Two dozen bare-chested young men line up outside a local police station, waiting to sign up for Iraq's National Police. Most are wearing track pants or shorts. The registrars check their bodies for bullet scars or elaborate tattoos—marks that could signify time in prison or even membership in a militia or a terrorist group like Al Qaeda. A high-ranking general dismisses one man whose arm is embroidered with snakes and markings that look like hieroglyphics and another for poor eyesight, but most are waved on to the next step. Remarkably, this tableau unfolds in the mostly Christian town of Tall Kayf, near Mosul, where the force is actively recruiting Yazidian, Shabak, Christians and other minorities, as well as Sunni Muslims.
It's a sea change from just two years ago, when, far from seeking ethnic and religious diversity, the National Police (NP) was a widely reviled Shiite redoubt whose death squads tortured and murdered hundreds of Sunnis in a long-running orgy of retribution. Americans and Iraqis alike called for disbanding the force, with some demanding the sacking of its overseer, then-Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, for human rights violations. Many saw the NP as a virtual arm of the Badr Corps, the Shiite-dominated, pro-Iranian military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council said to be behind extrajudicial killings. "They were involved in a lot of things that weren't even shady; they were downright criminal," concedes Brig. Gen. David Phillips, the senior U.S. military police officer in Iraq. Now the NP is said to be far superior to its earlier incarnation and is being touted as a key element for stabilizing the country and securing the peace.
Some, however, are not so sure. In a country that already has the extensive, localized Iraqi Police Service (IPS) to maintain law and order and an army to defend its borders, it is not immediately clear why a niche must be carved out for an organization considered both tainted and superfluous. But as the security forces jostle for position, resources, arms and funding, the NP is on a campaign to demonstrate why it should be not only retained but expanded and strengthened. Its leaders say the NP is stamping out incompetence and corruption in its ranks and proving its mettle on the battlefield, pointing to successful counterinsurgency offensives in places like Basra, Sadr City and Mosul, where it fought alongside the army and mostly stood its ground, unlike hundreds of local cops who deserted their posts and even handed over their weapons to the enemy. "Mother of Two Springs has proved how professional and effective the National Police are," says Staff Maj. Gen. Hussein Jasim Mohammed Al-Awadi, the organization's top cop, in a reference to the recent operation to clean up the northern city of Mosul.
Awadi, a slight, easygoing man who vaguely resembles legendary movie bad guy Jack Palance, has a penchant for pithy remarks. In a late-night interview with NEWSWEEK in his Mosul office, the chain-smoking workaholic asserts that the NP routed the insurgents there. "They were scared as rats and they mostly gave up," he says with a chuckle. But success has been costly. The NP, whose membership totals a little more than 35,000—compared with more than 300,000 in the Iraqi Police Service and 240,000 in the army—has seen 1,650 of its officers killed in action and 3,000 wounded around the country in the last four years.
Awadi's goals for his young force, which was established in August 2004, include more equipment, weapons and aircraft. He deflects questions about expanding its size—its two divisions will become three by year's end, with a complement of at least 40,000—by saying he stresses quality over numbers. The NP, he says, must improve its intelligence gathering and investigative abilities and raise its overall competence. "Through this year we will not get all we need, but certainly our forces will be stronger," he says. "But we still have challenges."
Not the least of those will be negotiating the political minefield of a government still riven by sectarian competition and interministerial skirmishing. Although both police services are Ministry of Interior stablemates, the IPS is loath to be superseded by the NP, which was founded after the American invasion to provide a rapid-response force to fight insurgency, riots and civil disobedience. It does not help that the average salary for the NP is about $600 a month, versus about $530 for the IPS.
The army, meanwhile, would mostly like to absorb the NP and be done with it. Staff Maj. Gen. Mezhir Shaher, commander of the Army's 11th Division, has proposed "many times" that the NP merge with the Army. "Certainly they are doing good missions, but operationally they work as an army and often with the Army," he says. "The multiplicity of entities creates confusion. I think it's an additional layer that's not necessary." Shaher makes the comments as his friend, Staff Maj. Gen. Abdul Kharim al-Aizi, commander of the National Police's 1st Division, obligingly steps away. Aizi says a merger would be "all right," but his ideal structure calls for the army tending the nation's borders and external threats, the IPS looking after local crimes and the NP serving as a paramilitary force in charge of counterinsurgency, domestic disturbances, national disasters and the like. His model is Italy's Carabinieri, a hybrid that has been serving that country for many decades. Not coincidentally, the Italian agency has been training the National Police since October 2007, teaching its recruits the fundamentals of counterterrorism, crowd control and other skills. The Italians, whose services are provided through NATO, gladly back a knockoff of their system for Iraq. "The Carabinieri are a very important and effective example of the way a country can fight against crime and terrorism," says Italian Army spokeswoman Lt. Sonia Mancini. "Since Iraq is still having many security problems, a police intended as an organization between the regular police and the formal army could help the country become safer."
Having a competent National Police may be a good idea, but allowing it wide latitude in law enforcement could hamper development of IPS officers, the ones who have most often declined to stand and fight insurgents. Those lawmen serve in the municipalities were they were born and grew up and are more likely to succumb to pressure from militias who threaten to harm their families. A majority of the 1,300 security forces recently fired for refusing to fight in Basra and Baghdad were IPS. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, emphasized the problem earlier this year in testimony before U.S. senators. "The other lesson is a recurring one, and that is the difficulty of local police operating in areas where there is serious intimidation of themselves and of their families," he said. Beat cops are the forces that need to be nurtured, adds a senior U.S. adviser in Iraq. "The problem is that this country doesn't know where it wants to concentrate the use of force as it pertains to its own citizens," he says.
Lt. Gen. James Dubik, head of the Multinational Security Transition Command, was one of the VIPs at the recent graduation of 450 NP officers from a Carabinieri course at the Iraqi training facility at Baghdad's Camp Victory. "The National Police had a reputation of being sectarian, of not being professional. But they didn't have a reputation for not fighting," he says. Awadi, the National Police commander, envisions his officers battling organized crime and drug smugglers and adding other duties as insurgents improvise new tactics. "As the disease develops, so does the medicine, the antidote," he says. The government will have to administer a strong dose of medicine internally: the Ministry of the Interior has dismissed more than 7,500 police officers so far this year. Absence, negligence and corruption were the main grounds cited for the firings, which removed 356 officers and 7,199 recruits. National Police commanders at the Tall Kayf recruitment drive might be encouraged that most registrants interviewed by NEWSWEEK cited patriotism and a desire to keep fellow Iraqis safe as their reasons for joining. Only one said he was signing up because he needed the money. But the NP still faces a tough PR challenge with ordinary Iraqis, many of whom still fear and loathe all police. Asked his view of the different services, Jamal Izzi, who runs a Baghdad Internet café, responded with a damning Iraqi proverb: "The excrement is just as dirty as urine." With attitudes like that, bureaucratic wrangling may be the least of the problems facing the new recruits.