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Newark Star Ledger, NJ November 15, 2004

Iraqi recruits still a thorn in U.S.'s side

Efforts to restock nation's military thwarted by betrayals, corruption

By Borzou Daragahi

BAGHDAD -- It seemed like a good idea to Americans at the time: Get rid of the nepotism and corruption that afflicted Saddam Hussein's bureaucracy by opening the doors of the army and police to any able-bodied Iraqi who wanted to join.

The result has been disastrous, some Iraqi security officials say.

As U.S. forces struggle to bring interim-government control to restless swaths of the country and put an Iraqi face on the continued occupation, they once again are finding themselves dependent upon security forces that seem ill-equipped to control the country and often are supportive of insurgents.

Last week, officials fired the police chiefs of Samarra and Mosul, cities that descended into chaos as American forces stepped up attacks on Fallujah.

According to news accounts, Mosul -- Iraq's third-largest city -- was on the brink of anarchy as masked insurgents roamed streets and police officers disappeared. The interim government dispatched four Iraqi National Guard battalions to the city, drawing away forces meant to protect the country's borders with Iran and Syria.

Iraqis themselves say many of the tens of thousands of police and thousands of armed forces recruits remain untrained, inexperienced and even worse: informers for the insurgency they were supposedly being trained to fight.

"The problem is that the police and security forces ... do not do their job," said Dana Ahmad Majid, regional director of Asayesh, a security force based in the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. "The choice of police in particular has been riddled with mistakes."

Betrayal, the security people say, led to the murder of nearly 50 Iraqi Army recruits in a remote corner of the country last month, when unarmed men traveling from their base were murdered execution-style near the Iran-Iraq border town of Mandali on Oct. 23.

"People inside the (recruits') camp must have signed up just to give information to the resistance," Iraqi Army Maj. Emad Farman said. "There had to be cooperation between people inside and outside the camp."

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's military forces grew to be one of the world's largest. During the 1980s, the deposed dictator increased the number of troops from 180,000 to 900,000 and more than doubled the number of tanks from 2,700 to 5,700, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a national security information archive.

But Saddam's military wilted under 12 years of sanctions after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait and both the army and police melted in the face of the 2003 U.S. invasion.

In one of the most contentious actions in postwar Iraq, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer signed an order formally dissolving the former Iraqi Army, an action many say fueled the growing anti-American insurgency. Bremer then began establishing Iraqi police and military forces as crime and terrorism mushroomed.

Iraqis and Westerners have long assumed this new Iraqi police force to be riddled with corruption and sentiment for insurgents. Iraqis blame early recruitment efforts in the haste to get forces up and running.

"When the Americans first came here, they tried to deal with people as if they shared the American mentality," said Iraqi National Guard Maj. Alaal-Khifajey. "The Americans' way was, you fill out a three-page application form, they check your name against their list of terrorists, and after a medical and fitness test, you had the job."

A U.S. diplomat, conceding recruitment problems plagued security forces, said not all army and police failings could be blamed on hiring alone. Some of the many problems were equally the result of intimidation by insurgents, he said on condition of anonymity.

"In Ramadi, or Samarra ... I'd put more weight on intimidation (than infiltration)," he said. "In Najaf, probably both infiltration and intimidation in April and very little by August."

Iraq's security forces remain under constant threat.

Each day, Iraqi police and soldiers are killed or kidnapped by insurgents. The videotaped execution of 11 purported Iraqi National Guard members was posted on the Internet last month. They were accused of "protecting the U.S. crusader occupation forces."

Marines battling insurgents in Fallujah and Ramadi have publicly complained the Iraqi forces do little fighting. And police often publicly express support for insurgents and have been seen standing idly by as insurgents plant roadside bombs.

In April, when fighting broke out across the country, many soldiers and police ran or, in some cases, handed their weapons to insurgents.

"There are some good people in the security services who are the ex-military people," said Iraqi Army Lt. Bashar Sadigha, who attended a military academy near Baghdad during Saddam's rule. "But there are many people who signed up just to be able to earn a living."

After assuming security powers following the July 1 transfer of power from the U.S.-led occupying authority, the leaders of Iraq's security forces have begun clamping down. They started cutting thousands of police officers from the ranks, either for incompetence or suspected insurgent leanings, U.S. and Iraqi officials confirmed.

And the armed forces recently have taken over the recruitment efforts from the Americans, to the relief of U.S. forces unfamiliar with Iraq's language and culture, unable to tell a hardworking, pious Iraqi from a religious fanatic or a plain criminal.

"Most of the screening as far as the staff is up to the Iraqi staff now," said U.S. Army Capt. Kevin Bradley, who trains Iraqi National Guardsmen. "Right now, whether or not the person is clean depends on the Iraqis."

Iraqis raised the recruitment age from 17 to 20 and instituted tough new regulations to keep insurgents and sympathizers out of the ranks, rules that might raise the hackles of American labor rights advocates.

Each recruit must now bring a letter of approval from his local community council. Each military base now dispatches committees to new recruits' neighborhoods to check on their "moral background," Khifajey said.

What's more, nepotism is now on the rise, the U.S. diplomat said. Khifajey said recruits must have someone already in the service -- a cousin, or other relative -- to vouch for them.

"We know our people," Khifajey said. "We know who to recruit and who to reject.

"Maybe 10 years down the line we'll have the kind of society where a man can just walk in off the street and sign up for the army," Khifajey said, "but definitely not now."


Copyright 2004, The Star-Ledger