Switched Off in Basra
By Steven Vincent
The New York Times
July 31, 2005
THE British call it being "switched on" - a state of high morale and readiness, similar to what Americans think of as "gung ho" attitude. During the 10 days I recently spent embedded with the British-led multinational force in this southern Iraqi city, I met many switched-on soldiers involved in what the British call "security sector reform." An effort to maintain peace while training Iraqis to handle their own policing and security, security sector reform is fundamental to the British-American exit strategy. As one British officer put it, "The sooner the locals assume their own security, the sooner we go home."
From this perspective, the strategy appears successful. Particularly in terms of the city police officers, who are proving adept at the close-order drills, marksmanship and proper arrest techniques being drilled into them by their foreign instructors. In addition, police salaries are up, the officers have shiny new patrol cars, and many sport snazzy new uniforms. Better yet, many of these new Iraqi officers seem switched-on themselves. "We want to serve our country" is a repeated refrain.
From another view, however, security sector reform is failing the very people it is intended to serve: average Iraqis who simply want to go about their lives. As has been widely reported of late, Basran politics (and everyday life) is increasingly coming under the control of Shiite religious groups, from the relatively mainstream Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to the bellicose followers of the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Recruited from the same population of undereducated, underemployed men who swell these organizations' ranks, many of Basra's rank-and-file police officers maintain dual loyalties to mosque and state.
In May, the city's police chief told a British newspaper that half of his 7,000-man force was affiliated with religious parties. This may have been an optimistic estimate: one young Iraqi officer told me that "75 percent of the policemen I know are with Moktada al-Sadr - he is a great man." And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
The fact that the British are in effect strengthening the hand of Shiite organizations is not lost on Basra's residents.
"No one trusts the police," one Iraqi journalist told me. "If our new ayatollahs snap their fingers, thousands of police will jump." Mufeed al-Mushashaee, the leader of a liberal political organization called the Shabanea Rebellion, told me that he felt that "the entire force should be dissolved and replaced with people educated in human rights and democracy."
Unfortunately, this is precisely what the British aren't doing. Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate.
The results are apparent. At the city's university, for example, self-appointed monitors patrol the campuses, ensuring that women's attire and makeup are properly Islamic. "I'd like to throw them off the grounds, but who will do it?" a university administrator asked me. "Most of our police belong to the same religious parties as the monitors."
Similarly, the director of Basra's maternity hospital, Mohammad Nasir, told me that he frequently catches staff members pilfering equipment to sell to private hospitals, but hesitates to call the police: "How do I know what religious party they are affiliated with, and what their political connection is to the thieves?"
It is particularly troubling that sectarian tensions are increasing in Basra, which has long been held up as the brightest spot of the liberated Iraq. "Are the police being used for political purposes?" asked Jamal Khazal Makki, the head of the Basra branch of the Sunni-dominated Islamic Party. "They arrest people and hold them in custody, even though the courts order them released. Meanwhile, the police rarely detain anyone who belongs to a Shiite religious party."
An Iraqi police lieutenant, who for obvious reasons asked to remain anonymous, confirmed to me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations - mostly of former Baath Party members - that take place in Basra each month. He told me that there is even a sort of "death car": a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment.
Meanwhile, the British stand above the growing turmoil, refusing to challenge the Islamists' claim on the hearts and minds of police officers. This detachment angers many Basrans. "The British know what's happening but they are asleep, pretending they can simply establish security and leave behind democracy," said the police lieutenant who had told me of the assassinations. "Before such a government takes root here, we must experience a transformation of our minds."
In other words, real security reform requires psychological as well as physical training. Unless the British include in their security sector reform strategy some basic lessons in democratic principles, Basra risks falling further under the sway of Islamic extremists and their Western-trained police enforcers.
Steven Vincent, the author of "In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq," is writing a book about Basra.
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