MUQDADIYA, Iraq -- With al Qaeda terrorists mainly pushed out from Diyala province, north of Baghdad, U.S. forces now are paying special attention to the Iraqi police and the threat that rogue police elements pose to regional security and to sectarian reconciliation efforts.
Military analysts recently said that corruption and political patronage in Iraq's Interior Ministry — nominally in control of almost 500,000 police and other security forces — threaten U.S. efforts to transfer responsibility for public safety to Iraq's police.
Late last month, elements of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment descended on Gabiyah and surrounding villages to catch or at least try to identify dozens of masked Shi'ite gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms who reportedly have driven Sunnis from their homes.
Troops shut down the al-Askeri district in Muqdadiya for several hours last week to nab members of a Shi'ite kidnapping gang targeting Sunnis.
Smaller and less-orchestrated detentions are taking place elsewhere to protect the gains made in bridging the divide between the two communities.
"We're going to continue to communicate that sectarianism isn't going to do anyone any good," said Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, commander of the 3rd Squadron, responsible for Muqdadiya and its surrounding areas.
He also said his forces will arrest Iraqi police officers who break the law.
"Now if an IP breaks the law it's generally because he is doing something sectarian — kidnapping or something. So we are going to continue to arrest corrupt IPs, and that's corrupt not just in the economic sense but also in the sectarian sense," he said.
Muqdadiya is about 65 miles north of Baghdad. Al Qaeda established training camps and storage areas in the area after it declared its "Islamic State of Iraq" caliphate in the province in 2006. About 60 percent of Diyala province's people are Arab Sunnis, but after they boycotted elections in 2005 the Shi'ites have controlled the government and its agencies.
Most police, under the authority of the Shi'ite-dominated national government's Interior Ministry, are now Shi'ite as well and many are suspected to be — or to have been — members of Shi'ite militias.
U.S. troops have since pushed al Qaeda from the province and as security is re-established, a concerted effort by the U.S. military and provincial and local authorities has started to bridge the two-year divide between the communities.
Col. Coffey, who has brokered reconciliation agreements between Sunni and Shi'ite communities, however, thinks progress could be undone if sectarian criminality isn't stamped out.
Stirring the sectarian pot are kidnappings by criminal cells thought to include Iraqi police.
There have been 14 kidnappings of Sunnis since January and a number have occurred at police checkpoints along main roads at night. The result has been an increase in fear and distrust among Sunnis in Muqdadiya, who now avoid traveling at night on main roads on the outskirts of the city.
"We don't need to dismantle the IPs, just rid it of some criminal elements," said Capt. Mike Stinchfield, the Hawk Company commander who cordoned off al-Askeri.
Capt. Stinchfield and 200 men searched the al-Askeri district for kidnappers last week after collecting information on suspects. With them was an informant, disguised in U.S. uniform, as if he were an interpreter. Two men were arrested and turned over to Iraqi authorities for prosecution, but six others were detained but released because of insufficient evidence.
Also, during the search, all military-age males were "white boarded" — they were photographed and fingerprinted and their retinas were scanned. The information was stored in a database with personal information, such as address, that can be used in investigations.
"There was a lot of sectarian activity [by police] before," said Iraqi police Gen. Mohammed Abad, who is trying to recruit more Sunnis. "We're trying to get rid of that."
Capt. Stinchfield said there will be more special detention raids on al-Askeri and elsewhere in Muqdadiya in addition to regular presence patrols.
He described the search as "a soft-knock operation."
"There was no kicking down doors or any of that. The men know to treat the people with respect. That's what we have been doing for a long time and it pays dividends. People open up, telling us things."
Other measures to shore up the Iraqi police include white boarding all officers, unannounced visits by U.S. troops to police offices and checkpoints and advanced training of officers. Civilian contractors from Dynacorp oversee the "democratic policing" training, which is conducted by specially trained Iraqi instructors.
"We're advisers. We twist and tweak," an adviser said at a recent graduation ceremony for about 40 students.
Additional details were not available. The contractors canceled a scheduled interview on orders of their Baghdad office.