Good Cop, Bad Cop

The state of the Iraqi police

Outside, some junior cops are keeping an eye on traffic. Abass Ali Mahdi, 21, a cop since 2001, describes his typical workweek at Al Quibla as three or four 24-hour shifts guarding the station, manning checkpoints, and serving warrants issued by local judges. He says the community is supportive.

Asked if he'd been to Jordan, Mahdi says no: The only formal training he's received is locally, on firearms. Despite what he claims is a shortage of pistols and batons at the station, he feels he's well equipped—and, he adds, he's always paid on time. The bottom line, he says, is that "when the British leave, we can maintain peace here."

But at a station near Basra's sprawling "Five Mile" market, attitudes are different. Sergeant Glen Goldthorpe of the British Army's Coldstream Guards Regiment drops in on a September afternoon intending to organize a patrol with Five Mile cops. Approaching the seemingly deserted station building, Goldthorpe grumbles his suspicion that everyone inside is asleep. He's wrong. Only half are asleep. The chief is awake but refuses to see anyone. He says he's too busy.

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.

With focused fury, Goldthorpe rouses a handful of sleepy-eyed Iraqi cops and bullies them into donning their armor vests, grabbing their rifles, and joining the Coldstream Guards outside. The idea is to walk through the market—a presence patrol, it's called, the basis of Western-style "community policing"—but the Iraqi cops don't feel like walking and pile into a truck instead.

Goldthorpe is livid. Between getting rebuffed by the chief, waking the cops, and motivating them to walk, he's invested an hour for what turns out to b e a 10-minute patrol. He wonders aloud if there isn't more than laziness behind the cops' heel-dragging. "We probably interrupted [the chief] doing 'other business,' " he says, meaning there might have been money changing hands.

As disappointed as he is, Goldthorpe isn't surprised by the cops' poor performance, saying, "That's how it always is here."

Whether Basra cops are murderers and assassins is uncertain. But one thing is certain: Many are not good cops. In this economic and cultural fulcrum of southern Iraq, a city that has seen a spike in bombings and (as Vincent noted in his blog) steadily increasing religious tension—not to mention violence against Westerners—good cops are more important than ever. And they're hard to find.

This is the first of two parts.

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