Good Cop, Bad Cop

The state of the Iraqi police

BASRA, IRAQ—It's hard to fault Steve Vincent for having felt confident. For this New York City art critic–turned–freelance Iraq correspondent and blogger, life was good. In the Red Zone, his book about wartime Iraq, had done well and he was working on a follow-up about Basra. He was deeply invested in the city, having set up in a downtown hotel and established relationships with local stringers, including 31-year-old Nooriya Tuaiz, a single female interpreter, rare in this increasingly patriarchal state. Months of work had landed him close to what he believed was a major source of Basra's ills: its own police. Vincent had suckered The New York Times into buying his op-ed on the subject. It ran on July 31.

In the article, Vincent claimed that many of Basra's 7,000 cops were affiliated with religious parties like that of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He also accused police in Basra of assassinating former Baathists in the city.

Two days later, Vincent and Tuaiz were leaving a Basra currency exchange when, according to information from the FBI relayed by Vincent's wife in Manhattan, men claiming to be police grabbed both Vincent and the interpreter and shoved them into a car. That night, the two were found shot and dumped in Basra. Vincent was dead, Tuaiz very nearly so; she's recovering.

Iraqi army security forces celebrate after detaining suspects during a raid in Tal Afar, Iraq.
photo: Department of Defense
Iraqi army security forces celebrate after detaining suspects during a raid in Tal Afar, Iraq.

Early press reports cited Vincent's unusually close relationship to Tuaiz as the reason for his murder. After all, this was Shiite southern Iraq, a place hostile to foreigners and where it's not uncommon for men to murder their own female relatives on suspicion of sexual indiscretion—and get away with it. It's dangerous being a Westerner in Basra. Being a Westerner suspected of involvement with a native woman is almost suicidal. Was Vincent killed by tribal or religious enforcers?

Even for Basra, such a tale seemed too lurid to be true. As the press dug deeper they turned to a seemingly more likely culprit: the very police Vincent had fingered in his op-ed piece. Subsequent events seem to support this suspicion. On September 19, Fakher Haider, an Iraqi photographer and journalist working for The New York Times, was found shot dead in Basra, only days after filing reports on tension between British forces and Shiite religious parties. Witnesses told the Times that men in a police car had abducted Haider.

Of all Iraq's security forces, the regular uniformed police are the most numerous, the most visible, and the most vital to maintaining security in this troubled country. They're the ones in the best position to stop terrorism and civil strife where they start: on the streets. They're also the most corrupt and the least reliable of Iraq's security forces. At best, the consistent failure of the Iraqi police to effectively address the country's problems threatens to undermine efforts to build a peaceful, prosperous, and pluralistic Iraq. At worst, and if Vincent was right, the police are the country's problem.


The quality of the Iraqi police is wildly inconsistent. In the Sunni city of Baqubah, U.S. soldiers have openly accused the police of being insurgents. In Qayyarah, south of Mosul, the police force deserted under pressure from insurgents in 2004 and has since been rebuilt from scratch. According to U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Bradley Becker, former commander in Qayyarah, the new police force is well equipped, well led, and doing a great job even by Western standards. Visits to Qayyarah police stations in March seemed to corroborate his claims.

This inconsistency is partly due to piecemeal efforts by Baghdad to impose national standards. According to Chris Sparks, a 50-year-old police trainer working for the British Foreign Office in the southern city of Samawah, it wasn't until June that Baghdad began requiring standardized basic training of new police recruits. Even then, actually transporting recruits to Jordan, where they're trained, has proved difficult, and many police recruited before this requirement serve without any training.

British Army major Andy Hadfield, 37, commander of A Company, Staffordshire Regiment, which is deployed to Basra, says that many local cops are friends and family of current cops and were put on the payroll without vetting or training.

Compare the national police force's recruitment and training system to that of the new Iraqi Army, which since its inception in 2003 has recruited and trained under the supervision of coalition forces. Notably, no one is accusing the Iraqi Army of murdering journalists. Some coalition officers attribute the Army's relative reliability to its being disbanded and rebuilt. Many critics call the disbanding of the Army a mistake. Even different police units in the same city demonstrate vastly differing levels of equipment, training, and reliability—no more so than in here in Basra.

On September 1, Hadfield leads a patrol through southern Basra visiting police stations. Outside Al Quibla station there's a battered blue-striped Iraqi police cruiser. It has seen too many anarchic rush hours and attacks by kids throwing rocks. But it still runs, and for the Al Quibla cops that's enough. The cruiser's encouraging evidence that someone at Al Quibla's been working.

In the chief's well-appointed office, uniformed Iraqis are in an animated meeting with British soldiers from another unit. Another good sign.

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