Iraq invasion: how a failed effort to rebuild Iraq's police fuelled chaos

Iraqi, British and American veterans recall a scramble to train security forces as the country slid into civil conflict

US marines take position near a portrait of then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, during the Second Gulf War in 2003. AFP
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Mushtaq was a 32-year-old commander in the Iraqi police when president Saddam Hussein fell, turning his world upside down.

The “Hawasim” had begun, he tells The National, a term derived from Saddam's ill-fated “final battle” — Harb Al Hawasim — against Coalition forces in the First Gulf War of 1991.

Once synonymous with Iraq’s crushing defeat in the First Gulf War, with the start of the Second Gulf War in March 2003, Hawasim became a byword for chaos.

With the toppling of Saddam, thousands of angry Iraqis, some seeking vengeance or left impoverished by the previous decade of sanctions, looted government buildings.

“Government buildings, facilities, even the museums, everything was looted,” Mushtaq says.

Seventeen out of 20 ministry buildings containing invaluable economic records were burnt.

US forces protected the Ministry of Oil and Ministry of Finance, but the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was plundered of priceless antiquities.

Hundreds of state-owned industrial sites and even power stations were not spared by the looters.

Nobody wanted to do it. Nobody had any plan for it. There was no equipment, there were no trainers. And so that whole thing becomes just this very slow ad hoc process
Keith Mines, retired US diplomat

The rapid collapse of law and order instantly set back prospects to rebuild Iraq.

Mushtaq says it quickly became apparent “from day one” there was no coherent plan for a new police force. By one count, 90 police stations were burnt across Baghdad, in addition to the Ministry of Interior.

Political assassinations also started to rise — early signs of the coming civil war. By the summer, Baghdad's morgue was reporting a surge in fatal gun crime.

As the Battle of Baghdad ended, many police fled home to protect their families.

But on May 2, 2003, Mushtaq answered a US call to return to service.

There were far too few US soldiers to keep order and in the maelstrom, US Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer, who had viceroy-like powers, allegedly suggested shooting looters to restore order.

Wearing their Baath-era green uniforms, the men gathered at Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel.

“Everybody was yelling, shouting. An American soldier came, I didn’t recognise his rank and he was yelling ‘line up! line up!’ So I told them, ‘boys, this gentleman says we need to be lined up,' in Arabic,” said Mushtaq.

Recognising he spoke English, the US soldier took him to a side office.

“His name was Major Steinberg. He was very good, very active. And he gave us a box of pistols and said, ‘take your pistols, go and stop those looters'. So we make checkpoints. We collect some government vehicles to use for our force,” he said, recalling how he joined a 20-vehicle convoy to protect Baghdad’s central bank.

“We all tried our best, but it was chaos,” he said, recalling efforts to build the police force “from zero”.

Make a difference

As ministries and police stations smouldered, Stephen White was 5,000 kilometres away in London preparing to deploy to Basra in southern Iraq as a police adviser.

Unknown to Mushtaq and Mr White, a veteran police officer who oversaw reform of Northern Ireland’s police service, there were plans to ensure the new police force would be retrained and mentored for modern, community policing standards.

The US Department of Justice and the US State Department, agencies that would lead the effort, envisioned 6,000 police trainers, part of a multinational effort.

But facing pushback from US military planners who wanted to reach Baghdad before the blazing heat of summer, the force size was cut to 1,400, then 500.

Many were not ready to deploy when the invasion began.

“They said ‘you've got a chance to make a difference, do something special, make the south work. And by the way, you've got two police officers and one lawyer.’ And eventually months later, [we got] one other person, a prison expert,” Mr White told The National of the situation in Basra.

“When you look at it, I mean, you could not write a worse plan that was clearly going to be a disastrous failure.”

The situation was similar in Baghdad, where US police advisers complained of having just dozens of staff to work with thousands of Iraqis.

Mr White echoed the complaints of many people who worked with the CPA, who said it was never clear who had the final word on critical projects.

In the western province of Anbar, where the city of Fallujah is located and which was the initial centre of Sunni resistance to the Coalition, the situation was equally bad.

Keith Mines, already a veteran US diplomat who had worked in Somalia and Haiti when he deployed to the province in 2004, recalled pleading with the CPA for $30 million to train and equip Iraqi police.

“Reducing, not increasing, the bellicose presence of the Coalition is key,” he wrote at the time.

“Replacing it with more support for Iraqi institutions, such as the police, is key.”

The request that was refused, despite the US eventually spending billions on the force when it was too late, and civil war had erupted.

“Nobody wanted to do it. Nobody had any plan for it. There was no equipment, there were no trainers. And so that whole thing becomes just this very slow ad hoc process,” Mr Mines told The National.

De-Baathification — the process of removing the Baath Party's influence — gutted the army officer corps and civil service.

It would eventually come for the police as well, despite initial US plans to leave the force intact.

“I went to a meeting in Baghdad with Jay Garner,” said Mushtaq, referring to the US official who was initially in charge of the reconstruction effort.

“He's bringing the senior staff for the police to a meeting, and there were negotiations about whether they keep them and whether they’ll work with the same people.

Mushtaq told the US team that it was "a good idea", not to remove personnel who had links to the Baath Party.

“But when they brought Mr Bremer he came and said, ‘OK, I'm the boss now. The old boss is gone. So, let's do it.' This was the disaster.”

Mushtaq says what followed was a purge of the police force that escalated in 2005 when Iran-backed Islamist parties took control of the Interior Ministry. Police were suddenly being hired for loyalty to a militia.

“They give them ranks like captain, major, colonel, general. This is a disaster,” he says.

The Iran-backed Badr Organisation, which had hit lists of hundreds of suspected Baathist members, was able to join the police en masse, and was accused of torture and kidnapping on a massive scale.

Reforming Iraqi police

“We established the National Police. And that was supposed to be an Italian Carabinieri type force that could deal with insurgency as well, kind of more heavily armed police force that had a quasi-military role,” said Peter Mansoor, who served as a brigade commander in Baghdad in 2003 and later, as executive officer for US commander Gen David Petraeus.

“But they became little more than death squads in uniform, in some cases, heavily infiltrated by Shiite militias.”

Police were accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing thousands of Sunnis.

“They had to be reined in and retrained and their leaders replaced, which is what Gen Petraeus did,” Mr Mansoor said, describing a major shift in US strategy in 2007.

“When he [Petraeus] took over as commander of Multi-National Force – Iraq, we had what we called a ‘re-bluing’ effort. There were nine National Police brigades, that's 27 battalions. They were all taken to a new training camp and retrained.”

Re-bluing refers to the process of renewing the rustproof coating — known as bluing — on a firearm to improve its strength and appearance.

“All nine brigade commanders were replaced and two-thirds of the battalion commanders were replaced — some of them more than once. And then US police training teams were embedded into these formations,” Mr Mansoor said.

“It wasn't perfect, but the level of collusion between the police and the militias went way down.”

Similar efforts would continue and are continuing to this day, led by the EU and the UN, but human rights abuses have continued, albeit at a far smaller level than before.

Today, Iraqi police are still blamed by Human Rights Watch for collusion with the Badr Organisation, shooting protesters in 2018 and 2019.

Now retired, Mushtaq speaks of his continuing contact with the Iraqi police. He said that despite the continuing Iranian influence, some of the force remain professional and “very active” in using modern technology to solve crime.

There is still corruption, he said, saying that Iran-backed militias are now ascendant in organised crime.

“Every gang they follow, one, two or three, or all of them, are from militias,” he said.

Updated: March 15, 2023, 2:30 AM