Monday, October 11, 2004

The NYTimes > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Walking a Beat With Officer Muhammed

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Walking a Beat With Officer Muhammed:
"After almost eight weeks at the academy, Mr. Muhammed had learned the basics of law enforcement: how to handcuff prisoners and search cars, how to properly detain a suspect, the fundamentals of Iraqi law. 'But what surprised me totally,' he told me through a translator, as his fellow cadets nodded in wondrous agreement, 'was this whole concept of human rights!'

A few days later, Officer Muhammed was sent out with a pistol to protect and serve in a city under constant attack from car bombs and rocket-propelled grenades."

"That's a standard of training Americans would never accept," said Gerald F. Burke, a retired Massachusetts State Police major who spent more than a year as an adviser to Baghdad police commanders. "It's a standard the Iraqis wouldn't accept if they didn't have to. Really, it's just an excuse for us to be able to say, 'Hey, we tried.' ''

So even if Mr. Bush's numbers are correct, to claim 125,000 Iraqis will be "fully trained" for the Iraqi Army, National Guard, police and security services by year's end is to redefine the term so far downward as to be meaningless. Adnan Muhammed, in fact, is among the best trained police officers, one of only about 8,000 raw recruits who completed the full eight-week academy course. Thousands more were simply handed a badge and blue shirt on their first day.

The blame does not lie with Mr. Burke or the other civilians and American soldiers running the academies and advising Iraqi commanders. Rather, the Iraqi security forces are in such dreary shape for the same reason the rest of the country is a spiraling disaster: the Bush administration ignored the advice of its own people and tried to do the job on the cheap.

Mr. Burke was one of a half-dozen experts sent to Iraq by the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program, a Justice Department group, in May 2003 to figure out how to build a credible police force. The program sent other experts to assess prisons, courts and the rest of the criminal justice system.

The group's first and most critical recommendation was to bring in 6,000 international police advisers - civilians who would work in the stations and on the streets with Iraqi officers. It's a reasonable number for a nation of 25 million, based on data from the program's efforts in dozens of other war-torn countries. Yet more than a year later - with conditions having deteriorated so horrifically that the advisers could only travel in heavily armed convoys - there were still fewer than 500 outside experts.

It's part of a broader pattern of half-steps and shortcuts. Officer Muhammed's academy program was initially scheduled to be 16 weeks, still dangerously minimal (a Massachusetts state trooper, by comparison, is trained for nearly six months before he's allowed to patrol the turnpike, where he'll probably never be attacked with a roadside bomb). Yet American officials, in a rush to improve the numbers of cops on the street, ordered the curriculum cut in half. Given that every lecture, question and answer has to be translated from English into Arabic and back again, Mr. Burke said the Iraqi recruits are being let loose into a war zone with the equivalent of roughly four weeks of instruction.

And that may be a generous estimate, considering that Iraqis begin with little, if any, understanding of how law enforcement is supposed to function in a democracy. They might have seen a bootlegged "Dirty Harry'' movie or a few pirated TV shows, but the only flesh-and-blood police officers they've ever known were Saddam Hussein's.

Under the Baathist regime, the police were at best lazy extortionists and at worst outright criminals. Corruption was endemic; even good officers took cash "tips" from the citizenry to supplement their poverty-level wages. A tempering legacy is that they were outranked by at least 13 other security agencies, so they were a relatively minor source of terror.

Thousands of those former officers, though, are back on the job - only with a lot more authority. "Now," one grinning colonel told me, "we are the only ones." Some 32,000 have been put through a three-week reprogramming course. These lessons are also taught through translators, and some seem more intended to satisfy political constituencies abroad than to improve Iraq. Case in point: a two-hour seminar on domestic violence seems futile in a country were honor killings are common and, in some cases, legal. One police major I met dismissed that short lecture and the rest of the course-work: "Your system," he told me, "will not work in our country."

Of course, right now the lack of law-enforcement training might not be so important, because the Iraqi police aren't being used for what they've ostensibly been trained for, anyway. "We're not even asking them to protect the public," said Mr. Burke. "We're asking them to protect the new regime. We're not sending them out to walk a beat - we're sending them into Najaf and Samarra and Sadr City. We're sending them into a combat role."
con·cept: The NYTimes > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Walking a Beat With Officer Muhammed