Monday, May 21, 2007

Spencer Ackerman: Training Iraq's Death Squads

Spencer Ackerman writes:

Training Iraq's Death Squads: One of the reminders of Ali's sacrifice is a framed photograph on his cluttered desk. In it, his young son wears the oversized camouflage helmet of Lieut. Jonathan Sherrill, a 24-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, who leads a platoon of the 57th Military Police Company, which oversees fifteen police stations like Khadimiya here in western Baghdad. Sherrill doesn't smile much out on patrol, but in the photograph the diminutive lieutenant wears a grin almost as large as the one plastered on Ali's overjoyed son. When Sherrill walks into Ali's office on a March afternoon, the besieged major's chubby, mustachioed face lights up. An aide rushes to bring sodas for Ali's friend.

"He's one of the hardest-working IPs I've ever met," Sherrill tells me, using the ubiquitous military acronym for Iraqi Police. "He's doing good, and making sure the station gets what it needs." But what the station--and Iraq--needs is not solely measured in items on an acquisition order. Roving the hallways are men only nominally controlled by the police chain of command. "I'm happy with the loyalty of many of the men," Ali tells me after he finishes briefing Sherrill on the day's progress. "But we're suffering with the newer IPs, because I don't know exactly if they come from a militia or some political party." It's a fear echoed by practically every IP commander the 57th becomes partners with. Several told me that many of their police are little more than militiamen in uniform.

"If they belong to the religious guys, it poisons their mind," Ali continues. "Now, in the station, the guys who join can collect information on the other sects. When they get into civilian clothes, they go out and kill the other sect." Ali shrugs. "I have no control over that." The bed in his office underscores both his hard work and the fact that many of his own officers, like the insurgents they are supposed to fight, have placed Ali under siege. Some are suspicious of his closeness with the US military. Some will kill him as part of inter-Shiite factional strife. Others will simply target him for money.

Out of this material comes the long-term US strategy in Iraq. This year's troop surge--an infusion of five combat brigades to Baghdad, along with an additional 2,200 military police and thousands more support forces--brought a return to greater American combat operations, but commanders emphasize that the ultimate goal remains preparing Iraqis to secure their country. Since June 2006, this task has fallen, in part, to the 57th. The company doesn't provide direct training to the IPs; but it advises them on a relentless routine of manning checkpoints, neighborhood patrols, logistics maintenance, payroll and strengthening the chain of command.

"We make them operate their system for when we're not here anymore," explains Capt. Rob McNellis, the 57th's 30-year-old company commander. "If we can help, then absolutely, we'll give them everything we've got, but the focus has shifted." That focus has, by all accounts, yielded improvements in Iraqi police competence. The days when policemen ran from the insurgency are mostly over.

These days the danger is the opposite: that militia-loyal policemen, mostly Shiite here in Baghdad, will use their increased US-gained skills to scourge their Sunni enemies. McNellis and his superiors contend that while they cannot end infiltration, they can curb militia abuses. They hope that the mentorship they provide will force the police to rise above its maculate origins. "There is militia infiltration to varying degrees at the stations," says McNellis, "but nothing succeeds like success."...

The broader problem is that sectarianism remains deeply entrenched. Gen. David Petraeus, the highly regarded commanding general in Iraq, has stated that success can only come through a political settlement. Yet practically every significant reconciliation effort pushed by the United States--a relaxation of the de-Baathification law, a more equitable distribution of the nation's oil wealth, a new round of provincial elections--has bogged down in Parliament. Popular sentiment is no less divided. According to a March poll by ABC News, more than 95 percent of Sunnis believe Baathists should be allowed back into government positions, while two-thirds of Shiites and Kurds reject the idea. Only 4 percent of Sunnis believe their lives will improve over the next year, though 51 percent of Shiites remain optimistic....

The problem runs deeper than the Interior Ministry. Every significant political organization in Iraq fields its own militia as an insurance policy against losing power. For the United States to insist on total militia demobilization would require a massive expansion of the war and cost it whatever Iraqi allies it still has--with no certainty of success. "My own personal view is that it's not realistic to expect in this country for militia groups to be eliminated altogether," says Col. Mike Galloucis, commander of the 89th Military Police Brigade, the parent unit of the 57th. "Militia groups are interwoven throughout the fabric of the country, including the government. But you can always go after bad behavior. You can establish the basic principle of what's acceptable and unacceptable: the notion that everyone accepts the law, no one is above the law, and if you violate it--and I don't care what your sect or your name is--you will be punished." Galloucis's approach led to the firing of several top police generals last fall after the colonel presented Bolani with "a thick packet" of information detailing their corruption.

The result is a trade-off. Police stations do not face US-pushed mass purges of corrupt officers, which would risk further destabilizing a maturing force. But as long as militiamen remain in the police, official cover will exist for kidnappings, murders and other human rights abuses, undermining the rule of law that Galloucis seeks to promote. Proof of specific police complicity in sectarian attacks can be hard to acquire, limiting US ability to get Iraqi commanders to take action. "You can buy a police uniform downtown," McNellis points out....

More than four years into the war, the discrepancy between the scope of Iraq's challenges and the ability of the United States to alleviate them is greater than ever. The commander of Iraqi police in western Baghdad, Gen. Saleh Alany, insists that the United States can't leave--"the terrorists would win"--but says the real problem in Iraq is the entire "generation that was born in the 1980s, during the war with Iran," whose minds have been corrupted by violence. He includes his own men in his assessment: "Loyalty is the biggest problem. The security forces don't have loyalty to the country. They're loyal to the different parties, or other forces." Alany's dim view of the new Iraq is surely colored by his status as a veteran of Saddam's Republican Guard. But if he's right, then to improve the quality of the police force entails increasing the lethality of the militias.

Major Ali in Khadimiya needs no reminder. He picks his security detail personally--he must be wary of those assigned to guard him because of whom they might actually work for. He fears being transferred to the MOI, and vows to take his men to the ministry with him if he is. "I need to know who they are," he says. "Otherwise, they'd kill me." Sherrill sees help on the way. "It's all about weeding out the bad apples," he says, "and for the most part, we've been doing that." After Sherrill leaves, there will be another lieutenant to lend his helmet to Ali's son, and more US troops to mentor Ali's progress. But even with them there, Ali must still fear the uncertain loyalties of his own men, and what they will do with their newfound skills.

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