QUDAS, Iraq | In post-surge Iraq, the campaign to prepare for the June withdrawal of U.S. forces from the streets is being waged on many levels.
U.S.-sponsored — or U.S.-managed and Iraqi-funded — projects are building neighborhood parks and playgrounds, fixing roads and financing small-business expansion plans. Schools are receiving essential supplies, and citizens’ health issues are being dealt with by roving U.S.-Iraqi medical clinics.
Efforts to protect the Iraqi public with a professional police force are considered vital for the nation’s long-term future.
“I’m here to tell how you can help secure our country,” National Police Maj. Mortada Bahar Abdullah said recently at an elementary school outside Baghdad. “We are out here to protect you and your families from evildoers.
“When you see your Iraqi Security Forces, don’t be afraid, but have faith.”
The central government’s 41,000-man NP force is predominantly Shi’ite. During the sectarian bloodletting of 2006-07, in which tens of thousands of Shi’ites and Sunnis died in reprisal killings, police were infiltrated by Shi’ite militias and suspected of actively participating in the slaughter.
The police force has since undergone reform in a process called “Re-Bluing” — a term derived from the process of refurbishing a gun barrel and also from the color of the force’s new digitalized-patterned blue uniforms.
“Because our country needed people quickly to join the NP when it started, some people picked were bad and untrained and influenced in a negative way [by Shi’ite militias],” Lt. Col. Mohammad Salah Hamid al Zobaidi said. “There were people who just wanted to cause sectarian problems, and this reflected on all of us.”
Col. al Zobaidi, in charge of an NP battalion in northeastern Baghdad, said misfits were later fired, and some were sent to prison. Remaining NPs — enlisted personnel as well as officers — were sent to a training academy where the weeding out process continued.
According to a May report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, 18 of 27 battalion commanders were removed along with 1,300 lower-level officers.
Recruitment of Sunnis also began. Of the 1,800 NPs who graduated from training in January, 40 percent were Sunnis, the report said.
“I know their image is improving,” said Maj. Jeremy Simmons, a Military Transition Team chief who works with NPs in Baghdad. “I don’t think they’re the same as two years ago, when they were seen as thugs.
“I can’t speak to everything that goes on with them because we only see slices of their life, … but I go on missions with them all the time. The people like them; they wave at them, come up and talk to them on the street.”
The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently agreed to absorb into its security forces up to 20 percent of nearly 100,000 Sunni fighters who joined U.S. forces to battle al Qaeda.
Last month, Iraq began paying about 54,000 members of the volunteer force, known as Sons of Iraq or Awakening Councils. Monthly income is expected to be about $300, the same amount the Americans paid, according to Associated Press.
The Iraqi government also has promised to pay the rest of the Sunni volunteers until it can find them civilian jobs.
The integration of Sunnis and Shi’ites in the police will face a crucial test in June, when U.S. forces are to withdraw to bases and leave Iraqis in charge of protecting the people from terrorists.
In Samarra, a Sunni city north of Baghdad, Sons of Iraq volunteers spoken to by a reporter complained that NPs assigned to them sometimes didn’t treat them with respect. Nonetheless, they were able to work together to help maintain security in the city, where the 2006 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine set off a nationwide sectarian convulsion.
“When we took over this area eight months ago, the people were afraid of us because they heard rumors that we are sectarian people,” said Maj. Mortada, a commander with the NPs 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Division. “I think a lot of people here now have changed their minds. We came to capture the bad guys, not to make sectarian trouble.”
Maj. Mortada’s unit operates just northeast of the capital in Baghdad province. In its eastern portion is the town of Husseiniyah, a predominantly Shi’ite enclave. In the west are predominantly Sunni towns such as Rashadiyah. Between them are mixed-sect communities such as Qudas.
The American unit in the area is the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment from Hawaii. It shares a base — Joint Security Station Istiqlaal — with Iraqi National Police in a sparsely populated location where the suburb transitions into countryside.
“One of the biggest things we’re trying to do right now is to get them to win their own hearts and minds in this country, to be supportive of the population,” said Sgt. Ryan Davis, who is involved with the battalion’s psychological operations.
U.S. forces produce fliers in Arabic for the NPs’ Junior Hero program, which focuses on schools. The fliers include comic books extolling successes of the Iraqi Security Forces against terrorists and also small stickers that children can put on clothing and other possessions. Americans also supply backpacks, pencils and notebooks as part of the program’s gifting package.
U.S. troops stay in the background during school visits and mainly provide outer-ring security. Extremist activity in Maj. Mortada’s sector is infrequent, but a gathering of NPs at a school nevertheless could prove a tempting target for a bomber wearing a suicide vest.
“As Iraqi forces, we can’t just work to catch the bad guys. We have to do other things - we have to talk to the people, we have to be close to the community and the area city councils to do a lot of things to help the community,” Maj. Mortada said.
He added, however, that government funding hasn’t yet been given for outreach programs such as Junior Hero. His and other units involved have to continue to rely on U.S. troops for supplies.
At al-Rend Elementary School in Qudas, more than 100 girls stood in a courtyard during a Junior Hero gathering. No boys were present because al-Rend, like many schools, suffers from a lack of classroom space. Girls at al-Rend get their lessons in the morning; boys get theirs in the afternoon.
The girls, who were taught about the program by their teachers, sang the national anthem. With hands raised, they recited an oath for Maj. Mortada - to be loyal to their families and country, to treat all people with respect, to honor Iraqi Security Forces and to report crimes that harm their community.
“I am a Junior Hero and the future of Iraq,” they said in conclusion.
Then came the gift-giving.
“This is new for them and very good,” said headmistress Antisar Ali Ahmed. “They’ll know the National Police here and the coalition forces are looking out for them, and they’ll feel safe.”