Iraq's troubled police bow to party and tribe

Police forces in Iraq don't just stand aside and let the tribes and parties have their way. It's not that simple. Many policemen are themselves active members of tribes and parties. As much as 60 percent of Basra's population is affiliated with al-Sadr. So the men who abducted Vincent may really have been Iraqi police. But whether they were acting as police or on orders from their tribes or parties is another matter. Iraq's convoluted power structure makes it difficult to trace the paths of decision making.

In his Times piece, Vincent accused British forces of failing to teach Iraqi police democratic values. Vincent was wrong. There has been an effort to instill Western values in recruits. "We're trying to make these people accountable to the law, firstly," says Arnie Morgan, 51, a British police trainer from Armor Group, a firm that employs civilian policemen as advisers in Iraq.

Up against the wall: A cop in Basra
photo: David Axe
Up against the wall: A cop in Basra

At some stations, Armor Group has made headway, only to see the reformed police run headlong into an unreformed populace.

Captain Ibrahim Kamil, 32, a police captain in the town of Samawah, says his officers struggle to enforce rules and regulations in a society that values tribe and family over law. "Men," says Kamil, "use their tribes to protect them." On June 4, for example, Kamil's officers arrested several Iraqi men for carjacking. Within hours the suspects' families attacked the police.

The British are trying; some Iraqi cops are too. But you can't change the attitudes of 25 million people overnight.

Steve Vincent was wrong about the Brits, but he was right to blame Basra's cops for bowing to tribe and party. However, the consensus among British officers and interpreters in Basra is that Vincent's criticism of the police isn't what led to his murder. As was initially suspected by some observers, it currently seems to be thought here that Vincent's perceived relationship with Tuaiz probably got him killed. What's more, Vincent made no effort to blend in. He dressed like a Westerner, spoke little Arabic, and flaunted his friendship with Tuaiz. British officers say they warned him he was in danger. There's no need to invent police conspiracies to explain Vincent's murder.

Vincent's killers probably were cops. But in the new Iraq, their being cops is incidental. When sheikhs and imams order their thugs to exact retribution on a white Christian who—to them—seemingly loves a Muslim woman, the only allegiances that matter are not to a uniform or to law, but to a more primal code.

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