A group of Iraqi policemen in full riot gears stand in formation during anti riot training in Basra
Atef Hassan  /  Reuters file
A group of Iraqi policemen in full riot gear stand in formation during anti-riot training at the police academy in the southern city of Basra on Monday.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/23/2004 2:06:28 PM ET 2004-09-23T18:06:28

In the effort to enforce some sort of stability and peace in Iraq, many uneasy alliances have been formed, not the least of which is between the U.S. forces and their Iraqi counterparts.

The U.S. military is making a tremendous effort to train the Iraqi police force in order to eventually hand control of the country's security back over to it.

Both President Bush and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi have a large stake in seeing the transition work smoothly to ensure elections take place on schedule in January.

“In Iraq, we confront both an insurgency and the global war on terror, with their destructive forces sometimes overlapping,” Allawi said in Washington on Thursday. “I can tell you today they will not succeed.”

A strong, credible home-grown security force is an essential building block for the U.S. and Iraqi administrations' vision for a new Iraq.

Bad reputation
But, with a long-held reputation for laziness and corruption, the Iraqi police force faces an uphill battle.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, they were the enforcers and benefactors of his brutal rule, their small salaries subsidized by whatever they could steal from those they were supposed to protect.

Despite U.S. military-run police training here, the attitude of both the cops and the public has not changed overnight.

In Iraq it’s not just the Americans who need to “win hearts and minds,” to create stability, but the Iraqi police force as well.

Elite Hilla SWAT team
The challenges were evident on a recent operation in Jabella, in the dangerous Sunni Triangle of Iraq.

On the ground was the Force Recon squad from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, waiting for the arrival of the Hilla Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, an elite Iraqi police force.

The Hilla SWAT is supposedly better trained, definitely better armed and slightly better paid than most Iraqi forces — members receive about $200 a month, compared with $120 for most of the other police. 

But despite its elite status, the team was late. The Iraqis eventually drove up in white pickup trucks with Iraqi SWAT stencil-painted in black on the doors along with their logo, a scorpion in the middle poised to strike.

Mission to net terrorists
Their mission was a sweep through the sleepy burg of Jabella, a supposed haven for criminals and terrorists who were involved in the insurgency in Fallujah and Ramadi, cities that have been hotbeds of resistance.

The goal was to arrest some of the militants and seize their weapons caches. When the teams — about 130 Iraqis, backed up by about 300 U.S. Marines and 100 Polish troops — arrived in Jabella, the Americans allowed the Hilla team take the lead.

Two Iraqis detained by the elite Iraqi police force.
Kevin Sites / NBC News
Two Iraqis detained by the Hilla Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team — the elite Iraqi police force — during a recent raid in Jabella, Iraq.

With the exception of their chocolate brown flak vests, the Iraqis wore a hodgepodge of different uniforms. Some in camouflage pants, some in jeans, with knit shirts, ski masks or green bandanas tied around their heads. But what they lacked in sartorial splendor, they made up in gusto for the job.

They piled out of their pickups and swept in big masses of 30 or 40 guys, kicking up dust in the streets, like Texas dirt devils. There may have been a plan, but it didn’t really seem like it.

They swept into one house on the east side of the street, then emerged en masse and piled through a gate into another.

They detained a few men here and there, simply taking them by the hand and leading them to one of the white pickups.

They also seemed to love the camera, posing like Iraqi "Rambos" or taking giant strides from here to there, as they went about their tasks.

As the operation came to a close, the captains and lieutenants of Hilla SWAT drifted back to the bed of one of the white pickup trucks, where a small wiry man in a black knit shirt was smoking cigarettes as cool and casual as Dean Martin in Vegas.

The other members of Hilla SWAT were deferential to this man, who represented the type of magnetic, irrefutable singular authority that has held sway in Iraq for so long. He was the Hilla SWAT team’s lieutenant colonel. He told his men to finish mopping up — that it was time to go.

And within a half-hour, Hilla SWAT was already headed out of the city. 

Still hedging bets
Back at the Marine Humvee, Dean Jones was already sitting in the back of the open vehicle. He is a retired cop with 26 years experience, including being a member of the Denver SWAT team. He is employed by the military contractor Dynacorp to be an adviser and liaison to the Iraqi police.

But Jones seemed beholden to no one, noting that the police behavior was often unacceptable. He recounted that during the sweep of one house in Jabella, the owner complained that his wife's jewelry was missing.

"Then they kind of reacted to him, if you know what I mean.”

Asked if the response was “thuggish," Jones said it was a good word. "We’ve got a lot of work to do here.”

The police and Iraqi National Guard have been the biggest victims of the insurgency, with hundreds killed so far in attacks on recruiting stations, bases and police headquarters.

But they haven’t necessarily proved highly effective or motivated in taking on well-trained former regime loyalists or religiously motivated militias like Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite forces.

It is the challenge and frustration echoed by the military commanders, administrators and rebuilders across Iraq.

“In some ways, they’re hedging their bets," Jones said. "They’re still not sure who’s going to win this thing.”

Kevin Sites is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Iraq. For more of his observations from Iraq, see his blog at kevinsites.net.

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