Building Iraq's Police Force

Photo provided by the U.S. military showing a graduation ceremony of Iraqi National Police at Numiniyah, Nov. 1, 2006.
U.S. Military
This story was written by CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick, embedded with U.S. forces in Baghdad Province.

U.S. soldiers pay a surprise visit to an Iraqi National police checkpoint in the middle of the night. They find half the police on-duty sleeping, and none of them aware of an impending attack.

Intelligence indicates gunmen may be massing for an attack here, Checkpoint 2 in Rasallah, Baghdad Province — one of the most dangerous. It's targeted nightly.

Lt. Col. Anthony Cornett, the U.S. team leader, urges the Iraqi captain to wake up his men and defend the checkpoint.

"I told him, 'let's get the other men up and get them fully prepared for the attack.' These gunmen generally attack at the same time every night. They know that. I know that. So they should be prepared, not waiting to call the Americans to come and help them," Cornett says.

The Iraqis have an armored vehicle and a watch tower. Cornett patiently explains to them how the tower should be fortified and how they should use the vehicle for protection.

"They can fend this off by themselves. They can do this," he says.

The Iraqis listen to Cornett but make no move to wake the others. They are polite, and intrigued by the American visit, but they seem unafraid — even as the Iraqi captain acknowledges the gunmen are there and are trying to chase them off.




Checkpoint 2 separates Sunni and Shiite areas, and the fighters have already seized homes and frightened away families on one side.

This location, on a key road leading into central Baghdad, is important to the upcoming joint security operations in the capital.

"This is a very crucial checkpoint that we can't afford to get rid of," Cornett says. "They have to protect this checkpoint and they have to get aggressive about patrolling outside of it so the enemy doesn't get that close."

But the Iraqis complain the fighters they're up against have better weapons and more ammunition. U.S. military personnel in charge of stock admit supplying the National Police checkpoints has been complicated.

"Safety equipment, helmets, vests, boots, food, ammo, those things are tight. You have very little of it and there is no making a call and getting an abundant re-supply like we do," explains Master Sergeant John Yarborough.

American soldiers sometimes spot police wearing sandals with their uniforms because they don't have boots.

A lack of hardware, and footwear, is only the tip of the iceberg — many of these men have no formal law enforcement training.

"They come straight off the street," Cornett says. "They throw on a haphazard uniform and now they're out there doing something that they have no training to do."

Militia influence is also a problem, especially in the Iraqi National Police ranks.

"Some of them have allegiances to these different organizations that are Sunni or Shiite," Cornett says. They are sometimes threatened into joining militant groups.

Several police commanders have been replaced to try and curtail that problem, and at least one battalion has been completely disbanded.

But the only way to build a police force guaranteed free of militia influence is to watch the recruits all the way. National Police are being trained at a facility in Numiniyah by Australian cops — but they live, eat and learn alongside embedded U.S. forces.

For four weeks of training, a team of about 11 U.S. soldiers will be integrated into a battalion of trainees, and when the police head back to their posts, they're joined by even more Americans.

"We're going to be with them 24-7, so they can't get away from us in the night, they can't get away from us in the daytime. We're with them all the time. And I think a lot of things will come out there. They're going to be cut off from their contacts there and focus on what their job really is," says Cornett.

When they leave the academy they're issued new, digitized uniforms — which are more easily tracked — but also serve to set apart the police who have received training from those who have not.

The program so far appears successful. The first two brigades to graduate "had the best record of any of the National Police Brigades of the past, not having any human rights violations or transgressions, such as extra judicial killings," said. Brig. General Dana Pittard, who oversees the Iraq Assistance Group.

But the training will take time. The police at Checkpoint 2 have just been informed their training will be delayed until late April, or even early May.

U.S. soldiers will have to keep up the frustrating on-the-job training at checkpoints in the meantime, but they'll soon have some help curtailing the militia influence from the Iraqis themselves.

As part of the new Baghdad security plan, checkpoints will be staffed with a mixture of Iraqi police, National Police and Iraqi army units.

"You have the Iraqi Army, mostly Sunni, the National Police, mostly Shiite, and the Iraqi police, a mix of whatever neighborhood they come from," Cornett says. "It's a check and balance."
Cami McCormick

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    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.