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Looking The Other Way

6 minute read
Mark Kukis/Baghdad

Captain Adam Grim readies his men for a nighttime raid in Mekanik, a gritty neighborhood in southern Baghdad. The target: a suspected militia safe house. Grim’s platoon won’t be leading the raid, however. Instead, the Americans will be supporting Iraqi forces led by a wiry police commander named Colonel Salih Hashim. Hashim knows the neighborhood well and chose the target himself. Together the two men discuss the plan one last time. Hashim and his men will storm the house while Grim’s platoon secures the street outside and provides cover.

The raid should be a model of U.S.-Iraqi cooperation, capturing bad guys while building the confidence and skills of the Iraqi police. But there’s a problem. Grim has reason to believe that in the daily struggle between U.S. forces and the armed Shi’ite groups suspected of carrying out most of the executions in the area, Hashim “plays both sides.” Grim certainly doesn’t trust Hashim and suspects him, at the very least, of giving ammunition to Shi’ite gunmen and sometimes even letting them sleep in the same Iraqi police compound where U.S. troops meet with Hashim during the day.

There are now more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers serving as advisers to Iraqi security forces. If the recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group are put into practice, that number will grow substantially. The Baker commission’s report calls for the number of U.S. troops embedded with Iraqi units to increase to as many as 20,000 over the next year. The report argues that boosting the number of advisers will lead to improvements in the quality of Iraqi forces and pave the way for a pullback of all U.S. troops from the front lines by 2008.

But based on where Iraq’s forces stand today, such a timetable is wildly optimistic. Iraq’s 300,000-strong security forces–in particular the national police, which is overseen by the Interior Ministry–have been so thoroughly infiltrated by militias that some U.S. trainers will have to bring in new recruits and retrain much of the current batch before they can turn combat responsibilities over to the Iraqis. There are already concerns that by rushing to strengthen the Iraqis, U.S. forces may be ignoring abuses committed by the very people they’re training. “I am greatly concerned that U.S. aid–including weapons–has gone to Iraqi security forces who have violated human rights,” says Senator Patrick Leahy, a senior Democrat from Vermont who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We want to build up the Iraqi forces, but that does not mean we should support people who commit atrocities.”

The experience of the troops assigned to Mekanik, a mixed neighborhood that is home to both the powerful Shi’ite Mahdi Army and a Sunni militant group called the Omar Brigade, illustrates the U.S.’s dilemmas. The neighborhood had suffered months of killing between Sunnis and Shi’ites before U.S. forces found a solution: to make the murders stop, keep the cops, who were overwhelmingly Shi’ite, out. Lieut. Colonel Jeffrey Peterson, the U.S. troop commander for Mekanik, says, “Whenever we would talk to locals about [the violence], they always implicated the national police as starting it. I could never prove it. But the bottom line was–whether it was true or false–the people did not trust the national police.” In early October the Americans created what they called an isolation zone, ordering all police out of Mekanik. Before the U.S. cordon went into effect, there had been up to eight murders a day in the district of 50,000 inhabitants, and Sunni mosques were frequently attacked by Shi’ite gunmen. The Army says that as soon as the police left, Mekanik’s murder rate dropped about 60%, and the mosque attacks stopped altogether.

The question now is whether the U.S. can rebuild a force that is trusted enough to take back responsibility for the neighborhood. U.S. troops who work with Iraqi security forces sometimes investigate and even arrest Iraqi police. The Pentagon points out that Iraq’s Interior Ministry has fired or suspended roughly 3,000 officers for offenses ranging from corruption to “breaking the law.” But a senior official at the ministry who spoke to TIME on the condition of anonymity says the dismissals were little more than a charade. Police officers who quit for their own reasons accounted for about 500 of the supposed dismissals, he says. Most of the others the ministry let go were employees with medical problems or nearing retirement. Virtually nothing had been done to remove ministry officials implicated in abuses ranging from mistreatment of detainees to working with death squads.

That leaves the job of cajoling good behavior from Iraqi police largely in the hands of junior officers like Grim, 28. The square-jawed West Point grad from Orange Park, Fla., is on his second tour in Iraq. He says his job is something equivalent to “armed social work.” He feels responsible not just for making arrests and advising Iraqi soldiers but also for protecting the civilians of Mekanik. So while he says he trusts most of the officers, it’s clear that he lives uneasily with the possibility that at least some of the Iraqis may be accomplices to murder when he’s not around.

The raid with Hashim–the first such joint operation since Iraqi police were allowed back into the district–was typically disquieting. The house, it turns out, was empty. Grim and the other U.S. soldiers walked away uncertain about what had happened. It could have been an honest mistake, but the Americans couldn’t help wondering whether Hashim was really looking for “terrorists,” as he claimed. Maybe he was looking for a Sunni family to rough up, Grim says. Or perhaps the raid was just a diversion to keep U.S. troops busy while crimes were committed elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Still, the level of mistrust between U.S. and Iraqi forces runs so high that some U.S. soldiers speak openly about the possibility that they could be led into an ambush or attacked directly by the same police officers they have armed and trained. Grim says he doesn’t share that concern because Hashim and his men know that Grim’s platoon is ready for any situation. “It goes back to trusting your fellow American soldier to watch your back and keep you out of trouble,” says Grim. “If the police did turn on us during a patrol, it would be the last thing they ever had the misfortune of doing.” In today’s Iraq, that may be as close as U.S. and Iraqi troops come to a mutual understanding.

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