U.S. officials say 2006 will be the "year of the police" in Iraq. According to the U.S. military, the number of Iraqi police now number 75,000. One-third of them are what's known as "Special Police," who help combat the insurgency. U.S. forces are increasingly focusing on training the Iraqi police force, amid allegations of torture of prisoners.
For the past year, Iraq's Sunni Muslims alleged they were subject to illegal detention, harassment and murder by Iraq's Interior Ministry Special Police units.
The rumors circulated without evidence for months. But in November, the United States military entered a detention facility in Baghdad and found dozens of undocumented Iraqi prisoners. The U.S. military says some of them showed signs of torture. All had been held without charge. The detention facility was controlled by the Ministry of the Interior.
Iraq's Interior Ministry is headed by Bayan Jabr, who used to be a commander in a militia called the Badr Corps, a Shi'ite Muslim militia originally formed in Iran by Iraqi exiles to combat Saddam Hussein's regime.
The Badr Corps was formed as a wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. SCIRI is a party in the Shi'ite political coalition that will once again dominate Iraq's new parliament. It is expected to have a powerful hand in naming the next prime minister and his cabinet.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad last week appeared to give his opinion on Mr. Jabr's performance while emphasizing the importance of Iraq's Interior-Ministry-controlled police force in bringing peace to Iraq. "The police force has to be credible with the communities of Iraq, has to have confidence of all the communities, that's why the selection of Ministry of the Interior will be very important, send message you can't have someone who is regarded as sectarian for example as MOI," he said.
Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, the U.S. commander responsible for training Iraqi Security Forces, including the Special Police, said earlier this month, his organization, the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq, has American military transition teams working with the Special Police. "Their role is to oversee, mentor, coach, cajole and do whatever they've got to bring this thing along in a way that makes it a contributor to the national cohesion and not to national divisiveness," he said.
General Dempsey said the Special Police have been important in combating the insurgency, but that his organization "still has some work to do" to encourage militia members to vow loyalty to the government, not to a militia.
On Thursday, a senior U.S. military official told reporters that in Baghdad, the lines between militia, Ministry of Interior forces and Special Police have blurred. "It's not easy to identify that some operation tonight was legitimately directed by somebody in a security organization of the Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Defense, or whether it was some people in stolen uniforms, or somebody's posse, somebody's militia, (or) somebody's protection cell, that decided to go attack the opposite number in some other tribe, religion or neighborhood," he said.
The official said the 12,000 to 15,000 Special Police are hard to identify, because there's no regular uniform for Iraqi Security Forces. Moreover, tribe, religion and political affiliation often divide even legitimate police loyalties.
The official said the U.S. military has now reigned in the Special Police with the American training teams, and that most of the unlawful raids and detentions have stopped. But, he said, a special U.S.-led investigative team will inspect Iraqi government prisons and jails for signs of mistreatment. So far, he says, three inspections have turned up signs of overcrowding and abuse.
The senior U.S. military official said that during other detention facility inspections, American forces have intervened and stopped mistreatment or abuse "to include drawing weapons on uniformed Iraqi MOD or MOI soldiers where necessary".
General Dempsey said earlier this month that Iraq's government doesn't quite answer the militia question in article 117 of the country's new constitution…
"It forbids any other armed force outside of the legitimate security forces of the -- at the national level, which is to say it outlaws militias. It also accounts for the possibility of regions having home guards or regional guards. Frankly, the Iraqi government has to figure out what they mean by that. And, I think you'll find this new government to take that on," he said.
Until then, the senior American military official said, plans are in the works to possibly turn over some training of the Special Police to U.S. troops who are already working in the same area. That way, he said, they can better train, and monitor, their activities.