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In a bid to win hearts and minds, Iraqi police hope to win new officers among insurgent-heavy region

14 Aug 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

While insurgents wage a heavy murder and intimidation campaign throughout this small, blue-collar town of about 2,000, Iraqi police are beginning to receive crucial equipment to help them combat terrorism – weapons, body armor, uniforms and radios.

The fledgling Iraqi police force is based out of the near-by larger Euphrates River city of Rawah, which boasts about a population of 20,000 and is the headquarters for the police officers who make up the police district here.

The new equipment has given a much-needed boost to the officers’ confidence, especially since they are now heavily engaged with recruiting efforts throughout this region in Iraq’s western Al Anbar province.

“They see their government is willing to spend some money on them,” said Marine 1st Lt. Patrick H. Murray, a 26-year-old infantryman and the current team chief for the region’s U.S.-led Police Transition Team – a group of coalition service members who mentor and train the local police force to operate independently of U.S. support.

That, however, is a goal still a way’s off, according to U.S. officials here.

Not because the police officers currently serving don’t know what they’re doing, but rather because the force is only at a fraction of the end-strength they need to be at.

With just a handful of “Shurta” – the Iraqis’ term for “police officer” – in uniform, the district police force, which encompasses Reyanah, Rawah, and a third neighboring city, Anah,  rates about 180 officers.

And although the new equipment they recently received, which includes Glock handguns, AK-47 assault rifles, PKC machine guns and radios, helps the cause, the Americans know that a larger force is needed to maintain an effective police force here.

The answer? Recruiting.

During a recent “presence patrol,” as the Americans call it, a handful of Iraqi police walked Reyanah’s dusty streets, hanging police recruiting posters, interacting with local families, and speaking at length with young Iraqi men about joining the police force.

“Remember, we’re here to recruit, not to police,” Murray reminds several police officers just moments prior to loading up in large, armored American military vehicles. The police load up in their Nissan pick-up trucks.

As the police glue posters to brick walls throughout the town and speak with locals, the Marines keep their distance. While the patrol allows the police to speak with young men about serving their communities, it also lends credibility for the officers -- all of whom are from the greater Rawah region -- to gain trust and credibility with the locals.

An Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem, as some American military officials say.

“We’ve become more practical with it,” said Murray, who doubles as the executive officer for Company D of the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, the American military unit which took over operational control of the region just last month.

“We tell people, ‘these are the benefits of being an IP (Iraqi police officer) – pay, equipment, and pride of serving your community,’” said Murray, a native of Charlottesville, Va.

Instead of U.S. forces patrolling the streets and engaging locals, they have Iraqi Security Forces do that.

But there’s still insurgent activity in the region.

About two months ago, insurgents cut off a police lieutenant’s head and displayed it in a Rawah market. Nearly all the police walked off the job, although since, most have returned.

During the recent patrol in Reyanah, a predominantly fisherman’s town, some locals told the police that they fear joining, because insurgents will harm them or harm their families. It’s what the Americans call a “murder and intimidation campaign” – insurgents warn locals that cooperation with coalition or Iraqi forces can bring harm and/or death to themselves and their families.

“If they’re perceived to be pro-American, they get killed,” said U.S. Army Maj. Raymond A. Cross, a 48-year-old from Peyallup, Wash., and  civil affairs officer. “If they appear to be anti-American, they get arrested (by Coalition or Iraqi forces). Right now, they prefer to be arrested.”

Sgt. Maj. “Ayeed,” a police officer who served 18 years as a police officer under Saddam Hussein’s regime, says he has received multiple threats against his family, who used to live in Anah. Due to the threats, he had to move them to another part of Iraq.

Ayeed understands locals’ fear and reluctance to join the police, but makes the effort anyways in hope that some will step forward and join the ranks.

“Some people here are very bad,” said Ayeed through a translator, in between puffs from a cigarette following the patrol through Reyanah. “And others are very afraid.”

Nonetheless, the Americans and Iraqi policemen  believe that locals will begin to realize that more Iraqi police serving on the force equals a more secure neighborhood.

Unlike Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi police usually are homegrown, which automatically lends credibility to the police in locals’ eyes.

“It’s a snowball effect,” said Murray. “When people see more IPs, their confidence will go up. The impression of the IP being in control will help put them in control.”

“Did you get a lot of recruits?” Murray asks one police officer following the patrol, the sun nearly completely set in the horizon.

“Some,” the officer replies through a translator.

“Were they scared? Did you tell them that you’re from Reyanah?” asks Murray.

“Yes, but some were scared,” the officer replies.

Murray says that the police also act as a liaison between Coalition Forces and the local government, which has thus far been less than cooperative, never meeting with U.S. leadership at planned city council meetings to discuss future quality of life projects and the status of Iraqi Security Forces in the region.

Instead, the Americans have to seek out the local mayor and other city leaders whenever they need to discuss critical issues. The Iraqi police have been more accepted by local leaders than the Americans, especially as the police continue to gain credibility with local leaders.

Last week, police officers assisted a young girl who was injured in a vehicle accident. They escorted the girl’s ambulance through several Coalition Forces checkpoints all the way to a regional hospital, saving precious time for the girl’s treatment.

“It’s very much a fight for public opinion,” said Murray. “(Locals) have to wait and see if the IP is on the winning side. Everyone wants to be part of the winning team.”

Email Staff Sgt. Goodwin at: goodwinjm@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil.