As insurgents intensify attacks on members of Iraq's fledgling security forces, U.S. authorities have concluded that plans to provide new police officers with a two-month introductory course followed by some on-the-job mentoring will not be enough to ensure their effectiveness.
With many police officers intimidated by killings and threats, some U.S. officials have even begun questioning the notion of trying to establish a system of local policing at this time.
"Community policing, local policing, is a very strong tactic when the problem is crime," said Ron Neumann, the top political-military counselor at the U.S. Embassy here. "But when the problem switches to insurgency, community-based police and their families become vulnerable. You may have to consider moving to a whole new concept of some form of national or regional police."
The creation of homegrown military and law enforcement forces is a central part of the U.S. strategy for stabilizing Iraq and eventually allowing the withdrawal of U.S. troops. U.S. and Iraqi officials want to rely solely on Iraqi forces to guard polling places during national elections scheduled for Jan. 30, keeping U.S. troops at a distance.
The police are one element in the mix of security services taking shape in Iraq. Other major components — the army and the National Guard — have also suffered performance and retention setbacks. But for the most part, they have won passing marks or better while operating alongside U.S. forces since the summer in critical fights in Najaf, Samarra and Fallujah.
Struggling to adapt
U.S. authorities overseeing the buildup of the Iraqi force say there is no time to draft an entirely new concept for the police. Instead, they are struggling to adapt the original plan by bolstering the police with more weapons, more heavily fortified stations, additional trainers and new specialized backup units.
"The key to this is constantly adapting to whatever the situation is on the ground," said Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the senior U.S. officer responsible for training and equipping the Iraqi forces.
Local policing is working in many parts of Iraq, Petraeus said. One particularly encouraging example he cited was Najaf, where the U.S. military battled the militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr in April and August, ultimately routing the fighters. Much of the credit for the quiet there now goes to good local policing as well as strong political leadership from the provincial governor and popular support, said Petraeus during a visit to the city Tuesday.
But the police have performed poorly in the Sunni Muslim areas in central and northwestern Iraq, where much of the current violence is concentrated. As a dramatic case in point, the police force in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, collapsed earlier this month. A wave of attacks on police stations and other government buildings prompted 3,200 of the city's 4,000 police officers to abandon their jobs.
Insurgents have waged a ferocious campaign of intimidation against the police. While attacks on U.S. and other foreign troops have increased 24 percent since the handover of power in late June, attacks on Iraqi security forces have risen 50 percent, according to the U.S. military command here.
To boost their firepower, more police officers will be getting AK-47 assault rifles. Instead of one for every third policeman, as initially called for in U.S. plans, every other policeman will receive one.
Efforts also are underway to make instruction at the eight-week introductory course more practical, with greater emphasis on marksmanship skills and lessons in how to identify roadside bombs.
New operational concepts
Some U.S. officials have advocated lengthening the course to 12 weeks. But Petraeus has argued that more can be gained by altering the structure of the new forces and changing their operational concepts.
In an interview, Petraeus asserted the importance of establishing cohesive police units with clear chains of command and using them to deal with trouble spots rather than sending in individual police officers unfamiliar with each other. He also said there is a need for specialized units that could bring extra combat power and intelligence-gathering assets to a fight and help bridge the capability gap between police and army forces.
To help restore order in Mosul, for instance, Baghdad authorities dispatched a "special police commando" battalion to the northwestern city. Six such battalions are being set up under a plan conceived two months ago to establish paramilitary-type units within police ranks.
The battalions, each with about 750 members, consist largely of highly skilled veterans of former Iraqi special forces teams. They have been used to quell resistance in Samarra and north Babil province. One battalion is slated to go to Fallujah.
Additionally, three public order battalions, initially conceived for riot control missions, are being beefed up and dispatched to Fallujah and Baghdad. Plans are underway to establish two special police regiments with wheeled armored vehicles. Police emergency response units are forming as well, with the goal being to have one in every province. This is meant to ensure that regular police officers can summon reinforcements when in trouble.
"What you need is something effective and dependable that local police chiefs can turn to, something that will make them feel they have some backup," Petraeus said.
Under the original U.S. plan, fresh police course graduates were to receive mentoring by U.S. or other international law enforcement officers for six months. That is typical of police training programs set up by the United States elsewhere in the world, according to Robert B. Charles, who runs the State Department's office of international narcotics and law enforcement.
But the large numbers of new Iraqi police officers have outpaced the supply of experienced international mentors. About 47,000 police officers are now on duty, with plans to expand the force to 135,000.