Monday, May 25, 2009

Hopes pinned to Iraqi police as U.S. trainers get ready to exit Basra

The 100 men and women with the Army’s 793rd Military Police Battalion’s headquarters unit have been in Iraq so long they’ve seen units arrive, serve their 12 months, and return home.

Finally, with less than a month to go on one of the Army’s last 15-month tours, the military police are headed back to Bamberg, Germany — "to the hefeweizen (wheat beer)," as one soldier said Saturday.

The unit has spent the last months of their tour working with the Iraqi police in Basra, who are on a 15-month journey of their own.

In March 2008, about the same time the 793rd arrived in Baghdad, the Iraqi army swept through Basra and cleaned out the Shiite-backed militias who waged much of the violence in the area.

During the campaign, some Basra police either joined the militias or abandoned their posts, according to Marine 1st Lt. Mike Masters, the intelligence officer for an Iraqi army training unit inside Basra.

Now the police must try to clean up that bad reputation. The locally-hired police must also prove their worth to the Iraqi army, who are outsiders but remain the dominate law enforcement authority in the city and province, Masters said from his unit’s operation headquarters at Naval Base, a U.S. outpost next to an Iraqi Army base in the city.

The military police units are preparing the police to take over in Basra, one of Iraq’s most populated cities, according to Lt. Col. Mike Blahovec, the 793rd’s battalion commander.

"It’s an important police force, on par with Baghdad," Blahovec said last week during an interview in his office at COB Basra. "The difference here [with the situation in Baghdad] is the partnership is new."

In December, the battalion and its attached companies — 900 military police in all — were among the first U.S. troops to move to Basra to begin the transition from British to U.S. military.

Since then, those police split into about 30 U.S. military police transition teams, called PiTTs. Those teams moved in with Iraqi police around the province, which holds 1.8 million people and the country’s second-largest city.

Currently there are about 20,000 Iraqi police in Basra province, though about 10 percent have yet to go through basic training, which is about average. Iraq is bringing large blocks of recruits in before running them through a training class, according to Army Capt. Jay Cash, a 793rd member and the intelligence officer for the police training team working with the provincial-level police in Basra.

Internally, the Iraqi police’s biggest obstacle remains their supply chain, a common problem in police units throughout the country, Blahovec and others said. Partly that’s a funding problem at the very top of government, they said.

But it’s also partly cultural.

Iraqis tend to look at a successful supply chain as one with a closet full of goods rather than one with a series of empty shelves, even if the materials are simply being used, at smaller stations or among officers, Masters said. To complicate things, it’s a sign of weakness for an Iraqi commander to ask for supplies, the Marine said.

"Just getting them to submit the forms is hard," he said.

Blahovec has similar concerns. But he said the police training teams are making progress in other ways. He also said the U.S. teams have adjusted the way they measure success.

"It’s a subjective assessment you make," he said Thursday. "Are they are at work? In uniform? Are they willing to get out into the community? How are they responding to crimes?"

Some things are more black and white. Last week, the battalion shared one of its "watch lists" of suspected criminals with the No. 2 Iraqi police chief in the province. The general promised to hand over similar information from his troops in the future.

Earlier this month, the top police chief in Basra survived an assassination attempt outside his home. A police lieutenant colonel was not as lucky and died last weekend in an attack.

"The police get targeted just as much as coalition forces," Cash said.

Blahovec said goal is to prepare the Iraqi police to secure Basra without the help of the Iraqi Army.

"At some point the Iraqis will pull the army out of the city," Blahovec said. "Then the police will be the only game in town."

That point may come sooner than the Americans, or the Iraqi army, want. Rumors are that the newly elected Basra officials want the Iraqi army gone as soon as possible, according to Masters.

"We’ve been told that it’s coming down," Masters said. "The [Iraqi police] can’t handle it yet."

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