- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2010

BAGHDAD — Iraq is cracking down on shops and tailors who sell and make police and military uniforms after attackers disguised themselves as security forces to slip through checkpoints and carry out suicide bombings in heavily guarded Baghdad.

Security lapses that allowed bombings at government buildings and hotels in Baghdad in recent months were an embarrassment to the Iraqi government ahead of parliamentary elections next month. So now security officials are under pressure to plug as many holes as possible.

Uniforms are widely available at open-air markets, and many tailors make them. The problem is exacerbated because the security forces don’t have enough uniforms for all their personnel, so soldiers or policemen often have to turn to the market to buy them.

Over the past month, Iraqi authorities have ordered hundreds of market sellers and tailors to sign pledges not to sell or make uniforms for anyone other than legitimate members of the security forces who present a valid ID card or official letter.

“It is an important step to regulate the work of these shops to have control over the situation, because it happens that bombers used these uniforms to commit their criminal acts,” Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, a spokesman for the Minister of Defense, told the Associated Press.

Violators face fines, closure of their business and possible jail time, Gen. al-Askari said.

But even if sellers abide by the rules, the crackdown isn’t foolproof. Some U.S. and Iraqi officials say security forces’ identity cards are too easily forged. The U.S. military has been urging Iraq for months to develop better ways to identify its police and troops.

A U.S. military adviser said Iraqi forces are told not to focus on a person’s uniform but rather on any suspicious behavior when watching out for possible attackers.

“Most uniforms, police or military, are easy to imitate, so they tell the security forces very little about an individual trying to gain access to an area,” said Army Maj. Sylvester O. Wegwu, a U.S. military adviser working with Iraqis at the Baghdad Police College.

Among the various branches of the police and military forces under the Interior and Defense ministries, there are dozens of styles of uniforms, each with its own insignia and design requirements — and that’s not counting separate forces, such as the Oil Ministry’s force for protecting pipelines and facilities.

Insurgents in Iraq routinely have disguised themselves in uniforms to bypass security checks. The problem was so prevalent in 2006 that the U.S. military redesigned Iraqi federal police uniforms after the old one was copied by insurgents, death squads and common criminals.

But the use of disguises appears to again be on the rise.

A series of suicide truck bombings hit Baghdad in August, October, December and January, killing hundreds in attacks that targeted government sites and hotels frequented by Westerners. Security officials have said some of the attackers were disguised as police or military to slip past checkpoints.

Tailors and shopkeepers, though, questioned whether the new regulations can work.

“Terrorists can buy fabric and give it to any tailor, even those who sew civilian clothes,” said Hassan Challoub, who owns the Ali Unis Sewing Shop on Baghdad’s Rashid Street, where nearly 80 tailor shops and stalls are squeezed into small storefronts.

“It would be difficult to impose such regulations on tailors because nowadays even civilians wear camouflage clothing following the fashion trend,” he said.

Sabah al-Khaiyat, 46, a tailor who makes uniforms, was taken to a Baghdad paper to sign the pledge only to sell to authentic members of the security forces.

He said he has turned away a number of potential clients because they were suspicious or could not provide proper documentation.

“One day a man came to me asking me to sew a military uniform similar to the ones worn by the American army,” he said. “I decided not to do anything for him because he looked suspicious to me.”

Inside Mr. al-Khaiyat’s sewing shop, one soldier, 21-year-old Walaa Lazim, was carded by the owner as he pointed out the fabric he wanted for his uniform.

“He wanted to make sure that I was with the Iraqi army,” Mr. Lazim said.

Mustafa Kamil, who works for the branch of the police forces dedicated to protecting sensitive locations, spent hours this week visiting a number of tailor shops to try to find an affordable uniform.

“I passed through all the shops that sell military uniforms in four areas in Baghdad, and no one in these shops has asked me to show my ID,” he said. “Terrorists can easily buy the uniforms of combat forces from these shops and get a rifle or a pistol, which are available in every house in Iraq, and pretend to be a security officer.”

Mr. Kamil, like thousands of other police, has been forced to buy his uniform despite promises from the Interior Ministry it would provide one to them. He complained that a uniform and boots can cost up to $215, soaking up most of his monthly salary, which is equivalent to about $340.

The Interior and Defense ministries have been unable to meet the demand for uniforms for all their personnel, in part because only one plant, in southern Iraq, manufactures most uniforms. Iraq’s tight budget has slowed plans to increase production.

Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.

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