. No change is planned for the oversight program on the National Police.

Gompert notes, "I remember saying, 'If there is going to be a civil war, it's going to be fought between Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias." And as long as Jabr is running the Interior Ministry and its police forces, there is little doubt which of the two in such a conflict will have the law — and American training — on its side.