Cleaning Up the Iraqi Police

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The suspension this week of an entire Iraqi police brigade of roughly 700 men is the most dramatic step taken so far by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to deal with its corrupt and inept security forces. But TIME's correspondents in Baghdad, Aparisim Ghosh and Brian Bennett, warn that this may be no more than a fig leaf, designed to shore up al-Maliki's political standing, rather than the start of a substantial cleanup.

Says Bennett: "Malaki's under a lot of pressure to rein in the militias and clean up the Ministry of Interior. He's got pressure from the Americans and the Sunni bloc in Parliament. Disbanding a corrupt unit of the police force looks good and proactive and decisive. He's making the right noises. The question is, how far can he really go? His main political support comes from the Sadr movement, which is connected to the militia that is doing a lot of the sectarian killing and infiltrating the police. He can only crack down on this so far before he crosses a line and loses his political backing. Dissolving a police could be window dressing. It looks good. But there's a lot more to clean up."

The Iraqi police force, hastily recruited and poorly trained by the U.S. military, is widely thought to be infiltrated by Shi'ite fighters from militias that have been conducting a campaign of kidnapping, torture and murder of Sunnis. Policemen are routinely accused of looking the other way — or even joining in — when Shi'ite death squads run amok in Sunni neighborhoods. U.S. military commanders have in the past acknowledged this to be a problem in at least six of the 25 national police brigades; many Iraqis say that is an underestimate.

For months now, U.S. commanders have been planning to take some police brigades "off-line" — bring them into a training base, replace the bad apples and retrain the rest before sending them back into service. But the spiraling violence in and around Baghdad had made it difficult to implement such a program.

TIME's correspondents say taking one brigade out of action may be a positive step, but it raises some serious questions.

Says Ghosh: "First, where are they going to find the replacements for the bad cops? Al-Maliki's government has repeatedly said it aims to absorb Shi'ite militias into the security forces. So chances are, one set of rogue policemen will simply be replaced by another. Second, what are they going to do with the cops who will be fired? If they are simply allowed to go back to civilian life, they will rejoin their militias — the only difference is, they won't be in uniform."