Sunday, October 22, 2006

BASRA, Iraq — British-led forces in this southern city of 2 million are speeding up an effort to reform the city’s troubled police force with a heightened awareness that they are running out of time.

Operation Sinbad, begun in August, has seen as many as 1,000 British soldiers backed up by 2,000 Iraqi troops “surge into Iraqi police stations and raise standards,” said Brig. James Everard, senior commander of coalition forces in southern Iraq.

The operation has been overshadowed by British Army chief Gen. Richard Dannatt’s admission — unsurprising to commanders in Basra — that his forces are increasingly unwelcome in Iraq.

“We are in a Muslim country, and Muslims’ views of foreigners in their country are quite clear,” Gen. Dannatt told the Daily Mail earlier this month. “Whatever consent we may have had … has largely turned to intolerance.”

Brig. Everard said Operation Sinbad is an effort to “win back some of that consent” so that British forces can set up their eventual withdrawal. Reform of Iraqi security forces is a prerequisite to any large reduction of British troops.

Basra’s 7,000 police are notoriously corrupt even by Iraqi standards, and death squads wearing police uniforms and traveling in police vehicles have abducted and killed Sunnis and journalists.

“One thing the average Baswari fears is that white pickup with the blackened window,” said British forces spokesman Maj. Charlie Burbridge, referring to the death squads’ preferred mode of transport.

To reform the police, British forces must first be free to move around Basra’s dangerous neighborhoods. To that end, British and Iraqi engineers drawing from $80 million in U.S. funds have begun hundreds of reconstruction projects in the city, employing thousands of formerly unemployed residents.

Weeding out the most corrupt police and death-squad members means first conducting a census of a force that, in recent years, has eluded the oversight of outnumbered and overstretched coalition forces. Just 8,000 coalition troops, most of them British, are responsible for four southern provinces with a combined population of more than 5 million.

On the morning of Oct. 1, a small team led by Royal Military Police Cpl. Stacey Jackson, 27, visited a Basra police station to register 300 Iraqi officers and their weapons and to administer a written test intended to measure literacy and knowledge of basic policing.

Two Iraqi officers sat side by side on an exposed bed frame, openly reading each other’s answers, their brows furrowed in confusion. A grinning Cpl. Jackson explained that, anticipating efforts to cheat, she had prepared 10 different versions of the exam.

Commanders have not plotted a firm end date for Operation Sinbad, instead pledging to sustain their efforts until the police are reasonably reliable — or until local resistance becomes too great.

“We’re seeing inch-by-inch progress,” Maj. Burbridge said.

Even before Sinbad, there were some encouraging signs. In August, Basra police mobilized to repel an infiltration by 2,000 rural tribesmen whose sheik had ordered them to kill the provincial governor.

The ensuing clash had a “very Iraqi resolution,” said British Army Lt. Col. Simon Winkworth, 41, whose team coordinates police reform efforts. There was a two-hour gunbattle in which thousands of rounds were fired and no one was killed. Having exhausted their ammunition, the tribesmen departed.

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