Published on Tuesday, May 31, 2005 by the Guardian/UK
Basra Out of Control, says Chief of Police
Families can still stroll but militia gangs hold power in port city
by Rory Carroll in Basra
The chief of police in Basra admitted yesterday that he had effectively lost control of three-quarters of his officers and that sectarian militias had infiltrated the force and were using their posts to assassinate opponents.
Speaking to the Guardian, General Hassan al-Sade said half of his 13,750-strong force was secretly working for political parties in Iraq's second city and that some officers were involved in ambushes.
Other officers were politically neutral but had no interest in policing and did not follow his orders, he told the Guardian.
"I trust 25% of my force, no more."
The claim jarred with Basra's reputation as an oasis of stability and security and underlined the burgeoning influence of Shia militias in southern Iraq.
"The militias are the real power in Basra and they are made up of criminals and bad people," said the general.
"To defeat them I would need to use 75% of my force, but I can rely on only a quarter."
In fact the port city, part of the British zone, is remarkably peaceful. It is largely untouched by the insurgency and crimes such as kidnapping and theft have ebbed since the chaotic months after the March 2003 invasion.
In marked contrast to Baghdad, razor wire and blast walls are uncommon in Basra and instead of cowering indoors after dark families take strolls along the corniche.
But Gen Sade said the tranquility had been bought by ceding authority to conservative Islamic parties and turning a blind eye to their militias' corruption scams and hit squads.
A former officer in Saddam Hussein's marine special forces, he was chosen to lead Basra's police force by the previous government headed by Ayad Allawi and he started the job five months ago.
He praised the establishment of a competent 530-strong tactical support unit and claimed that 90% of ordinary crime was detected.
But he was frustrated that a weak, fledgling state left him powerless to purge his force of members of Iraq's two main rival Shia militias: Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army and the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri).
Sciri is one of the dominant parties in the Shia-led government in Baghdad and Mr Sadr, a radical cleric, has become a mainstream political player since leading two uprisings against occupation forces last year.
Both groups have been implicated in targeting officials from Saddam's ousted regime. Since such people tend to be Sunni Arabs, the score settling is often perceived as sectarian.
"Some of the police are involved in assassinations," said Gen Sade. "I am trying to sort this out, for example by putting numbers on police cars so they can be identified."
In March, police watched impassively as their friends in the Mahdi army members beat up scores of university students at a picnic deemed immoral because music was played and couples mingled. Gen Sade identified the officers, but did not punish them for fear of provoking the militia.
If there is trouble at Basra, university staff still phone the police, said Professor Saleh Najim, dean of the engineering college. "But you can't be sure they will do their duty."
The police chief felt cut off from his superiors at the interior ministry in Baghdad and lamented that a government commission was forcing some of his best officers to resign over alleged links with the ousted regime. He did not know how long he would keep his job.
Colin Smith, a deputy chief constable and Britain's senior police adviser in Iraq, said the Basra force's ability to patrol and investigate crimes was an "exponential development" from two years ago and he expected improvements to accelerate.
"I'm optimistic. It's a five to 10 year project, it won't be overnight," he said.
He criticized previous British and American trainers for setting the bar too high for a force being built from scratch. "Too often we have given the Iraqis plans that don't work. We still don't have an Iraq police strategy."
For example police stations were given expensive cameras to photograph suspects without heed to the Iraqis' difficulty in replacing the batteries, said Mr Smith.
"A lot of the time we're not moving forward but rectifying the mistakes made in the past two years."
© Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005