Complexities of policing Iraq

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

A case for international initiatives to protect the law-abiding citizens of Iraq from common criminals who are out to take advantage of the post-war chaos.

SCENES of utter disorder in major cities of Iraq vividly portrayed by the media in the days following the capture of Baghdad should have caused great concern and embarrassment to the United States and the United Kingdom. Before the sweet smell of victory could fade, the two occupation forces found their hands full, dealing with a law and order situation that was threatening to go out of control.

Things seem to have returned to normal at least for a while. But what happened in Iraqi cities gave more than a hint of the magnitude of the problems that confront a post-war administration. Iraqis possibly went wild with joy over the exit of Saddam Hussein. But this ecstasy did not give them the licence to plunder homes, shops, hospitals and government offices. What was most galling and unforgivable was the vandalism that robbed the Baghdad National Museum of its invaluable collections. It quickly served notice on the Americans and the British that they had to act swiftly to halt the madness before the whole country was engulfed in scales of disorder that could have painted Saddam's repressive rule as divinity itself.

It was widely reported that the occupation forces initially merely stood by watching the looting and vandalism. Their plea was that they were in the country not to do policing. They did not know the local language nor were they familiar with the local culture for them to intervene effectively. True as these facts might be, was this stubborn stand acceptable from two superpowers that had supposedly done a lot of homework before launching the offensive? International law in such situations has always been that the invading army had a responsibility to maintain law and order once their military objectives were achieved. If this did not happen in Iraq in the first few days it was obviously because neither of the two armies was backed by any preparatory work with regard to the nitty gritty of running an administration that was expected to fill the vacuum. This apparent lapse was unpardonable.

Now that sanity has been restored and the thugs have been sternly handled, what does the future hold for those accountable for peace in Iraq? What shape will a contemplated control mechanism assume? How quickly will a full-fledged civilian administrative machinery take charge of governance? Most importantly, how will the law-abiding citizen be protected against the common criminal who had taken to the streets intimidating officials and plundering public wealth? What is going to be the police arrangement in the streets? These are questions that need an immediate response from the decision-makers in the U.S. and the U.K.

A lot will of course depend upon the strategy that the two countries are going to give themselves in the long run. In his recent persuasive work, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, 2002), Kenneth M. Pollack, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, Washington, refers to two competing approaches. If the pragmatic approach - one that was adopted in Afghanistan after Operation Enduring Freedom - is to prevail, the two armies will pack up early to head home after handing over the reins of authority to acceptable local leadership. In contrast, a preference for the reconstruction approach would see them settling for a long stay to see that democratic institutions were restored and that there was no danger of the country returning to authoritarianism, at least in the near future.

While there are no clear indications as to which option will be favoured, the long years of planning and investment by the U.S. and the U.K. suggest action that will see through the present phase of uneasy calm. Bosnia and Kosovo are two recent examples of this continued international presence in some form or the other. The success of this experiment should encourage its adoption in Iraq. There is, however, a difference. Several neighbours have a great stake in the future set-up in the country. While Iran would want an increased Shia influence, Saudi Arabia wants the Sunni dominance to continue, a stand likely to be endorsed by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Kuwait. (There is a theory that a Sunni dictator, less malevolent than Saddam, could maintain peace better than a democratic government.) One cannot underestimate the Turkish keenness to see to the diminution of Kurdish strength (Kurds constitute 15 per cent of the country's 22-million population). This is an indication of how badly the country is split and how difficult it will be to manage its affairs in the years to come, especially if democracy is to replace the dictatorship that ruled the roost for more than three decades. It also highlights the fundamental problems of policing a fractured society.

SADDAM HUSSEIN governed with an iron hand. His ruthlessness matched almost all of history's demoniac rulers. He throve on building kinship and tribal loyalties. Not surprisingly almost his entire cabal and personal bodyguards (belonging to the squad called Murafiqi) came from the Sunni-dominated Tikrit and his own Bayjat clan of al Bu Naris tribe. Saddam's rise to power saw the proliferation of security agencies and the police, both of which systematically snuffed out the few anti-Saddam elements in the most cruel manner. One prominent outfit mentioned in this context is the Mukkabarat al-Amma, an all-pervasive organisation that collected foreign intelligence as well. It was suspected to have carried out terrorist operations, including an attempted assassination of President Bush and the Amir of Kuwait in the 1990s.

The largest of the security agencies is the al-Amn al-Amma that monitors the domestic scene, with an occasional foreign assignment. It is accused of carrying out most of the political killings reported from Iraq. (According to an Amnesty International report, more than 800 people were executed in Iraq on political charges during 1978-82.) It also practised torture systematically. There is one source which speaks of more than 100 forms of torture that security agencies had devised to decimate Saddam's foes. Perhaps the most important and powerful of the organs created by Saddam was the 5,000-strong Special Security Organisation (SSO), also known as the al-Amn al-Khas, that was responsible for the protection of dignitaries. All the agencies together generated such terror that Iraq under Saddam was a virtual police state. There is a joke that motorists in Baghdad waiting at traffic intersections would not make even a semblance of a statement critical of Saddam because they believed that traffic lights carried hidden microphones! From a highly literate, cultured and prosperous nation, Iraq under Saddam had slipped into economic backwardness, abysmal poverty and low literacy thanks to repeated wars and to governance that concentrated solely on terror and revenge.

THIS is the backdrop against which the rebuilding of the country will have to be attempted. One of the first priorities is to reorganise policing on lines that will make it conform to the democratic norms recognised all over the civilised world. The objective will be to construct a depoliticised police that believes in service rather than subjugating the citizens. It has to be a force that rises above tribal loyalties and gives substantial representation to the three major groups of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. This is more easily said than done. How does one go about this?

The precedent of building two commendable policing systems, first in Bosnia-Herzegovina and more recently in Kosovo, needs recalling here. The United Nations played an unforgettable role in this arduous task. International cooperation, including that of India, was nearly spontaneous. New forces were raised through fresh recruitment and trained, with an emphasis on respect for human rights, and the existing forces were reformed. The exercise was performed with great skill, especially in Bosnia where new initiatives were taken on the basis of the Dayton agreement of 1995. The U.N. coordinated the efforts of more than 50 countries for seven long years to establish internationally acceptable standards of democratic policing in Bosnia. It was only on January 1 this year that the responsibility for overseeing the more than 16,000 police officers in the country was passed on to the European Union. The transformation of a poorly trained and ill-equipped Bosnian Police into a sleek and modern outfit has been remarkable. Reform efforts in Kosovo are also slowly yielding results. However, it is difficult to predict how far the Bosnia and Kosovo models would work in Iraq.

Iraq has a large police strength. (Baghdad alone is reported to have 40,000 policemen for a population of five million.) The numbers may be adequate. But then, how are police attitudes going to be changed? Many in the police, especially those in the higher echelons, will have a vested interest in continuing with their crude work methods. In the post-Saddam age, they will not be acceptable to the populace at large for this alone. Many of them need to be got rid of, and massive fresh recruitment undertaken.

Two factors of the current Iraqi scene are bound to add to the complexity of policing. The first is the likely perpetuation of existing vested interests whatever be the intensity of international efforts to break such interests. Fights over the sharing of spoils of war are inevitable in a country that is riven by tribal disputes. Revenge killings in furtherance of a desire to grab power cannot be ruled out. Some remaining pro-Saddam elements, especially those who were in his paramilitary forces and are presently in hiding, could also pose a problem. Disarming them in a country where firearms are not difficult to buy is a complex task that rightly belongs to the police and other security agencies.

Another prospect is the rise of terrorism inspired by Al Qaeda. While the exercise to prove a strong link between Saddam and Bin Laden to justify the war has proved futile - there have been reports of only an occasional contact between the Mukkabarat and Al Qaeda - the sheer hatred for the U.S. could see an entry of the latter into Iraq to thwart any U.S. endeavour to stay on in Iraq for a long spell. If Al Qaeda makes forays into Iraq, aided by pro-Saddam elements, security agencies will have a torrid time. It is worth recalling what General Wesley Clarke of the U.S. told Time as early as October 2002. He was of the view that any post-war planning for Iraq should ensure that Al Qaeda was not "supercharged". This is a real danger that the U.S. will have to contend with.

Iraq is in the throes of major changes. As a country ravaged by wars and economic sanctions, it needs reconstruction on a large scale. Many countries have a stake in establishing peace there. This is not mere altruism. They are driven by the need to protect Iraq's enormous oil wealth, a resource that will have to be shared with the rest of the world, the economic development of which hinges on it. This is one reason why the international community has to strive hard to upgrade the quality of Iraqi police services.

India will have to be proactive and offer to help Iraq train its police force, apart from keeping ready a large contingent of policemen that would perform specified tasks. We did this with great aplomb in Bosnia and Kosovo. Indian policemen have won a reputation for professionalism and dedication that is the envy of many countries in the developing world. This is a golden opportunity to strengthen ties with a nation with which we have always maintained cordial relations.

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