Iraq’s Police Problem: Too Many Shia?

Another day in Baghdad, another dog and pony show, as journalists call staged events. And everything about this one on Thursday will tell you everything you need to know about the state of the war, if only by indirection.

BBC correspondent Jim Muir said he was only going to get away from his bureau’s smoke-belching generator, which they're in the process of replacing at a cost of $60,000—an option not available to most Baghdad residents, who only get half an hour of electricity each day. Other reporters were going only because there was nowhere else safe enough to go. U.S. Embassy public-affairs officer Roberta Rossi pitched it to everyone as a chance not only to see the newly rebuilt Baghdad Police Academy and its latest graduating class, but also to score some face time with the elusive new Iraqi minister of Interior, Jawad Bolani, two weeks in office in the middle of an increasingly violent sectarian conflict, and hardly a public word from him. And best of all, a pair of Black Hawk choppers would be put on to get everyone there, logged in as yet another of the hundreds upon hundreds of missions undertaken as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom IV every single day. "Why drive when you can fly?" Rossi quipped. Exactly, especially when drives like that can be fatal. You'd think it was to Diyala or Al Anbar, but no, it was right across the river in the heart of Baghdad, and flying time from LZ (Landing Zone) Washington in the Green Zone would be inside of 120 seconds.

We flew low over the dusty streets and flat-roofed buildings, across the river and past the lightly traveled expressways—Baghdad is in the middle of a massive security operation, so people are keeping a low profile. Low is good, by the way; it's much harder to get a bead on a helicopter when it flashes by just over the rooftops. Then the birds tilt on their sides to skirt around the 11-story Ministry of Interior building right next door to the police academy. Below could be seen the cadets, already formed into neat, square cohorts of 50 or 60 apiece at the margins of a gravel playing field, dark blue trousers and light blue shirts, hundreds of heads looking up at us. The choppers come in tail low, so the pilots up front can't even see the ground, particularly when clouds of dust billow up; our companions in the other Black Hawk abort their landing and circle around for another try, blinded by the dust. For this much effort, you expect incoming, but there's only an Iraqi police band. Yet no one who knows Baghdad would call it overkill. In Iraq, choppers are as ubiquitous as they were in Vietnam, with a major difference—a tiny fraction of their missions involve combat or even medevac, and most of the time they're a costly taxi service to keep important people safely above the deadly streets and roads.

Would foreign reporters even go otherwise? The matter would be referred to security professionals for review. They would check reports on the neighborhood, the route. It's one that's well known, because the Ministry of Interior is next door. As it happens, NEWSWEEK has just been granted an interview with an official there, but ground travel by any American reporter was overruled. An Iraqi staffer went instead. He spent three hours wending his way through the many checkpoints—the ministry building has been targeted by suicide bombers, and even by squads of insurgents with small arms, on several occasions. After all that, the interview was canceled at the last minute anyway. In the risk/benefit analysis that is carried out every time anyone passes out of the relative safety of their compound, that one had an unpromising ratio.

The dog and pony was ready to go, as our chorus ex machina landed. There was the usual argument over whether it was the right LZ, but close enough. Let's not be too flip. No one gainsays the importance of training Iraqi police, so the refurbishment of the country's biggest police academy isn't unimportant. Every couple of months, the academy is churning out another several hundred new police officers, 10,000 a year. And everyone agrees that building up Iraqi security forces ("standing them up" in U.S. military parlance) is what it's all about.

But as the Iraq war morphs from a fairly simple insurgency against the government and its Coalition supporters, to a much more complicated sectarian conflict, the police issue takes on another dimension. All over Baghdad now, Sunni Arabs complain that the Shia-dominated police are responsible for much of the sectarian violence. People disappear from car stops, roadblocks, house searches; later their bodies are found horribly mutilated, or beheaded, or just killed. Shia militias operate with complete impunity, allegedly under the noses of the police, according to many Sunni Iraqis. At night, death squads are widely believed to do the same. There are still Sunni terrorists indiscriminately killing Shia civilians, too, but they aren't doing it under the cover of government and uniforms.

The U.S. military has a very simple solution for this image problem. They simply count all killings as terrorism, implying they're all the work of insurgents. And police who kill people are simply terrorists who stole the uniforms. But most Sunnis would beg to differ. There are now terrorists in and out of uniform, they say. Whether this is true or not, it's an article of faith if you're on the wrong side of the sectarian divide. In many ways, in uniform is worse; after all, the United States is buying the uniforms, and all the rest of it.

The police academy was six months late in its refurbishment, but that's normal—in fact, given the security impact on all reconstruction here, it's even fast. The civilian contractor is there to show us around; he has three personal bodyguards, or PSDs (personal-security details) as they're called here, all Westerners. The Americans want to show off the barracks and the classrooms; but identifying the graduates is a more interesting matter by far. There's a little confusion over just how many they are. They were to be 720 in number, but the new American public-affairs adviser to the ministry of interior, William Ronald Costlew, says it turns out there's actually 300 and some. He's new in the job, just arrived a few weeks ago and there's a shortage of English speakers in the ministry. ("We're working on that problem," he says. So did his predecessors, actually). A head count of the graduates puts it at 540, to be more precise.

The cadets spend a lot of time goose-stepping and parade-dressing in the punishing over-110-degree heat; they do it so well, it's hard to imagine what else they did on their two-month long course. "Firearms practice?" a cadet, unarmed like all the others, is asked. An Iraqi officer intervenes and overrules the question, reasonable as it may seem. But that's just the old Saddam-era habit of mind, asserting itself. They had classes in human rights, classes in democracy, classes in first aid and, of course, classes in policing, the American advisers to the trainers assure everyone. No one however seems to know how many of these recruits are actually Sunni Arabs.

The man who should know, Interior Minister Bolani, arrives sirens blazing. He also had a two-minute long trip, but in a heavily armed 12-vehicle convoy from across the street. He gets out of his armored car surrounded by a phalanx of 20 police commandos, and makes his way to the brown leather sofas on the reviewing stand. Dignitaries in Iraq usually sit on sofas. The guards fan out around the reviewing stand, hands on their trigger guards, barrels pointing down. Supplementing them are a half dozen badly dressed civilians who have unholstered their pistols and walk around vaguely pointing them toward the press and public. As Bolani sinks into the plush brown leather, the cadets' officers lead them in a chant in praise of Imam Ali, the cousin of the prophet Mohammed, who is particularly revered by Shia Muslims. Bolani is Shia.

Now comes the dog and pony part, or actually dog and terrorist. Suitcases are put out on the tarmac in front of the reviewing stand, and Iraqi police K-9 commandos bring their dogs out to sniff them. On cue they find the one bag that has explosives in it—a wad of C-4-like stuff big enough to choke a warthog. Someone jokes: "Even I could smell it." The putative owner of the bag is tackled by the commandos. From a TV point of view—and dog and ponies are made-for-TV affairs—it makes for good pictures. Next, a terrorist tries to get a bomb in his van past the dogs, but they sniff it out (it's the size of a vacuum cleaner), and this time the dogs take down the villain—protected with a well-padded arm, fortunately for him.

Fair enough, and at least the minister's handlers have promised he'll take some questions from the press afterward. But, actually, he doesn't, leaving in another blaze of sirens. Instead, a sacrificial general is offered up, a three-star named Hussein Mehdi, the commander of the Baghdad police academy. So far no one has had any idea what proportion of the cadets are actually Sunni Arabs, which is a fairly important issue given the widespread complaint of Sunnis that the police are all Shias. And the Imam Ali chants certainly reinforced the impression that these new officers are mostly Shia.

Like most Iraqi generals, however, Mehdi is not accustomed to being questioned persistently. "There is no difference between Sunni and Shia and Kurd, all of them are Iraqi people," he says. This is a slogan, not an answer; an awful lot of dead people, about 30 a day lately, would beg to differ if they could. He quickly loses his temper. "All your questions are about Shias and Sunnis," he barks, and stalks off, cameras still rolling.

Which, come to think of it, was the best answer of the day.

Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty Images