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Rebuild police, or risk losing Iraq

Part 3: Some postwar reconstruction experts worry that the United States is not moving fast to prevent Shiite and Kurdish militia from establishing strongholds. By Steve Johnson.
A U.S. Army soldier listens to an Iraqi police officer inside a burned and looted bank in central Baghdad on April 21.
A U.S. Army soldier listens to an Iraqi police officer inside a burned and looted bank in central Baghdad on April 21.
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Reconstruction experts who have worked in Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere say the United States must move rapidly to beef up peacekeeping forces in Iraq or risk losing control to Kurdish and Shiite militia and gangs controlled by hard-core Saddam Hussein loyalists. But some of them say the Bush administration appears to be unprepared for the scope of the challenge — which may ultimately determine the success or failure of the U.S. invasion.

“You have chaos right now, basically,” said Robert Perito, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who organized U.S. peacekeeping forces in Haiti and now advises the U.S. Institute of Peace. “There should have been security forces pre-positioned to come in behind the U.S. military to take responsibility for dealing with the general lawlessness that occurred.”

What concerns Perito and others is that in a vacuum, former members of the Iraqi security services will resurface. “When they go out of business as security agencies, they come back as criminal gangs,” he said. He noted that many of the anti-American banners carried by protesters in recent days were in English and well-made — “These were done by professionals, like the folks in the security services who used to do these same banners on behalf of Saddam.”

“What we have to avoid is giving the bad guys an opportunity to get into a situation where they can generate alternative sources of revenue and then graft that onto a political organization — then they become the spoilers,” said Scott Feil, former chief of strategy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and author of a report on post-conflict reconstruction for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Association of the United States Army.

But more than criminal gangs are threatening public security in Iraq. In cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq where the United States still has little military presence, some 300,000 Kurds who were evicted from their homes by Saddam a decade ago are beginning to return and try to reclaim their old property from the Arab families who now live there, raising the specter of revenge killings.

The two major Kurdish groups in northern Iraq each have a militia, while several of the Shiite clerics vying for power in southern Iraq are also arming their followers.

A slow start
In Baghdad, several hundred Iraqi police officers have returned to work, and the United States has named a veteran Iraqi cop as interim police chief. But the broader nationwide effort to rebuild the Iraqi police and justice system is just getting started. The U.S. Justice Department is sending a 26-member assessment team, including judges, prosecutors, police and corrections officials, into Iraq to help the State Department figure out how much of the Iraqi police and justice system needs to be rebuilt.

But Perito argues the Justice Department team is moving far too slowly. “They said the assessment would take two to three weeks, then they would come back and write up their assessments, and make their recommendations and look at options and then somebody would make choices and then they would talk about implementation — which sounds like a long time scale that would take weeks if not months to implement,” he said.

But the United States is hampered by its lack of any fulltime peacekeeping forces. Unlike almost every other nation in the world, the United States does not have a national police force, nor does the U.S. military have any large-scale units that specialize in police functions.

Instead, in Iraq — and whenever the United States has contributed police officers to U.N. policing efforts in the last 10 years — it has turned to a private company, in this case, Dyncorp International. State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said Thursday the department has given a $50 million contract to Dyncorp to hire about 1,000 U.S. civilians who will work as advisers in setting up the Iraqi police, court and prison system. So far, only 150 of those people have been identified, and it will be several weeks before they begin work.

But getting the civilian officers to Iraq solves only part of the problem. In most U.N.-led peacekeeping operations, such as in East Timor or in the Balkans, the United Nations has taken care of providing vehicles, weapons and facilities. But in Iraq, the United States will have to provide all of that equipment.

Several foreign countries have offered to help the United States with rebuilding Iraq’s security forces, but for now the State Department is still negotiating over the exact nature of that assistance, spokesman Fintor said.

Iraqi exile groups say the country has some 500 judges, and they estimate that half will need to be replaced because of their close ties to the previous regime, according to Bathsheba Crocker, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Services in Washington who has studied the problems of postwar reconstruction in Iraq. Iraq has a modern legal code and a constitution, but it was often ignored by Saddam, who overruled it by decree.

While most prison buildings were not physically destroyed, many of the corrections officials participated in torturing prisoners. “It may be that you have to get rid of all of the prison officials,” said Crocker. Experts agree that all of Saddam’s various national security services must be disbanded, and few of their officers will be eligible for other policing work. But many of the lower ranks of the 20,000-strong border patrol and the 50,000 members of the national police force are likely to get their jobs back.

How to handle militia
Figuring out how to disband or co-opt the Shiite and Kurdish militia may prove more difficult. Each group is riven with factions, with the militias providing the muscle to back up competing claims to power.

One option would be to allow the Kurds and Shiites to keep their militia as a form of regional National Guard, while also building up a national police force and a national army. But allowing any region to keep its own security forces also would make it easier for them to set up independent fiefdoms, something the United States is determined to avoid.

Long-term, the goal is a multi-ethnic security force that is loyal to a central government. “You can ameliorate [ethnic loyalties] over time if can you pay them and equip them, so their loyalties are gradually transferred to a central government,” said James Dobbins, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state who now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp.

But doing that requires a representative government that has won the trust of regional groups to the point that they no longer feel the need for their own militia. And that may be the most difficult reconstruction task of all.