Training Iraq's Death Squads | The Nation


Training Iraq's Death Squads

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Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

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Spencer Ackerman
Spencer Ackerman is a senior reporter for The Washington Independent, where he covers national security.

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.

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