The Iraqi Police
A few minutes ago I was on the blogger round table with BG David D. Phillips who was discussing the status of Iraqi police forces. Three things in his presentation struck me as particularly significant. The first was that the Iraqis now had, for the time since the fall of Saddam, a database of persons marked with biometric identifiers through which all security checks had to pass. The second was that "community policing" in the Iraqi context very often meant that police forces were necessarily going to mirror the ethnic and religious composition of the area. The police were never going to be a mixed "national" institution to the degree of the Iraqi army and that was just a given. The third was that, although American audiences viewed Iraq largely through the prism of war, that the Iraqi police was often occupied doing what cops do all over the world: direct traffic and solve crimes.
Of the three developments, the development of a database must rank as the most fundamental. The database now contains not only records imported from other databases but apparently captures the details of those who have been picked up on Coalition operations. General Phillips gave examples illustrating how it worked in relation to identifying individuals with questionable backgrounds who were trying to join the Iraqi police and briefly indicated how derogatory information was entered and/or expunged upon subsequent investigation. It is difficult to imagine how they could have managed without. Yet for much of the past four years they have. Some things really do take time. Whatever else may be debatable, the emergence of a solid database through which all arrests are processed and to which all clearances are referred must be a clear and unambiguous "win".
Were the police really "militias in disguise"? The correspondence of the composition of the local police with the predominant ethnic group of the locality posed few problems in communities which were relatively homogeneous. The Iraqi police have long been accused of being strongholds of sectarianism, but there is little point to being a Shi'ite sectarian where everyone is Shia. It is in mixed neighborhoods like Baghdad, Phillips said, where problems arise. Surprisingly, the discomfort of operating in mixed communities was strongly felt by the policemen themselves. A strong resistance to being transferred out of the neighborhood was apparently manifested by many police officers who wanted to remain close to home. Although no one said so directly, it is possible that the Iraqi police force must carry the stamp of the society from which it arose; that to many Iraqis joining the police force simply means carrying out roles of local authority under the color of uniform. But in the context or Iraqi culture that was not necessarily as bad as it might seem to Western eyes.
Finally, Phillips stressed the role of the police in creating normalcy. He related finding children playing and people going about their ordinary business in sections of Baghdad that were eerily empty only a few weeks ago. This more than anything served as the atmospheric benchmark of his accomplishments. But the role of the police in creating that "normal" environment did not primarily consist in fighting the insurgency, except insofar as it meant picking up the insurgency's petty criminal outliers. No. The Iraqi police were far too lightly armed to take on al-Qaeda. Realistically the primary burden of fighting professional terrorists had to fall upon the Iraqi Army and Coalition Forces. What the Iraqi police primarily had to do was catch thieves, investigate break-ins and assaults and keep the traffic flowing. In other words, to do what cops do. This was their contribution to creating "normalcy". It was a contribution that did not necessarily make headlines, but one without which Iraqi society would never function.
The blogger roundtable with BG Phillips was one of those discussions in which you didn't find any new "big answers" about Iraq. You only got to learn a little more about a place that seemed in equal parts stranger yet more familiar after the discussion; and a little closer to accepting it on its own terms.