TAJI, Iraq — In two weeks, each of these men will be handed a gun and sent to guard checkpoints in one of the most dangerous sections of Baghdad. Their outlook is poor: Dozens of fellow officers have been killed by car bombs in the northern edge of Khadamiya this year.
The new recruits arrive on foot at Camp Taji for their first day in the Iraqi federal police. Most of the men are middle aged, all in civilian clothes, some are wearing municipal jumpsuits, others are in plastic sandals.
Following a fatwa from influential Shia leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, thousands of Shia volunteers rose up to help in the fight against an alliance of Sunni militants with their sights on the capital. While most of these new recruits were funneled off into the Iraqi military, many are also being used to shore up the capital’s police force, an institution struggling to keep Baghdad safe from a recent rise in suicide car bomb attacks. Iraqi officials say they need the extra manpower as they set up new checkpoints and increase the frequency of neighborhood patrols.
But their inexperience and lack of training, say Iraqi police commanders and former officials involved in the US-led training program, may prove a liabilitly that outweighs the advantage of the extra manpower, suggesting that the drive to quickly increase the number of men in uniform is more for the sake of appearances than tangible improvements in security.
“A lot of them they don’t have any experience,” admits General Malik Maliki of the 8th division of the Iraqi federal police. His men patrol the mostly Shia northern Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiya, a frequent target of car bomb attacks — and his base, camp Taji, has absorbed hundreds of volunteers over the past month.
Maliki explains while most Iraqis learned how to use a weapon in some capacity during the country’s brutal 2005-2007 civil war, these volunteers “just don’t have the capacity to go straight into the field.”
“My concern — while there and now — is the training piece,” says retired Lt. General Mark Hertling, who was the top US commander in northern Iraq from 2007-2009. Casting doubts on the possible effectiveness of “crash courses” for volunteers, he explains that even the standard training program for Iraqi police, which comprises several weeks at the police training academy, is not long enough “to get a professional policeman on the streets.”
Hertling explains that in addition to the immediate dangers associated with having a large number of inadequately trained, inexperienced, armed men patrolling the streets of the capital, the new wave of volunteers threaten long term problems for Iraq’s police force.
“The call to arms by Sistani … resulted mostly in the recruitment of young Shia men.” Because of that, Hertling predicts, the police force will become a more sectarian organization, rather than one based on procedure and the rule of law. “[The new volunteers] will be more prone to make arrests based on sectarian versus legal reasons.”
The responsibility for training these volunteers generally falls to the commanding officers at the base or checkpoint where they’re assigned. At Maliki’s base, Taji, he’s developed a quick 14-day program of weapons training, checkpoint etiquette and drills.
In south Baghdad, at a checkpoint outside Saydiyya, Taji’s two-week program sounds luxurious. Here the commanding officer says volunteers arrive without a single hour of instruction, leaving him to provide a crash course.
“We just don’t have enough time to train them well,” explains General Ali, the commanding officer at this checkpoint. With violence on the rise in the capital, Ali says all he has time for is instructing the men with “the basics.”
Right now, four volunteers are working with General Ali’s men and he’s thankful it’s not more.
“This is an important checkpoint, it's the main way to enter the Saydiyya neighborhood,” he explains. “You can’t have everyone here be a volunteer, they just don’t have enough experience for that.”
Ali says for his men, the most important skill is time spent on the job. Like most Iraqi officers at checkpoints, they use profiling to identify suspicious cars that they then pull over for further questioning and searches. Ali says being able to spot a suspicious car is a skill that comes from years of experience. It’s not something that can be taught in days or weeks.
“[The volunteers] are obviously a Band-Aid to try and close a gaping wound,” said Stuart Bowen, the former Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a post from which he closely monitored US training programs for the Iraqi police force.
“The training [of volunteers] is certainly not efficient,” Bowen says. “It would require multi-level integrated efforts, much beyond what Iraq’s police forces are capable of at the moment.”
At the Saydiyya checkpoint, in addition to the volunteers, there’s another new feature, one that the commanding officer says is helping: a white pickup truck with unmarked plates parked just off to the side.
The truck belongs to two men in civilian clothes who are standing among the officers in uniform. These men identify themselves as intelligence officers based in Baghdad’s so-called green zone, but they’re widely believed to be members of the powerful militia Assab al-Haq.
General Ali says they’re indispensable. “They are the ones who bring us information,” Ali explains, gesturing to one man in a white button down shirt concealing a sidearm. “Maybe he’s even better than me. Sometimes the civilians are scared of me because of my uniform, but maybe they’ll trust him instead.”
Then, referring to the volunteer officers also scattered about the checkpoint Ali concedes that “their training, it's not like mine. I was trained under the Americans because back then we had enough time. Right now, we just don’t.”
Editor's note: Susannah's reporting from Baghdad is part of a GlobalPost partnership with PRI's The World.