Perils of Policing Iraq

Mosul officer speaks candidly of his anxieties and fears as insurgents increasingly target the force.

Perils of Policing Iraq

Mosul officer speaks candidly of his anxieties and fears as insurgents increasingly target the force.

When Qusay Muhammad Abbas goes to work, he looks as if he is about to rob a bank - his face covered in a black mask and a machinegun strapped to his shoulder.

But Abbas is no criminal. As an Iraqi policeman, he has to hide his identity to protect his life and that of his family, and needs to be well armed, since not a day goes by without a handful officers being killed or kidnapped.

Major General Joseph Peterson, who oversees the US army’s training programme for Iraqi policemen, says around 4000 of them have been killed - and 8000 wounded - over the last two years.

According to Peterson, 186,000 officers had been trained by October 2006, having passed through six police academies in Iraq and one in Jordan, which together turn out 3,500 graduates every ten weeks.

But critics maintain that the courses are too short and the quality of recruits poor. As a result, they say, the force performs badly, with officers often linked to militias and death squads suspected of hundreds of kidnappings and murders every month.

In Mosul, Abbas and his colleagues have set up a checkpoint in a residential area. They wear masks and flak jackets, and have their machine guns at the ready as they approach cars, in search of militants and weapons.

Abbas, 27, describes himself as a simple man who joined the force because he could not find another job. He said he was well aware of the risks, but “I'm a young man, just married and with many financial obligations”.

Abbas makes 402,000 Iraqi dinars per month plus a so-called danger allowance that brings his salary to 575.000 dinars, around 390 US dollars. Enough to risk his life? “ I’m very frank. I’ve no intention of getting involved in bloody battles unless I’m fired on,” he said.

Abbas leaves his home at seven in the morning in casual clothes and rushes to police headquarters, hoping no one will recognise him. Once at work, he

puts on his uniform, masks his face and goes out on patrol.

The threats he faces as soon as he leaves the police compound are multiple: car bombs, roadside bombs and gunfights with insurgents who often roam the streets of Mosul. Recently, an unidentified assailant threw a hand grenade at a police patrol in the Abi Tamam neighbourhood, killing several officers.

Sometimes, Abbas says he despairs of his job, “How will we be able to protect others if we are unable to protect ourselves?” That he as a policeman has to hide his face while some insurgents have no such concerns seems to him to be something of a paradox. “We stand here and check cars but any moment a roadside bomb or a car bomb can go off and separate heads from bodies, maybe those of our colleagues. This makes us feel death is very close to us,” he went on.

Whenever his family hears the sound of an explosion, he says they start to worry and he has to call them, “They get very tense until I return home. But we can’t go home every day.”

When he’s back with his family, he finds it hard to forget about his work, as the terrible security situation is constantly discussed.

Abbas, a computer science graduate, tried to work in other fields but to no avail. After completing his education in the summer of 2003, a few months after the fall of the former regime, he was unemployed for several months before being offered a job in a government department, at 60 US dollars per month.

But not long after he took the post, he was made redundant. “I walked every day until my feet got tired to find a new job, with the government or in the private sector,” he said, finally giving up and joining the police.

“I was a normal citizen when I was jobless. Now I have a job but I'm a target."

But officers are not just wary of insurgents, they also suspect each other of siding with them. "I’m fearful of the colleague standing next to me when we are out on patrol because he might be a terrorist,” continued Abbas.

Policemen have good reason to be worried because they’ve been infiltrated by people who pass on the names, addresses and working hours of officers to militant groups.

Abbas tries to conceal his fear from his family, but he says can’t stop them worrying, “Every time my wife or my mother hear one of my colleagues has been killed, they ask me to quit.”

Quitting, though, is not an option, as he does not know how else he could feed his family. Abbas’ father is dead; he has three brothers who are still in school; and his wife is six month pregnant. Whenever he goes off to work, he says he wonders whether he will live to see his baby.

Sahar Al-Haideri is an IWPR contributor in Mosul.

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