Currently the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus was sent by the Pentagon in mid-2004 to take charge of training Iraqi security forces. In this interview, Gen. Petraeus talks about challenges he faced back then in coordinating a revamped training system amid growing sectarian violence and insurgent activity and whether sectarian militias were infiltrating the civilian security forces during that period. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 11, 2006.
Your assignment, to go in there in mid-2004 and set up a new training operation, comes out of what? What's the impetus for that?
... There were a number of different programs that were under way to help stand up the Iraqi police, to help establish the Ministry of Interior that would oversee those police and a variety of other organizations, border forces and so forth. It was the same on the military side, to start standing up the national Iraqi army. ...
The idea was to combine the effort overall -- particularly for the Iraqi army and the police -- to get our arms around all of that and to make this a very comprehensive approach to help the Iraqis to, first of all, organize, literally to design what force structure would be required, given this new situation they were facing; then, to help them train it, help them equip it, advise it ... and to help them rebuild the infrastructure that was necessary to support all of that. That's a massive task, [and] what we needed was an organization that could oversee both the military and the police. You actually got a certain synergy out of that because some of the equipment was the same. Certainly the construction efforts were similar, and so forth.
Is it fair to say that you were brought in to fix a situation that was broken?
Well, we were certainly brought in to bring it all together. I mean, there were elements of it that had not done well. There were elements that were broken. There were also elements that had done well. So what we needed to do, again, was to do a comprehensive look. ...
We were brought in to take all of these efforts, the efforts that the divisions were overseeing, the efforts that CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] was overseeing, the efforts to stand up police and military and so forth, [and to] have one overarching headquarters that would be responsible to the new Multi-National Force-Iraq [MNFI] headquarters. ...
There was a lot going on, and we built on that. ... It was a matter of getting common standards across the board, a common approach. In many cases we added new rigor to some of the training, or different standards to it, or higher level of equipping. We brought a considerable amount of additional people to bear on this, because again, you're talking about an enormous effort. This is not a traditional security assistance effort. This is helping a sovereign nation of 27 to 30 million people re-establish not just battalions, brigades and divisions, but all the institutions that support that -- all of the training institutions, military academies, staff colleges, centers for leadership and ethics, centers for lessons learned, not to mention the parts system, the maintenance system, the infrastructure, the tools, the training. It's a massive endeavor.
Had we failed by not coming in with a comprehensive approach a year earlier?
Well, clearly at this point in time, there was a need for a comprehensive approach. I'll leave it to the historians to say what, perhaps, other organizations could have brought in at various times. ...
Between the police and the army, what did you recognize as your bigger challenge?
Well, the police have always been the bigger challenge in any such endeavor. I've studied the history and so forth of other counterinsurgency efforts, and police are always very challenging because they are local. They are individuals; they're not units. When you're battling barbaric insurgents and terrorists as were in Iraq in 2004, 2005 and still now, you really need forces that can be tough, that have unity. They are units; they're not just individuals. In a situation where individuals and their families who live in that community can be intimidated, it's very difficult to develop those forces and to get them stood up. That's why there was a need for a more robust army structure, to augment and try to provide the security space in which that training, recruiting, equipping and operating could go forward, and also the need for what have now become the National Police as well. ...
You're talking about the commandos that were formed --
The police commandos and the public order battalions and the police mechanized units, now all called National Police.
These are special forces, special police?
They are police units. That's the key. They're not just individual cops; they're not just individual departments. They are actual paramilitary units, like Carabinieri [Italian military police]/gendarmerie [armed French police]. We actually, interestingly, don't have something like that in the United States, although we have some special units, and we have SWAT teams and others. But these are actually police units that exist to support internal security in the area.
We had discussed it with Minister [Falah al-]Naqib. He was very, very enthusiastic about it. He wanted very much to accelerate the process of their development, and did accelerate their development. Remember, he was a Sunni Arab who felt very much the weight of responsibility to respond to what was, by and large, a Sunni Arab insurgency.
We've had reports that initially the idea was his and that you had some reluctance.
We had reluctance about the pace of their formation. But ... the need for a gendarmerie-type unit was in that plan all along. What was different was his enormous -- and arguably correct -- desire to form them more rapidly so that [they would be ready] by that 30 Jan.  election that was staring us in the face. ... His difference was the pace at which they were formed and the desire to do it more rapidly than we had originally planned to do.
So when Naqib says, "Petraeus wasn't supportive in the beginning," he's talking about what?
He's talking about the pace of their formation. We were concerned that we did not have the equipment for them, the adviser teams for them, the infrastructure in which they would live and bases from which they would operate and so forth. That is a very real concern when you're standing up forces -- there are no buildings for them. And he said: "No problem, General. I'll solve that. My guys will find buildings." And they did.
What impressed us early about them was, frankly, they were very physically hard, these individuals. They had quite good leaders in a country where good leadership had been largely beaten out of the society by Saddam, because if you showed initiative under Saddam, of course, you might not survive very long. In fact, I asked the overall head of those units at that time, "Where do you find all these good leaders?," and he said: "Oh, we knew each other in jail. We were all in jail under Saddam." They were all guys who had been really good leaders of various organizations during the Saddam era, and because they came to be viewed as a threat to Saddam, many of them ended up in jail. ...
So they took this forward, and they said: "We'll find the places. We'll even try to buy equipment on our own." And I said, "OK, great, we'll get on with it." And, in fact, as we came to see that this was something really worth investing in and worth trying to accelerate, as opposed to the process that we had planned where we were going to have the adviser teams come in later on and so forth, we then very much put our shoulder to the wheel alongside Naqib and Gen. Adnan Thabit and some of the other key leaders at that time.
So you came around to his view that this needed to be accelerated?
Do you remember when you finally went out and looked at them?
... I said, "These guys are for real." They were living in very austere conditions. They were not complaining about it. ... They were out doing tough, rigorous training. They clearly knew how to train. They clearly knew how to conduct security operations. So that's when I went to the minister and said: "You know, you were right. These are organizations that are worth investing in. We'll do all that we can." We actually shifted resources, in fact, from some other organizations for which equipment was intended -- vehicles were intended, radios were intended -- and in fact then also undertook a shift in engineering focus to help them rebuild some of their compounds, training areas, command and control facilities and so forth.
There was this issue [before you arrived] that a lot of people were being trained but that the vetting process was never very strong, especially on the police side. What did you do to address the vetting issue?
... We started as quickly as we could, with a variety of vetting tools involving the Iraqis, to vet them against former Baath Party records, former criminal records, to collect biometric data on them, which we then sent back to the United States, because we had a huge digital database that had been created in the United States based on records and fingerprints and so forth.
We picked up a couple hundred hits out of a force of, at that time, probably 150,000 or more that indicated that some in the ranks clearly did not deserve to be there. In fact, they probably needed to be back in jail, which is where some of them probably came from when Saddam let them out in the late fall of 2002.
As each new recruit was signed up to go to the Baghdad Police Academy or the other police academies that we rebuilt and established throughout the country, and then the large police academy in Jordan, there was a vetting process like that, and it also included a written test; it included a medical exam; it included a physical test. We even brought in a psychological test ... which endeavored to get at whether they were suitable to be police as well.
So you have these various means of vetting, some of them coming online slower than others.
Yes. And coming online first were the individual police and then later for the police commandos and public order battalions, because again, those were being formed at that time by the Iraqis. They were doing the recruiting and the training of them, and we were doing the equipping and helping with the rebuilding of infrastructure. ...
So the balancing act that you're having to juggle is between pushing out numbers on the one hand, getting more forces out there --
It's not just numbers. It is pushing trained and equipped forces out, particularly on the National Police side. By now, we had extended the police training from the original eight to 10 weeks; we'd added additional rigor to that. The army training had been made much tougher as well. So there had been a lot of changes in the training. The focus now was to make sure that these special police got adequate training in equipping and then advising and infrastructure and support and so forth. That was a challenge because we were sort of chasing this because of the acceleration of the development of that force structure. But again, this is something that we sat down with the minister and others, certainly, and discussed. And with 30 Jan. 2005 [elections] staring everyone in the face, the decision was made. And at the end of the day, this was an Iraqi decision. ...
But that short-term gain of providing security for that date may have created a situation-- are you saying that ... there were too many unvetted, unqualified policemen on the beat?
It certainly created risks that would not have been there had we done the deliberate process. There's no question about that. But look: All of this is about various risks of various types. Let's not forget the context in which this was carried out. Let's not forget that in large measure, those forces on 30 Jan. 2005 did a superb job. ... And again, you're battling an insurgency at the same time here that is causing enormous pressure on the Iraqi government certainly, again, to do something about this. We obviously had to support what they wanted to do in that case. ...
One thing I've heard a lot about is that CPA Order No. 71, which decentralized the police across the country, really crippled the ability of the MOI [Ministry of Interior] to really have control over what police were doing and who was hiring whom. Accountability really suffered under that CPA order.
Clearly the MOI was not the absolute dominant figure or organization the way it was under Saddam, but the MOI did, in fact, have the most important power, which was to hire and fire province police chiefs. The MOI oversaw the training standardization in the police academies throughout Iraq. The recruiting certainly was done at a local level, but again, by these province police chiefs, typically, that were hired by the Ministry of Interior. Also, if you look at of the roughly 8,000 to 9,000 spaces in training academies at that time, over two-thirds of that was actually in the Baghdad academy or the Jordan academy, so there's a good deal of centralization, frankly, in that effort as well.
But when you put somebody through that training process and then sent them out to a province, how did you know if, in fact, they actually took up those jobs? What kind of system was in place to keep track of them?
Well, in the beginning that was a challenge. Over time we were developing this biometric database and so forth, and a degree of better accountability in personnel records and finance, although that system remains challenged, I think. It has been very difficult, because Iraq is essentially still a paper system, by and large.
In other words, people were going out of the police academies and into jobs without you knowing if in fact they were actually reporting to the police chief?
No, I mean, if they don't report to the police chief, they're not going to get paid, so --
But how do you know that you're not just being billed, or that the MOI wasn't being billed for jobs that didn't exist?
Well, you do have to rely on people at some point to tell the truth. There was a reliance, certainly, on those leaders that they were reporting truthfully who was out in the ranks, and that was cascading all the way up, that those who were verifying this and so forth were doing that truthfully.
Now, we weren't blind. This is a country and a region in which corruption is a challenge, and there was no doubt in anybody's mind that that was probably going on at some level out there. We would have advisers, certainly, in the various police stations out there. There was a considerable effort to check accountability of both personnel, and of weapons and equipment, by the way, because that was another concern. ... As an example, in Baghdad. equipment went to the central warehouse. It was literally logged in. It was then pushed out to the various district police stations. They signed for it, and it went on down. There was an effort, certainly, to achieve property accountability and personnel accountability along those lines. Very difficult.
So when people talk about ghost jobs, corruption on the part of local police officials, that's a real problem?
That has been a problem, and undoubtedly it will continue to be a problem until there is true sort of biometric accountability which, again, is pretty challenging to put in place in a country where there has not been a great deal of automation all the way down to the district level. ...
It's also a problem because you are at war. I mean, these individuals are fighting for their lives. People literally disappear. You're not sure: Did they get kidnapped in the night? Did they get scared? Will they come back? So there's even an uncertainty on occasions like that in the very challenged areas where the insurgency is affecting things, particularly in a place like Anbar province.
Let me jump ahead. Just after you leave, we have the bunker incident. We find the structure has been infiltrated, or has devolved into militia groups; that the police within them have formed militias. Now clearly, you must have seen this coming.
Editor's Note: Two months after Petraeus rotated out of Iraq, a U.S. general found a ministry building, called the Jadiriyah bunker, containing 169 prisoners and evidence of torture; almost all of the detainees were Sunnis.
I did not. I did not see militia groups in the special police during the time that I was there. Now, first of all, we brought in militia members as a matter of Iraqi policy. ... It was actual [policy] to, in fact, recruit and bring into the army and the police militia members who met the qualification for those respective services, so there's no question but that there were militia members in these organizations. The objective was to spread them out, not to have, for example, an entire battalion or company to be from one militia. Our belief was, at that time, that that had not taken place. Certainly Gen. Adnan Thabit and Minister Naqib, during their watch, felt that that was not the case.
There was a shift, of course, in the ministry in the late spring of 2004 from a Sunni Arab to a Shi'a Arab minister. [When] Minister [Bayan] Jabr took over, there were concerns raised. ... We addressed this with the new minister right away, in fact, because Minister Naqib and others said: "Hey, watch out. This is happening; that could happen."
They warned you?
They did. And Gen. Adnan Thabit remained. Again, a Sunni Arab, uncle of the former minister, remained as the head of the National Police, as they were now called. We sat down with him and raised concerns. By now we also had advisers with every single battalion and brigade of the National Police as well, so their ability to conduct extracurricular activities, as was alleged, would have been difficult at the very least. ...
We addressed this with the new minister. He, in fact, stood up to some of the Shi'a political leaders at various points. There were concerns that provincial governors, for example, were trying to replace provincial police chiefs, to make the individual from their party or their tribe or what have you. And he actually stood up to the Shi'a political leadership at that time. ... I had personally requested that he fire several individuals out of certain organizations; to fire, for example, the major crimes unit leadership in Baghdad.
You'd asked Jabr to fire them?
Yes, and he did, after they carried out what clearly violated human rights in the interrogation of some individuals. There were other allegations about this. We did, in fact, document some of these and took them to him before I left as well. The 3rd Infantry Division, which was also partnering with some of these units, would come across this, and our advisers reported it. Again, we took it to him, and they did generally clean things up. He held meetings, for example, of all of his police chiefs, of the National Police leadership and so forth and, as we would say, read them the riot act; established very clearly what the standards were, what was unacceptable and so forth. He, in fact, replaced leaders. He also replaced three leaders from the National Police at our request before I left.
So again, I'm not saying that we did not see it coming; we had warnings of this. What I said is I did not see it in those formations in large numbers. We'd certainly seen corruption; we had seen detainee abuse. In each case we took that to the minister. And during that time he did, in fact, take action. We re-educated, basically. They gave them all a block of instructions on how to treat detainees.
The challenge is that some of this literally requires generational change, because these are individuals who, in the army or in the police, in past lives, have been doing things that we regard as absolutely unacceptable. To literally break those habits and to break that culture that accepts that, in the midst of a truly brutal insurgency in which they see their fellow policemen blown up by suicide bombers, they see their families members kidnapped and so forth, is an enormous challenge. But it is certainly something that we raised with Minister Jabr on a number of occasions before I left, and I know that Gen. [Martin] Dempsey continued to do that and that when the bunker incident, for example, was discovered, that they immediately did the same thing.
Seeing the rise of the militias after you left, did you think about what you could have done differently, might have done differently, to have prevented the development of these militias that were effectively developing under your watch?
Well, again, I have not seen -- we kept hearing this all the time, Martin, that this or that -- [but] to find the absolute evidence of this has actually been quite difficult.
There's no shortage of cases in which individuals have worn the uniforms of National Police or regular police or army forces or any of the security forces, the facility protection security forces. Our feeling, frankly, was that it was other elements of security forces in the Iraqi structure, separate from those in the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense, that were the bulk of those militia activities, or just sheer militia, period. We felt we had a reasonable eye on the National Police. We had a very good eye on the military, because we had complete coverage with advisers and base structure and so forth.
Some of this may have been a result of that acceleration of the formation of these units, because when they were brought onboard so rapidly, obviously, it made vetting more difficult. We didn't have adviser teams for some time. But again, we did a calculated assessment with Minister Naqib at that time, a Sunni Arab minister, not a Shi'a. And the allegations are that these are Shi'a militia, by and large, not Sunni Arab militias. ...
Editor's Note: After this interview, General Petraeus told FRONTLINE that he recalled three instances of detainee abuse. At his urging, he says, Jabr fired those responsible.