Monday, February 13, 2012

From Bad To Worse, How Militias Moved Into The Iraqi Police Force, And The United States Failed At Nation Building. Part Two Of An Interview With Jerry Burke, Former Advisor To The Baghdad Police And Interior Ministry


This is the second part of an interview with Jerry Burke. In May 2003, he was contacted to make a study of Iraq’s police force for the Justice and State Departments. That transitioned into being the advisor to the Baghdad Police from May 2003 to June 2004. He then returned for a second tour of Iraq to aid the Iraqi Interior Ministry from March 2005 to February 2006. During his first time in the country, he found that the American government was woefully ill prepared for Iraq. They never committed the personal nor funds necessary to rebuild the Iraqi police and justice system, which undermined the rule of law. When Burke returned to Iraq in 2005, he found that the situation had grown worse. As part of the interim Iraqi government, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) was given control of the Interior Ministry, and was placing entire units of its Badr Brigade militia into the police force. The United States leadership was taking a hands off approach to this development, arguing that it was up to the Iraqis to sort it out. The result was that part of the Iraqi government began to take part in the civil war, as Shiite militias within the security forces began killing, kidnapping, and torturing Sunnis. That turn of events was just the latest example of how the United States was failing to not only provide security in Iraq, but to build a democratic society there.
When Bayan Jabr (right) became Interior Minister he brought in his Badr Brigade militiamen into the Iraqi police force (Time)
1. While you were in Iraq in 2005, a new government came into power and Bayan Jabr of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) became Interior Minister. Did you or anyone else know about his background as a Badr Brigade commander, the SIIC’s militia? Did anyone express concerns about him taking over the ministry at that time? Did anyone voice concerns about his connections to Iran?

The issue of Bayan Jabr’s (Baqir Jabr Al-Zubeidi) appointment as Minister of Interior was a topic of frequent conversation among the international advisors working in the Ministry of Interior. It wasn’t just Jabr, but the dozens of staff people working in and around his office. It was the wholesale turnover of a ministerial staff, many of whom we had been working with for two years. All that time and effort wasted, and in some cases, advisors wounded and killed, and all the institutional knowledge of the previous Iraqi staff was lost. The Coalition leadership advised the advisors to have a wait-and-see attitude: to continue a good faith effort to advise the new Minister and his staff as we had with the previous Ministers and staff. In reality, access to the Minister and his staff became more and more limited to just a few high ranking, mostly U.S., military officers. More disconcerting however was that conversations among the new staff would switch from Arabic to Farsi when international civilian advisors were around.
Special Police such as this one seen in Basra in 2006 were created by Interior Minister Jabr to take in his militiamen (AFP)
2. One of the consequences of Jabr becoming head of Interior was the wholesale recruitment of Badr Brigade units into the Iraqi police. Did you witness that, and what was your response at that time?

The new Minister didn’t interfere too much directly with the Iraqi Police Service (IPS). In the tradition of many dictators, including Saddam, the Minister invested heavily in a new security force: in this case, the fledgling Special Police units. The Special Police title was really a misnomer. They were neither special nor police. The first Special Police units were created in late 2003 to search for and capture or kill insurgent elements that were, at that time, mostly former regime elements: Republican Guards, fedeyeen, etc. This was during the long period where the training and deployment of the IPS was delayed for external, Coalition reasons such as U.S. funding.  These Special Police units operated under several different names including Commandos and Scorpions, among other unit names.

3. Was anyone else concerned about this turn of events?

Most of the civilian advisors and many of the U.S. military, generally below the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, were vocal in their concern about the inclusion of the unvetted, untrained Shia militia members, without Coalition supervision into the Ministry of Interior.  They were essentially transferred en masse into the Ministry without Coalition advice or consent.

4. What was the response by the Coalition Provisional Authority and U.S. military command to Jabr’s activities?

The response of the Coalition leadership, at least as it filtered down to the operational level, was deafening silence.  The interpretation of that silence was a wait-and-see attitude, and that whatever mess was created, it would be up to the Iraqis to eventually sort out after the Coalition left. That was in 2005. 

5. In a British Ch.4/CNN story from back in 2006, you said that at one time you wanted to set up an investigation by the regular police into death squads run by police commando units that were made up of Badr Brigade members. What happened with that plan?

By mid-2005, patterns were beginning to emerge in unclassified, open sources including Coalition information released to the general media. This included kidnappings and killings conducted by Iraqi men dressed in camouflage uniforms similar to those worn by the Special Police, and driving blue and white vehicles similar to those used by the Special Police. Other open information included the locations of where tortured bodies were dumped in quantity ranging up to 10 or 12 bodies at a time. Some of these locations were relatively public, and not far from Coalition and other Iraqi security facilities. 

These kidnappings and killings were extra judicial and constituted serious human rights violations, in American legal parlance, under the “color of law.”

By 2005, several of us, Coalition and Iraqi, had found a sympathetic colleague who worked in the north wing of the Republican Palace where Coalition military advisors worked. We discussed a plan to use a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and a Coalition QRF (quick reaction force) to apprehend the perpetrators.

Our colleague advised us that when the plan was presented to an American Flag (General) Officer, it was rejected with a comment that this was an Iraqi problem, and they had to find an Iraqi solution to the problem.
Concerns about secret prisons and torture facilities run by the Iraqi police emerged in 2005 (Flickr)
6. A U.S. military unit later found a secret prison being run by Badr Brigade elements in the Interior Ministry in Baghdad in 2005. Do you know about the fallout that happened after the incident between the U.S. and Jabr?

There were several illegal detention facilities being operated by the Special Police and other Interior organizations. You are probably referring to the raid of the Minister of Interior’s underground bunker in November 2005 by U.S. military units just across the Tigris River from the Green Zone in the Jadriya neighborhood.  There were over 200 illegal, mostly Sunni detainees there, many showing signs of torture and malnutrition. This was a highly publicized raid conducted by U.S. forces under the direct command of a U.S. General, a highly unusual move, as a direct rebuke to the Iraqi government.

But this was only one of many illegal detention facilities being operated by the Ministry of Interior under the leadership of Bayan Jabr. There was one just west of the Green Zone on the Airport Road on a shared Coalition-Iraqi base. Another one was located directly across the street from the Ministry of Interior Headquarters in Rusafa, East Baghdad.

Minister Jabr had several high profile visits from Coalition and U.S. officials including some officials visiting from Washington for the expressed purpose of meeting with the Minister.  For a while the Ministry led sectarian violence was scaled back until the media attention passed. 

7. At that time, the State Department released a report on abuses, and the U.S. military went to the press with its finding of the secret prison. Was the U.S. doing anything else about Jabr’s activities?

On an operational level at the Battalion and Company levels, commanders inspected their bases more closely more to avoid personal embarrassment than a formal policy. At the higher level, intense pressure was put on the Iraqi Transitional Government, as it was called at the time, to replace Jabr. In May 2006, when the first permanent government replaced the Transitional Government, Jabr was transferred from the Ministry of Interior to become the Minister of Finance. 

8. Weren’t there also some earlier commando units put together that were mostly made up of former soldiers and Republican Guard forces? Were those units better or worse than the Badr ones?

In late 2003 to June 2004, when the transfer of control from the CPA to the Iraqi Transition Government took place there were smaller Special Police units made up of career, professional security officers from the Saddam regime. These units operated in numbers in the hundreds rather than the thousands under Jabr. I don’t know the exact number or where they came from, but these units had some American military advisors. On the whole, and perhaps because they were fewer in numbers and more disciplined prior military, the earlier Special Police seemed to perform better, but that is more anecdotal than analytical.
By 2005 there were serious questions about the Iraqi police and their loyalty
9. There were also accusations that insurgents had infiltrated the police. Were those reports true? What was done about it?

Various insurgent factions undoubtedly infiltrated the new Iraqi Police Service. It was impossible to prevent such infiltration given the thousands of new recruits being hired, and the inability to properly vet them.  Occasionally, a suicide bomber dressed as a police officer would infiltrate a secure police facility and blow himself up killing others.  One notable incident was on Police Day, January 9, 2006, a national day to recognize police officers, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Ministry of Interior Headquarters across the street from the Baghdad Police College when dozens of Coalition and Iraqi officials were gathered to celebrate the day with parades and ceremonies.

Very little could be done to counter this threat as, again, it was an Iraqi problem needing an Iraqi solution.

10. There was an article in the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that said the Interior Ministry was deeply divided between different political factions, some of which hated each other, and how officials walked around the building with their bodyguards, because distrust was so deep. Was that a realistic portrayal of the Ministry at that time? If so, how did it get that bad, and was anything done to try to resolve it?

In these fragile, failing state, and post conflict environments, the Ministry of Interior is usually the most powerful political position as it controls most of the security forces. Given this situation, every faction wants to get its militia or its party members into the Ministry hierarchy. At one point, in 2005 it seemed that each floor the Ministry building was under the control of different factions. Armed security personnel manned the elevator lobby, and the stairwell entrances to each floor. The various factions had struck an acceptable balance of power within the Ministry. Occasionally, external conflict between the factions would cause tensions to rise within the building. 

11. Another problem that the U.S. faced with the Iraqi police was keeping track of weapons that were handed out. Can you speak on that issue a bit?

In 2003-04, the U.S. bought thousands of AK-47s, reportedly from Egypt and the Czech Republic. Now, the AK-47 is a good reliable weapon. I carried one during my first year in Iraq. The AKs that the U.S. bought had full plastic shoulder stocks. The Iraqis, however, preferred AKs without a shoulder stock, and they considered the plastic stock children's toys. The AK without a shoulder stock had been the custom under Saddam. Part of it was the macho swagger of walking and swinging an AK by your side while holding it by a pistol grip. The AK without a shoulder stock is more difficult to use, and a lot less accurate, but the Iraqis were not concerned with accuracy. They were more concerned with impressing and intimidating civilians by firing a full magazine in the air. When the Iraq Police were arriving at the scene of an incident you could hear them coming from blocks away as they fired their weapons en route to the scene. They were alerting Ali Baba, slang for criminals that they were coming, so the bad guys could get away without a confrontation.

In 2004, as new policemen graduated from the Police Academy they were given brand new Glock pistols purchased by the U.S. This was contrary to the pre-war practice where policemen were issued weapons when they were assigned to a police station and when they transferred they turned that weapon back in, and were given a new weapon at the next assignment. Station commanders had control of the weapons at his facility. When they were issued a weapon after graduation it wasn't properly explained that this was a new system. Many new policemen considered this a graduation gift, and gave it to an elder in their family or, reportedly, sold them on the streets of Baghdad. For those who kept their weapon and brought it to their assigned station they were told to turn their new weapon into the station commander, and were then issued an older, poorly maintained used weapon. In most cases, the station commander would keep the newer weapon for his own use.

Basically, the Coalition had no sense of the customs and traditions of the Iraqi Police and did a poor job of communicating their intentions to the Iraqi Police commanders. The Coalition did not have enough military or civilian advisers to effectively monitor, and control activities at the police facilities. 

12. The Iraqi Defense Minister has consistently been criticized for making false arms deals, buying equipment for inflated prices, etc. Did the Interior Ministry have those same types of problems?

The Iraqi pre-war financial system was a paper intense system designed to, allegedly, prevent fraud and theft, while at the same time allowing for high levels of corruption by officials at all levels. The Ministry of Finance was involved in the Ministry of Interior’s fiscal affairs on a near daily basis, especially their payroll system. The Coalition never had sufficient advisers, military or civilian to monitor the Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Finance systems. In one incident during the reconstruction, aides to the Minister of Interior were stopped and detained crossing the land border into Lebanon. These aides were reportedly carrying $11 million in cash. The Minister claimed this cash was for payment for armored Mercedes SUVs. He didn't like his American donated, American made SUVs, and thought his position deserved a more privileged status symbol. Now, whether this story was true or this was actually destined for a Lebanese bank in the Minister's name doesn't matter. The system was flawed and there was no way to document the Minister's story.

13. Another major problem with the Defense Ministry is logistics. They can’t maintain a lot of their equipment, supply their forces, etc. Was building up those capabilities a priority when you were working with the Interior Ministry?

Most Middle East security forces are designed for show, to intimate, and suppress potential internal opposition. The classic example of this is the complete ineffectiveness of Arab armies against Israel. Yes, the Egyptians had some initial success at the start of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 on the holiest of Jewish holidays, but the Egyptians could not maintain the effort. The current unrest in Syria and Egypt demonstrates the true purpose of their security forces: to suppress internal unrest.

The Iraqi Army, as demonstrated in the two Gulf Wars, was unable to maintain their equipment, effectively transport their equipment and personnel around the country, or resupply their personnel.  The Iraqi Army had developed ways to forage and barter with local merchants to purchase necessary equipment and supplies. Occasionally, the Iraqi Army would pillage for resupplies especially when conducting operations in Kurdish and Shia areas. 

These problems didn't exist with the Iraqi Police, at least nowhere near on the level of the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Police were generally locally recruited, and locally led. They didn't need to move around the country, and resupply as they moved.

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14. One of the major problems that have consistently been brought up about the Iraqi justice system is its reliance upon confessions in court cases. That has led to abuse and torture to obtain them. Was that an issue while you were in Iraq?

The foundation of democracy is justice. In countries that are not democracies, there is no need for an effective justice system. The only purpose of a justice system in a dictatorship or any autocratic system is to protect the interests of the dictator by whatever title he uses, King, Caliphate, Tsar, and his regime. In such justice systems there is no need for the rule-of-law except as a pretext or charade. Judges in such autocratic systems are usually friends of the regime. They aren't going to rule against the leader or the regime. They are generally lazy as judges, and have other businesses or financial interests that consume their time. They prefer to come into the court, hear a confession, hand down a sentence, and to leave as quickly as possible. All citizens understand the rules of the game in such regimes. Iraq was no exception under Saddam. As we arrived, we encountered significant resistance from the police when we discussed the rule of law, evidentiary procedures, and forensics. They clearly told us that Iraqi judges only wanted confessions. We, the international community, had learned from previous missions in places like Haiti and the Balkans that creating a credible judicial system was critical to establishing a democratic, rule-of-law based government. However, it takes much longer to educate and train judges, prosecutors and even defense attorneys.

15. The U.S. has tried to train the Iraqis in forensics and investigative techniques instead of relying upon confessions. While you were in Iraq did it appear that these were catching on with the Iraqis? What were some of the problems in trying to get the Iraqis to adopt these methods?

The Iraqi Police were rather proud of some of the forensic and investigative techniques that they had during, and even before, the Saddam regime. I remember when the head of the Crime Lab invited me to tour his facility. He was able to pull out ten-print fingerprint cards going back decades. The regime leaders were paranoid, and didn't trust anyone and everyone working for the government, and that was 90% of the people at some time during their lives, so nearly everyone was fingerprinted. They also had an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) they purchased from the Russians. The system didn't come with a warranty or maintenance plan, and was no longer operating. They also had a serviceable ballistic identification system.

The Iraqis in the Crime Lab were eager to work with modern forensics and lab equipment.  Several attempts were made to introduce a sophisticated new radio system that was more complicated than what the Iraqis needed at the time.  The U.S. military also introduced a biometric identification system that sparked the paranoia of a culture that feared the regime, and was highly suspicious of things that sounded too good. 

16. Another common criticism was ghost police and employees at the Interior Ministry. The Ministry has said several times that it has cleared its roles, but do you think that this can ever really be solved?

From the beginning of the effort to rebuild the Iraqi Police we were never sure of who was, and who was not, in the Iraqi Police. Nepotism, cronyism, and ghost employees were rumored to be rampant throughout the Police. Just when you thought you had a sure case of fraud, the employee would disappear and no one could or would remember his name or any other information. Paper records would disappear or be replace by altered records. It could take days to try to find a responsible supervisor only to be told it was a different Ahmed, Mohammed, or Ali that you were looking for. While trying to resolve one case, five, ten or more similar cases would surface. You might visit one facility with a hundred people on the payroll, and only thirty or forty were accounted for. The police worked a twenty-four hour shift, and sleeping in the police station was authorized. When they went on days off, they would have three, four or five authorized days off. 

Because of the very poor economy during the regime era, and throughout the reconstruction period, many police sought outside supplemental income. Some of this was outright criminality and corruption, some of it was soft corruption such as accepting a gratuity for perform their duty, some of it resembled a uniformed protection racket, and some police simply had other legitimate businesses that were more profitable than police work. Their police salaries supplemented their outside income.

17. In the past, you have been very critical of the U.S. reconstruction plans. Can you explain some of the concerns you had?

I had so many concerns I don't know where to start. Perhaps it starts with the lack of basic management principles. Planning, there was no plan at first, and then there was a CPA plan of sorts, but never properly developed or disseminated, and then there was the military's plans - plural! Each regional military divisional commander was relatively free to plan for his area of operation. The Brits in the South had a different style and approach than the more heavy handed approach of many U.S. military commanders. 

For diplomatic and political reasons the 4th Infantry Division (ID) arrived in Iraq after "Mission Accomplished," and most combat operations were over. Tom Ricks in his book Fiasco was extremely critical of General Ray Odierno commander of the 4th ID. The 4th ID developed a reputation of arresting every MAM - military aged manwherever it conducted operations,  (MAM became a well known acronym). The overcrowding and misconducted at prisons like Abu Ghraib can be attributed to arresting innocent young men who just happened to be in the area. The U.S. military had no system to process these men through, from arrest to detention, to a hearing of some sort, to adjudication, to release or incarceration. The Military Police at Abu Ghraib and other facilities were overwhelmed with the volume of prisoners arrested. 

I could go on with each basic management principle such as organizing, directing, staffing, coordinating, reporting and budgeting. In each area, the U.S. effort was effectively non-existent. For example, organizing. We went from the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) to the Coalitional Provisional Authority (CPA) to the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) to the Iraq Transition Assistance Office (ITAO) in the space of 4 or 5 years. The first organization, ORHA, didn't last 60 days! Each organization brought in new leadership teams, the most famous being the transfer from retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner in ORHA to L. Paul Bremer in CPA, new organizational structures, and new political philosophies toward Iraqis and reconstruction. Most of the people worked for these organizations never left the Green Zone, the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) or some other secure compound.  This question could fill a book.

18. When you left Iraq in 2006, what did you think you had achieved?

This is a tough question. Both tours were very frustrating. It seemed just when you were beginning to accomplish something, something would change the operating environment. For example, the mission while working under the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was clear, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. Okay, I've got it. Then the Coalition Provisional Authority was created. Other than the Brits, Poles, and a few other nations with small contingents with operational restrictions, there was no Coalition. It was a Coalition in name only, no French, no Canadians, no Germans, etc. Then there was the word, Provisional.  That made it clear to everyone, military and civilian, Iraqi friend and foe that we were not going to be there, in control, for very long. 

Where we did make an impact, military and civilian alike was when we were able to make friendships, personal and professional, with our Iraqi colleagues.  I still stay in touch with many Iraqis.

21. What problems did you see in the future for the Iraqi police when you left, and are they still issues today?

The biggest problem I see for the Iraqi Police is the same problem facing the nation as a whole. That is establishing a democratic style government, and there are many variations, where the government follows the rule-of-law, and there is civil police supremacy where the police are the premier security agency. Everything else flows from that: training, enabling legislation, good governance, accountability, judicial oversight, etc.

22. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction recently released a report on the State Department taking over the training of the Iraqi police from the Pentagon. It seemed like the State Department was continuing with a lot of the same problems with a lack of adequate funding, not enough trainers, not having a detailed strategy for what they want to accomplish, and how exactly they are going to achieve them. This brings up the question of whether the United States is really good at these types of missions. Your thoughts?

The simple answer, as demonstrated in Iraq, is No. Neither the State Department nor the Justice Department have the resources, or for that matter, the legal mandate to perform these types of missions. To properly perform these missions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and in the future perhaps Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, would require thousands of specialized employees properly trained and equipped. This would require billions of dollars annually. Then there might be years where there were no sizable missions to perform.  

The U.S. military, on the other hand, is the greatest fighting force in the world. The problem with the military is how do they ratchet down their combat intensity to perform nation building tasks when they might be ongoing low intensity fighting still going on. How do they win the hearts and minds of the local populace while still killing local resistance? These post conflict, failed/failing/fragile state missions can take years, even decades.

1 comment:

Steve Donnelly, AICP said...

Accurate through the time I left in December 2008.

Steve