BAGHDAD — Terrorists routinely drag Iraqi policemen from their work or homes for grisly executions, or send car bombs to their stations to blow them apart.
But the recruits keep lining up for one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, putting their lives on the line to rebuild their shattered nation.
“If today they kill a police officer, tomorrow there will be more recruits, so they have done nothing,” said one veteran police officer who asked not to be named.
“The danger is everywhere, but to serve your country is much better than to be afraid and do nothing,” said the officer, who served in Saddam Hussein’s regime but welcomed American forces when they entered Baghdad.
Also, in a country with an unemployment rate of about 35 percent, few regular paying jobs are available.
Iraq’s fledgling police force is considered the cornerstone for defeating the criminal gangs, the political insurgency and bands of terrorists that penetrate deep into the country’s neighborhoods.
Insurgents and Islamic militants call the blue-uniformed police traitors for helping the U.S. occupiers. In the past few months, dozens of policemen each week have been assassinated. Hundreds more are maimed while standing in line outside police recruiting centers.
The Interior Ministry reported that at least 1,500 police have died since training began less than two years ago.
With a demoralized and ineffective police force, those bent on destabilizing the country can take over the city streets and highways, and continue to terrorize the population. The constant presence of police on the streets makes them easy marks for insurgents, who often are better-equipped.
The stocky 42-year-old officer said the death rate is high.
“I have lost a lot of my friends, who were shot. A lot of them were shot in their homes, others in the street. [Insurgents] set up ambushes near the homes of the officers. They know where they live,” he said, sitting behind a wide wooden desk in a Baghdad police station.
The officer said he hides where he lives so the insurgents can’t track down him or his wife.
Yet the constant threats have not been enough to stop the post-Saddam police force — estimated to be between 60,000 and 90,000, depending on which official is speaking — from patrolling the streets.
Iraqi police have been criticized for their inability to hold their own against insurgents armed with armor-piercing bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. But many new policemen receive only a few weeks of training in civil-order and human rights practices before being sent to patrol a war zone, where they often are the targets.
Until recently, they were poorly equipped and lacked the infrastructure needed to carry out their work.
Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, has worked to fix these problems by modifying training programs to fit real-life situations on the Iraqi street.
Lt. Col. Salman abu al-Kareem said police in his neighborhood, who answer to the al-Masbah station in downtown Baghdad, received from the Interior Ministry a supply of weapons, flak jackets, walkie-talkies, bullets and AK-47s just before the Jan. 30 elections.
“The danger for police is less now. It is not so dangerous” as before, he said.
Col. al-Kareem, 49, has been a police officer for 25 years, but stands out in Baghdad as one of a few ready to have his photograph taken and his name used.
“This is my job, and I love this job,” he said proudly, gesturing with his hands, one sporting a silver-and-turquoise ring, the other a silver-and-amber ring.
He works out of a bare-bones concrete station, painted light blue and tucked behind razor-wire barricades on a side street of the capital. A map behind his plain desk shows the neighborhood of 350,000 people that is his area of responsibility.
A bulletin board on another wall is covered with photographs of people and weapons captured in his bailiwick — including two women wearing body-covering black abayas who were involved in kidnapping schemes.
“People help me with information,” Col. al-Kareem said, adding that he had a “good network” of informants in the neighborhood.
Saddam-era policemen like Col. al-Kareem, who went through extensive background checks and two years of police training, were given a three-week refresher course by the new government.
New recruits, critics say, have been pushed through the system without proper vetting and only eight weeks of training, and receive little or no follow-up from their trainers.
“There are no background checks,” said a young policeman standing on a busy Baghdad street, his armed colleague standing a few yards away with a blue ski mask hiding his face as he stared down rows of beat-up cars.
“Under Saddam’s regime, if anybody wanted to be a policeman, he was checked on everything — name, previous job, family, Ba’ath Party membership. And now, nothing. They just see the ID, and it could be a forged ID,” he said, standing near a new blue-and-white police car.
Last month, police spokesman Col. Adnan al-Saadi said as many as 30,000 policemen — a quarter of the force — might lose their jobs because they lacked sufficient training to do the work, United Press International reported.
Iraq’s ethnic tensions are also being played out in the ranks of the new police forces.
One Iraqi from a heavily Sunni Arab district recalled how police shut down his neighborhood and barged into his home after an insurgent rocket attack. They threatened members of his family and, at one point, held a gun to the head of his mother.
The officers told the mother, “We’re Shia, and we can kill any Sunni in this area.”
Because of the dangerous work conditions, U.S.-hired police trainers have not been able to carry out the typical 24 weeks of follow-up training. In the United States, rookie cops usually spend six months with a field-training officer before going out on the streets alone.
Private contractor DynCorp won an initial one-year, $50 million police-training contract in 2003, with Science Applications International Corp. participating. The two companies quickly offered American police officers salaries of up to $148,000 a year, with all lodging, meals and transportation provided, to train Iraqis in law enforcement.
Until recently, only a few of the thousands of Iraqi police who graduated had the training needed to enforce law and order and defeat the insurgency.
A more successful training program is taking place in neighboring Jordan, but some feel the process has been rushed in a desperate attempt to get Iraqi boots on the ground.
“Part of the problem was, we were in a big hurry to put people on the street, so they were being given relatively abbreviated training,” said John Pike of Global Security, a company that analyzes international security issues.
For the older Baghdad police officer, more experienced Iraqi police could train new recruits just as well, if not better than the American advisers.
“We know our society much better,” he said. “I know my home better than others.”
But some Iraqis warn against using Saddam-era officers to lead the new Iraqi police.
“Saddam trained his people to be essentially pirates. The new ones are probably going to be trained how to respect human rights and civil rights. But at the same time, those restraints cut both ways: You don’t fight the insurgency as tough as we would want,” said Imad Harb, an Iraqi program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“It’s a give-and-take and will cost a lot of lives and a lot of time,” Mr. Harb said.
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