- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraqi police have abandoned stations or stood by while gunmen roamed the streets during this week’s uprising, raising concerns about their role in Iraq’s future.

In the southern city of Najaf, a police officer watched helplessly yesterday as a pickup truck carrying a dozen heavily armed Shi’ite militiamen moved past his police station — already in the militia’s hands.

“Look, how can we control such a situation?” he told a reporter.

The officer, who refused to give his name, said that if a cleric issues a religious ruling calling for it, “I will immediately leave the police service. … We came to serve this city, but now we have become targets.”

In many cities, the unexpected strength of a Shi’ite Muslim militia known as Mahdi’s Army — now in full or partial control of at least three cities in the south — has cowed the police force that U.S. administrators are counting on to maintain security in the future.

The Iraqi interior minister, who is in charge of police, resigned yesterday and complained of the divided loyalties among the nationwide force of 75,000.

“The coalition appoints policemen, clerics appoint policemen, as do political parties and militias. The same thing with promotions. All these things led to a lack of security,” Nuri al-Badran told journalists in Baghdad.

Iraq’s police force was started from scratch by the U.S.-led coalition after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but a lack of resources and unity means it remains largely ineffective in the face of better-armed gunmen.

Police across the country complain they don’t have the trust of the Americans and that local communities view them with suspicion. In some provincial towns, they are also reluctant to do battle with relatives or fellow tribesmen.

In Sadr City, a Baghdad neighborhood that’s home to almost 2 million Shi’ites, police abandoned three stations to regroup in a fourth during clashes between U.S. forces and followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.

Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the U.S. commander responsible for security in Baghdad, gave a mixed assessment of the police performance during Sunday’s battle, in which he lost eight soldiers.

Some officers showed bravery and fought alongside the Americans, while others chose to stand aside, he said.

In Fallujah — where Marines are battling Sunni insurgents — police were conducting operations with U.S. forces, said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But, he said, “There are other instances where Iraqi forces have not been as aggressive.”

In Sadr City, three police officers led by a colonel sat alongside clerics at a reviewing stand while thousands of militiamen filed past in a parade Saturday.

Sheik al-Sadr makes no effort to conceal the cooperation between his militiamen and the police in Najaf, where he is based.

“I would like to thank my honest brothers in the Iraqi police who are cooperating with the Iraqi people,” he said yesterday. “This ordeal has shown that all the Iraqi people are united.”

Police appeared to have more control farther south in the towns of Nasiriyah and Amarah, where al-Sadr followers have battled Italian and British troops. Residents said an understanding was reached between Shi’ite clerics loyal to Sheik al-Sadr and the Italians in Nasiriyah.

In the two towns, police patrolled the streets normally. Clusters of al-Sadr militiamen were also out in public, but unarmed.

In Basra, police agreed yesterday to continue to maintain security, provided that British troops stay out of the heart of the city, according to the police chief, Brig. Mohammed Kadhem al-Ali.

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