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U.S. Marines working round-the-clock to reinforce new police force

27 Jun 2006 | Cpl. Antonio Rosas

More than 300 local Iraqis from Euphrates River towns near the Iraqi-Syrian border lined up at the Marines’ outpost June 27, 2006, in hopes of becoming policemen in one of Iraq’s newest police districts.

The enlistment drive marked the largest turnout of police recruits in recent months. More than 100 Iraqis were accepted for enlistment. 

The drive was held just days after police here were paid months of back-pay by Iraq’s Ministry of Interior.

A lack of consistent pay has been the primary cause for the high attrition rate within fledgling Iraqi police forces in western Al Anbar province since late last year, according to Maj. Lowell F. Rector, the 42-year-old Marine in charge of all U.S. police transition teams who mentor, train and oversee the establishment of Iraqi police forces throughout the western Al Anbar province.

Altogether, all six of western Al Anbar’s police districts have received nearly $1.3 million in back pay.

“I think the large turnout of Iraqis was in part due to the fact that the locals heard the police were finally paid,” said Maj. Robert C. Marshall, the police transition team officer-in-charge for the Al Qa’im region. 

One 26-year-old Iraqi, who wants to become a police officer and serve in his hometown of Ubaydi – a town of about 10,000 citizens – said through an interpreter that becoming a cop would mean he could “earn his highest wage ever.”

“I don’t care that there are insurgents here because there are many more police officers now,” said the Iraqi man, who asked for anonymity.

Though Marines here have held regular monthly recruiting drives, this latest push to fill the region with Iraqi police, who Marines say will add more security to the region, produced the largest turnout Marshall has seen since arriving here more than three months ago, he said.

Despite several attacks on the police force in the nearby city of Husaybah, a border city of about 50,000 people, Marshall says the Iraqis are willing to take the risk of becoming policemen because a cop’s monthly salary is a lot of money for the average Iraqi – around $100 a month.

The transition team here has been fervently working with the Iraqi Police, advising and mentoring them so they can become a self-sustaining force.

But Marshall says the police force here faces several problems, such as a lack of police vehicles and more body armor for existing forces.

The region’s remote location, in the far reaches of western Al Anbar Province, makes it difficult to get the necessary equipment from Ramadi, according to the 37-year-old from Denver.

The team recently received a shipment of necessary gear the police have needed for several weeks now – specifically body armor, flak vests and weapons.

“It boggles my mind why things take so long to get here,” said Marshall.

There are still several logistical kinks to be worked out, such as coordinating shipping of supplies, which need to be worked out at the higher level, said Marshall.

Although the police here are still without vehicles, it has not kept them from conducting security foot patrols with the Marines of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment – the U.S. military unit responsible for providing security in this northwestern pocket of Al Anbar Province.

The Marines maintain an outpost near the Iraqi police station here.

The transition team has made progress in standing up the new police force with the opening of the first police station in the Al Qa’im region last month.

The Marines conduct daily security patrols with the new police officers and teach the new policemen tactics they’ll need to know to eventually maintain law and order on their own.

The added foot patrols puts the police in the forefront of local security operations, and takes the burden off Iraqi soldiers and Marines who have provided the bulk of security thus far, said Marshall.

As local police numbers increase, so do the number of police stations. The newest police station in the region opened last week in Karabilah, a city of approximately 30,000.

While the station is only several days old, the citizens of  Karabilah have responded warmly to their new police force after not seeing any police in the area for more than three years, according to Sgt. Manuel F. Gonzalez, a 24-year-old Marine and the transition team’s radio operator.

The push for a police force came after months of urging from local tribal sheikhs who have been eager to see a police force restored with men from their tribes, the Marines say.

Right now the transition team is working on equipping the new Karabilah police station with weapons, flak vests, uniforms and furniture so that the Iraqis can live and work out of their police station.

The police districts here will also be revamped with an additional 19 police officers on the force, who have just completed a three-week officer training course in Baghdad.

This will solve the region’s shortage of officers, according to Marshall.

The challenge the Marines and local city governments face in beefing up the number of police officers is finding qualified applicants. During the June 27 recruiting drive, the Marines said most of those not accepted for police training failed to pass a literacy test. 

Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, the government agency which controls all of the country’s police forces, will only accept applicants with at least an eighth-grade reading and writing level, the Marines say.  Those who have at least a fifth-grade reading and writing ability will be accepted for service, however, they are required to pass a six-week literacy course before attending police training. 

Along with U.S. Marines, the transition team heavily relies on the experience of retired American police officers to train the new Iraqi police squads in the day-to-day functions of operating a police station, such as administrative procedures, organization, and policing methods.

The Marines add that the retired U.S. policemen bring decades of combined experience in managing and organizing the new police departments – a plus for U.S. forces who are trying to get Iraqi Security Forces ready for independent operations.

“It’s difficult working with the Iraqi police because the Iraqis already have their own laws and we’re here to work with their existing system,” said Arthur L. Dehlinger, a 14-year police veteran from Big Spring, Texas. “We’re here to use our experience and our expertise to make their system work for them so that they can run a police station on their own.”

Dehlinger said the Iraqi cops do essentially the same job as American cops back home.

“The only difference between American police officers and Iraqis is the legal side of things,” said Dehlinger. “Other than that, they are basically the same because they do the same job.”

Email Cpl. Rosas at rosasa@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil