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Training Iraqi Police Forces

December 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Ever since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government, Iraq’s police have been on the front lines of the country’s struggle to achieve stability and tranquility. Iraqi police and aspiring recruits have been a major target of insurgents. More than 700 have been killed in attacks, most of them suicide bombings outside of recruitment centers.

Getting the police force up and running has been a key goal of the Bush administration. The U.S. has invested billions of dollars in training the new police force, and the president recently said the program is yielding results.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As the training has improved, so has the quality of the recruits being trained. Even though the terrorists are targeting Iraqi police and army recruits, there is no shortage of Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives to secure the future of a free Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the police have also been the object of growing complaints of human rights abuses. Most of the alleged abuse is of Sunni Muslims by Shia police or militia men.

In the most publicized incident last month, a U.S. raid on a secret interior ministry prison turned up nearly 170 prisoners, some bearing signs of torture.

In an interview on the NewsHour this month, the president acknowledged that more attention needed to be focused on police units to ensure they’re not taken over by different sectarian factions.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: One of the real challenges is to make sure that the police force does not become a haven for militia so that political people can use police forces to seek retribution in society.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad made it clear that Iraq’s police force need to be reined in. Maj. Gen. William Webster said the U.S. Army would be playing a much bigger role mentoring and training Iraqi police units.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM WEBSTER: We are working with the Iraqi government to ensure that we have a balanced force that lives within the rule of law.

And we have not seen any large numbers of additional abuse of detainees, but we are still working to find it wherever it exists and to coach and teach and correct that behavior as well as to arrest anyone who is breaking the law, if that’s necessary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Currently, seven of the nine Iraqi police commando units have groups of about 40 Americans working with them. Under the new plan, all the Iraqi units would get advisers, and the total number would be increased by several hundred.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more on the Iraqi police forces, we get three views. Steven Casteel was the senior U.S. advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Interior from October 2003 to July 2005 and was involved in overseeing the training and creating of Iraqi police forces. Donna Kerns trained Iraqi police at the police academy in Amman, Jordan, from March 2004 to September 2005. She also served as a police trainer in Kosovo and is a retired lieutenant in the Memphis police force. And Stephen Zunes is professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. He’s written extensively about the Middle East and is author of “Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Middle East Terrorism.”

Welcome to all of you.

Starting with you Mr. Casteel, why did the U.S. feel that it needed this new mentoring program?

STEVEN CASTEEL: Well, you have to realize when you build a police force from scratch it’s easy to say we’ll put a lot of money into it and we’ll train them and we’ll equip them.

But there’s a big piece of that puzzle that still needs to be completed and that is the building of the leadership within the police force. The failures in the police in the past have been as much about leadership as it has been about a lack of bullets or a lack of armored vests.

By putting mentors in there we are now continuing to build that leadership that needs to be present to keep abuses from occurring, to keep the rule of law present, and to build this force to the capability to replace the American soldiers that are currently in country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just help us understand. When we talk about police units, what do we mean? What are they doing? How much of it is day-to-day policing as we think of it, how much of it is fighting the insurgency?

STEVEN CASTEEL: A great deal of it is fighting the insurgency because the insurgency uses organized crime as its backbone. So on a daily basis, the average police officer does far more than what you would expect an L.A. or a New York police officer to do.

Hence, that’s why we created the commandos, a higher end police capability, a paramilitary organization and the U.S.’s idea and Gen. Casey’s approach to this is let’s put our mentors in there, military mentors in there and let’s teach this leadership what they need to know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Donna Kerns, you were there training some of these people, tell us who they are, who joins the police force and why?

DONNA KERNS: Yes, sir. Every Iraqi man it seemed who was at the center says that he joined because he wanted to help his country become free and democratic.

Much of the reason they join, there are no other jobs. Some of it is because they have been leaders in the past and they want to continue that. They see the freedom and the democracy in the future. They know that they have it maybe on paper now but they want to become part of it and be someone that the community looks up to.

Of course there are many, they join strictly for the money. As I said, there is no large job market in Iraq at this time, and this is something that either they want to do, their families want to do for money or for honor.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Ms. Kerns, tell us about the training. Who does it and how is it done?

DONNA KERNS: The training is done by a large group of international police officers, both currently serving and retired officers.

In Jordan, in particular, there is an eight-week school which is short for many — for what we are used to here in the states. However, it’s all that we are allotted there. The classes are broken into two four-week sessions of operational policing and general policing.

We have basic democratic policing, which is totally foreign to them, of course, other than what they’ve seen on foreign films. Most of them were raised in something totally different, obviously. And we have a lot of hands-on.

There’s firearms training, defensive tactic training, officer survival as well as human rights training. They get as much as we can give them in that eight weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Professor Zunes, how do you characterize the situation and the problems that have been seen? Are the sectarian differences that we’ve seen in other parts of the society playing out in the police force?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Unfortunately, that is the case. For example, as much as 90 percent of the police in northeastern Baghdad are believed to be affiliated with the Ahmadi army, the militia of the extremist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Shiite militia have been responsible for a number of killings of Sunni Arabs, in Baghdad have brought in men who have been tortured to death, who had police handcuffs around their wrists.

They’ve been usually — most of them are doing their job where they can. But there have been many cases where serious human rights abuses have been going on. It’s been exacerbating the ethnic conflict because the Sunni Arab minority, which is the basis of the insurgency, don’t see the police as protectors but as oppressors.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Professor Zunes, so who has the authority there? Are they reporting to the national government, or are they reporting to particular religious or political organizations?

STEPHEN ZUNES: What’s less important is the formal command structure is where their loyalties are and it’s clear that a large sector of the police are in, fact, their loyalties are not with the nation as a whole but their particular ethnic or political faction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you agree with that, Mr. Casteel?

STEVEN CASTEEL: Yes, to some extent. You have to recognize, though, that police are not unique. They are not a different population. They reflect the population that they live within. And so there is a mixture.

But loyalties do run deep and long in that part of the world. And there is loyalty to their tribe. There’s loyalty to their religious leaders. But they are a conglomerate, an amalgamation of the people that live in that country.

JEFFREY BROWN: So would this mentoring program help with those kinds of differences?

STEVEN CASTEEL: Of course it will.

JEFFREY BROWN: In what way?

STEVEN CASTEEL: We began at the training level of mixing ethnic groups together. The academy in Jordan that you just heard about, that is fully mixed — it has Kurds; it has Sunnis; it has Shiites in charge of it.

The command structure within the police, for example, the head of the commandos that you were discussing earlier in your piece, he’s a Sunni, he is not a Shiite; his deputy is a Sunni, his other deputy is a Shia, so it is a mixture. It reflects the face of the population.

Now the militias – there are areas of Iraq where the militias have a strong impact and have a strong hold. And those areas do exist. I admit that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Kerns, what do you think is the key to making this mentoring program work? How closely would the American forces have to work with police units and what kind of dangers does that put them into?

DONNA KERNS: Well, they’re going to have to work very close with the units. They will have to be with the units I would say most of the time until they can identify the leaders in the group. That’s something we learned early on was that perhaps due to the tribal situation in Iraq that very often, in every group there’s one person who would seem to be the natural leader in that group.

The other people wait for orders. They wait to find out what that leader has to say and to decide which way to go. We need to first of all identify those leaders but it does put the military and if they are going to put police officers or international police officers in there as well, to monitor and mentor, they will be in a great deal of danger.

However, I guess you say that is the nature of the beast here. I don’t know of another way to do it. I think it’s an excellent idea and hope it will be implemented quite soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Zunes, what do you see in this program? What are the pitfalls here?

STEPHEN ZUNES: Unfortunately, some of the worst dictatorships in the world have had police who are trained by the United States. I mean, thus the big controversy, ongoing debate around the School of the Americas, for example.

So unfortunately, even good training, good mentorship does not guarantee good behavior by the people with whom we are working. I think the real key is to build a nation state where people feel some sense of loyalty.

Any kind of transition from dictatorship to democracy has its pitfalls, particularly in regards to the police. But most of these transitions, the regime change, have come from the bottom up and these nonviolent people power insurrections and the like which were based in grassroots citizen groups.

Whereas when you come in with a regime change by invasion from the outside, it is a whole different dynamic and the more organic process is very difficult to develop as a result.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it is true, Mr. Casteel, of course, what we have been hearing more about recently is to take the U.S. away from the Iraqis, to let the Iraqis have more independence in what they are doing, that is what we have seen with the army.

STEVEN CASTEEL: That’s correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you characterize this then as a change of direction to push us more into the action?

STEVEN CASTEEL: No, not at all. On a daily basis the police over there are getting stronger. On an hourly basis they are getting more capable. This is just another step. All along, we had plans of putting police advisors, as we did in Kosovo, in there to work at the level that the military is working in. The security environment didn’t allow that to occur.

My concern about the program and it is a very small one because I believe it is necessary, is we have to make sure that they realize they are policemen and not military people. And so at the end, sooner or later we’ve got to make sure that civilian policymakers, civilian police officers are deeply involved in the program, and ultimately replace the U.S. military because what we’re trying to build is a republic of police, not, you know, if you have a strong police force you build a republic.

If you have a weak police force and a strong military, you build a banana republic. And so what we want to make sure here is to give Iraq every chance in the world.

And I think civilian policing is going to be critical to that, not a stronger Iraqi army.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Zunes, do you think this is a short-term project or something we just watch over the coming years?

STEPHEN ZUNES: It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it’s hopefully a strong American presence and mentoring can create a real authentic police force, which enforces the rule of law. But at the same time, the more overbearing the American presence is, the more likely there will be a nationalist reaction to that kind of presence.

And unfortunately, the — there are others who might be willing to train the police such as the Iranians. Indeed, the Badr Brigades that were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards already dominate the police commando units.

And so if we don’t train them, somebody else worse might. But again, at the same time, here’s this classic dilemma that if we are too overbearing in the direction that we want to force them in, they could see as oh, they are continuing the occupation; they are still controlling things. And it will also hurt the credibility of the police.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Stephen Zunes, Donna Kerns, Steven Casteel, thank you all very much.