Tucked into the corner of Major Ali’s mirror is a postcard displaying the handsome, airbrushed visage of Imam Hussein, the venerated Shiite martyr. Ali probably needs no reminder of sacrifice when he sees his tired reflection. His office on the second floor of the Khadimiya Police Station has become his second home. Yellowing papers erupt from their folders, which in turn burst out onto every available inch of space, from the overstuffed filing cabinets to the small cot nearby. Ali handles logistics, finance and personnel for this police station in a famous Shiite neighborhood just west of the Tigris River, centered around one of Iraq’s most important Shiite shrines. But despite his own Shiite faith, it’s often not safe for him to return home.

One of the reminders of Ali’s sacrifice is a framed photograph on his cluttered desk. In it, his young son wears the oversized camouflage helmet of Lieut. Jonathan Sherrill, a 24-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, who leads a platoon of the 57th Military Police Company, which oversees fifteen police stations like Khadimiya here in western Baghdad. Sherrill doesn’t smile much out on patrol, but in the photograph the diminutive lieutenant wears a grin almost as large as the one plastered on Ali’s overjoyed son. When Sherrill walks into Ali’s office on a March afternoon, the besieged major’s chubby, mustachioed face lights up. An aide rushes to bring sodas for Ali’s friend.

“He’s one of the hardest-working IPs I’ve ever met,” Sherrill tells me, using the ubiquitous military acronym for Iraqi Police. “He’s doing good, and making sure the station gets what it needs.” But what the station–and Iraq–needs is not solely measured in items on an acquisition order. Roving the hallways are men only nominally controlled by the police chain of command. “I’m happy with the loyalty of many of the men,” Ali tells me after he finishes briefing Sherrill on the day’s progress. “But we’re suffering with the newer IPs, because I don’t know exactly if they come from a militia or some political party.” It’s a fear echoed by practically every IP commander the 57th becomes partners with. Several told me that many of their police are little more than militiamen in uniform.

“If they belong to the religious guys, it poisons their mind,” Ali continues. “Now, in the station, the guys who join can collect information on the other sects. When they get into civilian clothes, they go out and kill the other sect.” Ali shrugs. “I have no control over that.” The bed in his office underscores both his hard work and the fact that many of his own officers, like the insurgents they are supposed to fight, have placed Ali under siege. Some are suspicious of his closeness with the US military. Some will kill him as part of inter-Shiite factional strife. Others will simply target him for money.

Out of this material comes the long-term US strategy in Iraq. This year’s troop surge–an infusion of five combat brigades to Baghdad, along with an additional 2,200 military police and thousands more support forces–brought a return to greater American combat operations, but commanders emphasize that the ultimate goal remains preparing Iraqis to secure their country. Since June 2006, this task has fallen, in part, to the 57th. The company doesn’t provide direct training to the IPs; but it advises them on a relentless routine of manning checkpoints, neighborhood patrols, logistics maintenance, payroll and strengthening the chain of command.

“We make them operate their system for when we’re not here anymore,” explains Capt. Rob McNellis, the 57th’s 30-year-old company commander. “If we can help, then absolutely, we’ll give them everything we’ve got, but the focus has shifted.” That focus has, by all accounts, yielded improvements in Iraqi police competence. The days when policemen ran from the insurgency are mostly over.

These days the danger is the opposite: that militia-loyal policemen, mostly Shiite here in Baghdad, will use their increased US-gained skills to scourge their Sunni enemies. McNellis and his superiors contend that while they cannot end infiltration, they can curb militia abuses. They hope that the mentorship they provide will force the police to rise above its maculate origins. “There is militia infiltration to varying degrees at the stations,” says McNellis, “but nothing succeeds like success.”

The militias hardly command the loyalty of every policeman. But police commanders warn that sectarianism has seeped thoroughly into the security apparatus, and it threatens to undermine everything McNellis and his colleagues have accomplished. The professional police they desire may instead become a sharper instrument of sectarian fury.

McNellis is a tall, good-humored officer whose ears jut out slightly from his high-and-tight blond haircut. He is responsible for Khadimiya and Saliyah Police Districts, a sixty-square-mile section of western Baghdad home to nearly 2 million people and policed by approximately 3,000 Iraqis. This early March day has been a good one for the Iraqi police, as officers at Saliyah headquarters are happy to report to McNellis when he comes in on an inspection. Off of Haifa Street, a thoroughfare once so dangerous it earned the nickname Purple Heart Boulevard, the police received a tip about a possible car bomb. At IP request, a platoon from the 57th went to investigate along with a team of Iraqi explosive specialists. “It took a little while, but they cleared up the area and then blew up the [car bomb] in place,” McNellis says, with evident pride. A good day for the IPs is a good day for him.

However tense, the company has seen many good days since the surge began. In February Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki began his contribution to the surge, known as Fardh al-Qanoon, or “Enforcing the Law.” It has made Baghdad a city of endless checkpoints and roadblocks manned by Iraqi police and army units. To reduce the danger from car bombs, the security forces have made driving through the city as difficult as possible. In Khadimiya, there are more checkpoints than there are heavy concrete barriers, leading Iraqi police to limit mobility on the streets with air conditioners and engine blocks.

Baghdadis are so desperate for security that many seem willing to endure higher US visibility as its price–within limits. Around ten of Baghdad’s more violent neighborhoods, US troops are constructing massive concrete walls along sectarian fault lines, suggesting to many Iraqis that the United States and its proxies are seeking to redraw the city’s map for their own benefit. After I left, Adhimiya, the last Sunni bastion east of the Tigris, was home to a massive protest that, ironically, united Sunnis and Shiites against America’s so-called “gated communities.”

Khadimiya is not as restive, something difficult to believe from its outward appearance. Throughout the neighborhood hang full-color posters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric whose Mahdi Army militia is held responsible for innumerable sectarian murders. But when the 57th travels through the neighborhood, it meets little resistance. In fact, the beginning of the surge brought a “significant and obvious reduction” in attacks on the company, McNellis says–a prospect that both reassures and unsettles him. “What I fear is, this is just the calm before the storm,” he says. “To go down a road where there was a constant [roadside bomb] presence to now being nothing–if I was an insurgent commander, I’d be taking the time to lay low and adjust.”

The surge bolsters the 57th’s slow successes. It took months of relentless work to get the IPs to stick to procedure: showing up in uniform, for instance, or obtaining warrants before a raid. “The IPs have come a long way, in terms of training, proficiency, the maintenance of their vehicles and command and control of their people in both districts.” McNellis’s efforts, in other words, are bearing fruit. “The momentum is now on our side,” he says. “We really can finish what we’ve begun.”

But the initial promise of Fardh al-Qanoon has begun to unravel. Sectarian murders in Baghdad are down to a third of what they were before the surge, according to US officials. A United Nations report on human rights, however, blasted the Iraqi government for refusing to release statistics on civilian casualties–and nevertheless found that by the end of March, violent deaths had begun to tick back up, with “large numbers” of Iraqis “experienc[ing] intimidation and killings.” A US official conceded to the Washington Post in May that, overall, attacks have “stayed relatively constant” since the troop buildup began. On April 12 insurgents destroyed the Sarafiya Bridge, a crucial artery across the Tigris, while also brazenly killing eight in the cafeteria of the Iraqi Parliament, deep within the US-secured Green Zone. Insurgents have increased mortar attacks on the Green Zone to the point where the US Embassy has ordered its personnel to wear body armor while walking around an area that used to be an oasis of calm. Despite the high-profile violence, McNellis tells me in May that the 57th hasn’t come under increased attack.

The broader problem is that sectarianism remains deeply entrenched. Gen. David Petraeus, the highly regarded commanding general in Iraq, has stated that success can only come through a political settlement. Yet practically every significant reconciliation effort pushed by the United States–a relaxation of the de-Baathification law, a more equitable distribution of the nation’s oil wealth, a new round of provincial elections–has bogged down in Parliament. Popular sentiment is no less divided. According to a March poll by ABC News, more than 95 percent of Sunnis believe Baathists should be allowed back into government positions, while two-thirds of Shiites and Kurds reject the idea. Only 4 percent of Sunnis believe their lives will improve over the next year, though 51 percent of Shiites remain optimistic.

Iraq’s tattered social fabric creates an acute problem for the 57th. The security apparatus is the most important instrument for sectarian domination, insuring that militia infiltration continues within the IPs. It’s not a dynamic any military unit has the power to reverse. But by pushing the police to follow procedure–processing warrants, keeping track of detainees, constant patrolling–McNellis seeks to overwhelm sectarianism through the introduction of a professional esprit de corps. “In terms of the IPs, when the community truly believes in the IPs, that will spread, and the second- and third-order effects will come out, and people will say, ‘Hey, the IPs are legit,'” he explains. “The insurgency can’t be effective if a majority of the community buys into what we’re trying to do here.”

The company sees such a buy-in emerging as “the IPs’ response time has improved and they’re around a whole lot more,” says Lieut. Jonathan Wellman. When the 57th canvasses the local population, “lots of them have great things to say.” Sectarianism likely influences the response. The ABC poll found 87 percent confidence in the police among Shiites nationwide, but only 24 percent among Sunnis. In the context of Iraq’s sectarian war, increased police proficiency might actually yield a reduction in legitimacy among the faction that feels victimized.

Ali’s cousin is Colonel Haider, the commander of Khadimiya Police Station. Like Ali, Haider is a thick man with a black mustache and well-pomaded hair. When he sees Sherrill he gives the lieutenant a thorough update on where he’s ordered stepped-up patrols in advance of a diplomatic conference. He gives high marks to his men’s raiding skills and his ability to obtain search warrants. But Haider returns to the persistent problem. “Fifty percent of the recruits belong to the militias,” he says. “They come here to collect information on the other sects.” He goes further. “The MOI knows everything about who they are.”

The MOI is the Ministry of Interior, arguably the most powerful department in the Iraqi bureaucracy. It has control of the police, and since 2005 it has been an instrument of Shiite political power. Under the previous minister, Bayan Jabr, thousands of Sunni officials were purged from the ministry, and in November 2005 US forces discovered torture chambers filled with Sunni victims and Shiite militiamen working for the MOI. Jabr’s replacement, Jawad Bolani, is considered less radical, but according to Haider and other police commanders, militia infiltration of the IPs still occurs with official backing. In April the Post reported that the MOI, with Maliki’s blessing, issues arrest warrants for commanders deemed too aggressive against Shiite militias. “Corruption is everywhere in the police. They don’t have much experience to do their jobs. We don’t know where they come from, but they’re assigned here,” Haider says. “We go station to station searching for officers, but most of [the men] we get don’t know the area. Most just belong to the militias.”

Opinions differ as to whether IP complaints about the MOI represent buck-passing. According to Capt. David Martin of the 92nd Military Police Battalion, most IPs end up assigned to the stations that recruited them. Once a prospective officer is vetted, he goes through academy training on the MOI grounds in eastern Baghdad. However, the MOI has the power to re-assign any officer to any station, raising the prospect among police commanders that the MOI orders militiamen into select stations. Haider gets nervous when I press him about MOI complicity with the militias. He picks up a can of Pepsi from his desk. “I can’t say anything about the MOI, but here’s an example. This is a soda. You know what it is, and what it consists of.”

The problem runs deeper than the Interior Ministry. Every significant political organization in Iraq fields its own militia as an insurance policy against losing power. For the United States to insist on total militia demobilization would require a massive expansion of the war and cost it whatever Iraqi allies it still has–with no certainty of success. “My own personal view is that it’s not realistic to expect in this country for militia groups to be eliminated altogether,” says Col. Mike Galloucis, commander of the 89th Military Police Brigade, the parent unit of the 57th. “Militia groups are interwoven throughout the fabric of the country, including the government. But you can always go after bad behavior. You can establish the basic principle of what’s acceptable and unacceptable: the notion that everyone accepts the law, no one is above the law, and if you violate it–and I don’t care what your sect or your name is–you will be punished.” Galloucis’s approach led to the firing of several top police generals last fall after the colonel presented Bolani with “a thick packet” of information detailing their corruption.

The result is a trade-off. Police stations do not face US-pushed mass purges of corrupt officers, which would risk further destabilizing a maturing force. But as long as militiamen remain in the police, official cover will exist for kidnappings, murders and other human rights abuses, undermining the rule of law that Galloucis seeks to promote. Proof of specific police complicity in sectarian attacks can be hard to acquire, limiting US ability to get Iraqi commanders to take action. “You can buy a police uniform downtown,” McNellis points out.

Some cases demand direct US action. West of Khadimiya is the Shula police station. Last year the 57th came under frequent attack when convoying to the heavily Shiite Shula neighborhood, which McNellis describes as “death squad territory.” Company intelligence found the Shula police to be complicit, so in October, the 57th relinquished support for the station. “If they’re involved in attacks, why should we train them?” The problems in Shula continue. In March McNellis learned that the station was holding a man captive without documenting his arrest–a prime indicator that the police or an affiliated death squad would execute him. The second battalion of the 12th Cavalry Regiment marched into Shula and took direct custody of the prisoner, most likely saving his life.

In terms of abuse, “a close second,” McNellis says, was the Hurriyeh IP station, a dismal outpost responsible for about 500,000 residents in a mostly Shiite area. “The IPs were either involved in extrajudicial killings or IED/EFP [improvised explosive device/explosively formed penetrator] attacks or they let it happen,” McNellis remembers. “Hurriyeh was so close to being cut off.” A new commander, Colonel Majid, arrived in November and expressed his desire to turn the station around. McNellis continues to support Hurriyeh; his confidence was bolstered when soldiers from the first battalion of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment moved into the station as part of the surge.

One way Majid approached the problem was to come to a modus vivendi with the militia elements. He freely explains that he can live with a certain amount of infiltration. “More and more IPs and Iraqi Army join with a militia while they work at their jobs, at the same time. Some guys sympathize with the militias, but I can still work with them,” Majid, who is bald with a thick mustache, says through translation. “I can’t deny that they’re here, but just because they sympathize with a militia doesn’t mean they can’t do their job.” His calculation is the same as the Americans’. “When the government becomes better, the militias will collapse,” he says, “and when the IPs do their job in a good way, locals will trust the IPs and give them support, so there won’t be a rationale for the militias to exist.”

Soldiers stress that they still need to focus on strengthening the IPs’ chain of command and encouraging them to pay closer attention to detail on logistics and equipment. Overall, however, the 57th gives high marks to its Iraqi police counterparts. On patrols, unarmored IP flatbed trucks carrying officers with thin blue bulletproof vests weave through the streets in formation with US Humvees. But no one believes the IPs in Khadimiya and Saliyah are ready to operate independently. “We wouldn’t want to see stations turned over,” says Wellman. “The worst thing would be to turn them over too early.” There’s no consensus on when their fifteen stations will no longer require US mentoring–perhaps next year, perhaps later–but all agree that when the 57th leaves in June another unit must replace it.

That’s what the military plans. In April the Pentagon reluctantly announced months-long extensions of all active-duty Army units in the Middle East in order to sustain the surge through the next year; and in May, it announced the summer deployment of 35,000 soldiers as replacements. But time is a rapidly diminishing commodity for the Iraq War. GOP Congressmen warn Bush that the party will be decimated if the war continues through the 2008 elections. No one may be able to agree on a timetable to end the war, but vast majorities in the United States, Iraq and the region desire the departure of US forces. In May, for the first time, a bill demanding that the United States schedule a withdrawal gained majority support in the Iraqi Parliament.

More than four years into the war, the discrepancy between the scope of Iraq’s challenges and the ability of the United States to alleviate them is greater than ever. The commander of Iraqi police in western Baghdad, Gen. Saleh Alany, insists that the United States can’t leave–“the terrorists would win”–but says the real problem in Iraq is the entire “generation that was born in the 1980s, during the war with Iran,” whose minds have been corrupted by violence. He includes his own men in his assessment: “Loyalty is the biggest problem. The security forces don’t have loyalty to the country. They’re loyal to the different parties, or other forces.” Alany’s dim view of the new Iraq is surely colored by his status as a veteran of Saddam’s Republican Guard. But if he’s right, then to improve the quality of the police force entails increasing the lethality of the militias.

Major Ali in Khadimiya needs no reminder. He picks his security detail personally–he must be wary of those assigned to guard him because of whom they might actually work for. He fears being transferred to the MOI, and vows to take his men to the ministry with him if he is. “I need to know who they are,” he says. “Otherwise, they’d kill me.” Sherrill sees help on the way. “It’s all about weeding out the bad apples,” he says, “and for the most part, we’ve been doing that.” After Sherrill leaves, there will be another lieutenant to lend his helmet to Ali’s son, and more US troops to mentor Ali’s progress. But even with them there, Ali must still fear the uncertain loyalties of his own men, and what they will do with their newfound skills.