Global Policy Forum

"Who's the Enemy?"


By Luke Baker

July 25, 2005

As Iraq spirals deeper by the day into violence and lawlessness, Baghdad residents say brutality and corruption are spreading among the very security forces that are supposed to be protecting them. Some maintain that the situation has grown so bad that at times they can't distinguish the behaviour of U.S.-trained Iraqi police and soldiers from that of militants or criminals. And since insurgents have in the past infiltrated the police and army, at times it is impossible to tell the sides apart. "Sometimes we don't know who the enemy is," said Ismael Mahmoud, a 32-year-old businessman whose cousin was recently seized by a special police unit and later found dead.

Most of the evidence against the police and soldiers is anecdotal, coming from Iraqis who say they have experienced it first hand. But Iraqi interior and defence ministry officials have also acknowledged a problem, as have foreign diplomats. "It's something we've brought up at a very senior level with the Iraqi government," a Western diplomat said this week, referring to reports of killings of Iraqis by police.

A report by the Pentagon and U.S. State Department, due for release next week, says Iraq's police service is taking on too many recruits who are barely literate, have criminal records, or are even insurgents, according to Time magazine.

The experience of Mahmoud's cousin illustrates the problem. Family members say he was working with his father at a Baghdad market on June 30 when members of a special police commando unit turned up looking for someone called Ahmed. When they were told there was no Ahmed, the police rounded up four people anyway, including the cousin, Mohammed. When Mohammed didn't return the next day, relatives went looking for him. They say they went to six or seven police stations to try to find out where he was and if he was okay. Several police officers said he was fine but also demanded bribes to ensure his safety and his release, Mahmoud said. "One asked for a mobile phone and another asked for a refrigerator," he said this week. "We gave one a phone, promised the other a refrigerator, and paid one million dinars ($700) in bribes to others, but we still didn't get Mohammed." For three weeks they kept going back to the police, and kept hearing the same promises and demands. Eventually, giving up hope, they went to the morgue, where on July 22 they found Mohammed's body. Morgue workers said he had been brought in on July 1 -- the day after his abduction. His bullet-holed body was found with three others in a dumpster.

Who's the Enemy?

Earlier this month, members of a special police unit were accused of dragging 10 suspected Sunni Arab insurgents out of a hospital and locking them up in the back of a police van in 45 degree heat (115 Fahrenheit) with the air vents closed. The men died. Iraq's interior ministry has opened an investigation amid reports of other similar incidents.

A large part of the problem appears to be a desire by the Iraqi security forces to show their toughness by responding to the brutality of insurgents with equal brutality of their own. Since most insurgents are Sunni Arabs, and many police and army units are made up of Shi'ites, the retaliation has taken on a sectarian slant, raising realistic fears of civil war.

Often it is impossible to determine whether criminals and insurgents are posing as police, or the police are criminals themselves. Three weeks ago, men in police uniforms turned up at a Baghdad house looking for a man called Mazen, a family friend said, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. Mazen, who works in Iraq's trade ministry, was taken away and two days later a letter was delivered demanding $15,000 or his life. The family is trying to secure his release. "There's no way for anyone to know who is on their side and who is the enemy," said the family friend.

Suicide bombers wearing police uniforms have struck several times, some of whom may have obtained their uniforms by joining the force. U.S. officials acknowledge that infiltration of the Iraqi army and police by insurgents is a problem. "The exact extent of insurgent infiltration is unknown," Marine General Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in a report last week.

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