Wednesday, April 25, 2007

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.


Blogger dchamil said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/25/2007 08:13:00 AM  
Blogger dchamil said...

Great idea. Back here in the US, let's have black policemen patrol the black areas and white policemen patrol the white areas. After all, no one cares when blacks kill blacks. Controversy only arises when white officers kill blacks.

4/25/2007 08:17:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I see. And when the local pooh-bah is dirty? Or wants to FULLY homogenize the local population mix? Or would like to enforce Sharia, including the burqah? Visions, too, of the notorious "Southern sheriff" who runs roughshod over outsiders and locals alike ...
Are you/we/they really sure they want to go there? I sure hope this is "transitional".

4/25/2007 09:03:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

I would be interested in knowing how much input local tribal leaders get into who and how many of their members get positions on the local police force. If tribalism is a major factor in local Iraqi politics, as I have come to believe, then the national government does not have to convince 25 million people to come around but only a much smaller number of tribal or clan leaders.

It's a simplification, but I'm sure there are ways to reward the cooperative tribes and punish the recalcitrant ones. Al Qaeda does it all the time by murdering tribal leaders who do not provide protection, money, and recruits. Sometimes you just gotta' choose.

4/25/2007 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger Evanston2 said...

Brian, everything is "transitional" including social institutions in the good ol' U S of A. And not always for the better. It is arguable, for example, that enforcement of immigration law has been deteriorating for decades and would be better if accountable to the "locals" than the folks in D.C.
Don't let your notion of the perfect be the enemy of the good.

4/25/2007 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Nobody "officially" gets on the police force unless they can clear the criminal database, which means that central government can veto providing a cop with a badge and a gun. And in areas where the area is "mixed" such as Baghdad or Mosul the cops are going to be mixed.

But in Anbar, for example, where the shieks have thrown in with Special Forces against the al-Qaeda, many former thugs or insurgents want to join the police. This created the problems of how to get such past the database. Apparently cases of those who switched sides are handled by exercising administrative discretion and making an exempting entry in the database. But it is also tacitly accepted that tribally sourced cops will remain in the area.

4/25/2007 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

In the Kagan piece from the Weekley Standard, I found that one of the more interesting items is that the Iraqis are insisting on Evidence Packages on which to base prosecutions of corrupt actions both in civilians and the police force itself - rather than intelligence reports to the effect that some person is a suspect.

Real evidence amounts to proof that will stand up in court rather than intelligence which is often a guess - and a classified source guess at that. In the article this was attributed to the Iraqi desire to impose the rule of law.

But it appears to me applying such standards to the police force would do much to help prevent local considerations and prejudices from overriding genuine legalities. It has got to be painful on occasion, to "know" that a guy is dirty and not be able to prove it, but the alternative is a local version of Saddam's "The law is two inches above my signature."

4/25/2007 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

It doesn't matter whether they're sectarian or not, imbue them with a sectarian love of nation and they turn into a locally developed intelligence network. After they've worked together for fifty years an integrated policing standard will evolve, and it won't look anything like ours.

4/25/2007 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger exhelodrvr1 said...

"Back here in the US, let's have black policemen patrol the black areas and white policemen patrol the white areas."

Are you implying that the culture in black areas is significantly different than in white areas? If so, then black policemen would likely do a better job in a black area than white policemen would.

If you aren't implying that, then you apparently don't appreciate the differences between the different groups within Iraq.

4/25/2007 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger allen said...

The West will never understand the language of the ME. For example, consider:

224 Rockets Since ‘Cease-Fire’


4/25/2007 01:53:00 PM  
Blogger R said...

I would love nothing more than to see thousands of Iraqis join the police forces and their military. The sooner that begins to take place the easier it will be for our troops to "cease to be seen" by all. Perhaps then we just might make a deal for some Iraqi oil to become payback for all the blood and treasure we have spent offering them their freedom...oh, I forgot, they talk like they want to be free, but act like it's more important to fight their inter-religious wars...time to go, before the great American recession and super hike in US the next national election. I would measure the "tips" our people get on the bad guys (that prove to be legit) as a metric of sucess and change. And of course, when those good ole newsboys and girls from America start showing the outdoor markets being packed with Iraqi shoppers day after day...I must be dreaming!

4/25/2007 04:10:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

I had an experience with an Arabic computer system.

I would hate to be the one to maintain & audit that system. I bet they come up with excellent workarounds and kludges.

It'll take more than a computer system to keep the bad guys out of the services.

In the West when a friend in power intervenes on behalf of a friend or family member we are outraged. In the ME outrage happens when a friend in power does not help the friend or the family member.

4/25/2007 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger dchamil said...

exhelodrvr1 I say that every time a white policeman shoots a black during some confrontation, the black community says it happened because racist white policemen are overmuch inclined to shoot blacks. Domestic tranquility would be enhanced if both shooter and shootee were the same race. As we all know, the races do not get along with each other very well.

4/26/2007 01:06:00 AM  
Blogger Solomon2 said...

Community policing is a bad idea for Iraq; it's practically a license for bribery and corruption. Much better the Los Angeles model of the 70s-80s, when policemen were shifted from neighborhood to neighborhood and thus denied the opportunity to build up crooked contacts.

4/26/2007 10:19:00 AM  

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