FALLUJAH â€” It was midnight before the massive seven-tonne trucks arrived in Fallujah and disgorged a cargo of a hundred travel weary Iraqi police recruits, ready to assume the hardest job in the city.
Trained at a police academy in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, these recruits, many of whom once supported attacks on Americans, are now seen as the key to restoring stability to the battleground city of Fallujah.
“We are truly starting a new page,” said Colonel Faisal Ismail Hussein, the city’s dynamic new police chief who, since his arrival in December, has been widely credited with revitalising the city’s embattled police force.
A former member of Saddam Hussein’s special forces, whom marines say also fought as a member of the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution insurgent group, the colonel says a handful of Al Qaeda fighters intimidate the rest of the city.
“Everyone wants a peaceful city, and I can do it with the emergency units and new recruits joining us,” he told AFP. Like many other Iraqis in Anbar, Faisal now sees Al Qaeda as a greater enemy than the Americans.
And, as the American marines training the Fallujah police put it, you need the “good bad guys” to take on the “bad bad guys”.Â With only around 1,000 lightly armed policemen, Faisal is trying to control a notorious city where the marines fought some of the fiercest battles of the whole Iraq war in November 2004.
Help is on the way, however, not just in the form of the new recruits flowing into the force, but in the “emergency units” â€” the tribal-based Provincial Security Forces or PSF being rapidly armed and trained.
In the gymnasium of a ruined school on the battered government compound in the city centre, a batch of 50 tribesmen in olive jumpsuits are being trained in basic arrest techniques by a former Marine Corps drill instructor.
“Hands up! Shirts up! Check for bomb vests!” barked the instructor through an interpreter as the grinning men frisked each other.
After a week’s training, these tribesmen â€” many of whom once fought the Americans â€” will be thrown into the fight against Al Qaeda that is being embraced by more and more inhabitants of the war weary western Anbar province.
“It’s hard to believe that there are many men between the ages of 15 and 50 who haven’t at one point taken a shot at the US,” said Major Anthony Sermarini of the Fallujah Police Training Team.
For Sermarini, given that armed groups will naturally spring up to fill any security vacuum in Iraq, it’s best if the United States can get itself involved.
“Whether you call it PSF or emergency response, there’s going to be a tribal force,” he said watching the recruits train.
“You’ve got to get on board.” Trained by the United States and armed and equipped by the Iraqi interior ministry, the rapidly formed PSF has given rise to fears that the marines are simply overseeing the creation of yet another lawless Iraqi militia.
Their commander denies this, however, saying that once in the field the tribal units have proved loyal to the idea of returning order to Iraq.
“We have absolutely no worries that we are training tribal armed militias,” Marine Brigadier General Mark Gurganus told reporters in Baghdad. “That’s not what we are seeing.” According to their trainer, a former police officer and marine drill instructor who asked to be identified only as Ray, the PSF will be under the supervision of the Iraqi police.
“Every time the militia goes out, a certain number of the Iraqi police will be embedded with them,” he said, adding that they will be trained to respect the rights of suspects as well.
Training the police is no easy task for the marines, due to the force’s hectic schedule of operations, most conducted at night to avoid insurgent snipers.
“It’s difficult to set up training events, these guys are out doing operations at the same time, so everything takes a back seat to, say, the police station getting blown up,” said Sermarini. Sam Meale, a former marine who went on to work for the US Drug Enforcement Agency for 30 years before signing up for Iraq, has the somewhat quixotic task of training the police’s investigative crime unit to build cases.
In fact, no matter how solid a case they build against a suspect, the city itself does not even have a legal system and its shoddy jails are overflowing.
Earlier this month, Baghdad sent out a team of investigative judges to interview detainees, but until then there was no mechanism to process those arrested. “They are caught between a rock and a hard place because you have to make arrests, yet nothing is moving because there are no adjudications, but you can’t let them go,” Meale said.
Jails in the police station are overcrowded and in poor condition, and privately the marines admit that the tribal levies and even occasionally the police often use a rougher kind of justice.
Wounded insurgents are often sent to the “Euphrates Hospital” â€” a euphemism for a fatal gunshot and a toss into the river. “Some of the police are good and some are bad, but they treat all people like terrorists suspects, even the children,” complained one Iraqi contractor, who didn’t want his name used.
For the police, though, any abuses stem from the extreme pressure they face daily. At least two-thirds of the force cover their faces to protect their identity and there are constant attacks on the homes of policemen.
“One officer had his 12-year-old daughter killed because he was a policeman and a week ago, another got his son kidnapped,” said Faisal. “We are going to clean this city of the dogs and leave it in peace.”