“Without support, we can’t do anything,” an officer said. “Five thousand fighters with 50 rifles? It won’t work.”…
Smoking cigarettes in a tent with a dirt floor just outside an isolated village in northern Iraq, the police officers recalled the heady days working alongside American forces and launching dozens of operations to kill and capture Qaeda militants in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The Americans are long gone, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has morphed into the Islamic State and the Iraqi Government has not paid their salaries in months, leaving the officers grappling with their fate in a cold tent in what is supposed to be a training camp. “We are in a camp like refugees, without work or salaries,” said Seif Ahmed, a SWAT team member wearing a “U.S. Army” T-shirt. “ISIS is our target, but what are we supposed to fight it with?”
As the United States dispatches military advisers to help Iraq build a force to fight the Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS, the police of Nineveh Province, who have experience and self-interest in actually battling the jihadists, have been largely abandoned. In a region that the Islamic State now controls, lingering distrust by the Shiite-led central Government has stymied efforts by provincial officials to turn the former police into a local force. The central Government fears that the police officers, who are mostly Sunni, will sell their weapons to the jihadists — or join them.The marginalisation of Nineveh’s police force is one example of how the key to rebuilding Iraq may rest less in the airpower and bombing runs of the United States and its allies than in bridging the differences between the Shiite-led central Government and Sunni communities. Shortly after the jihadists seized most of the province in June, the Iraqi Government was so distrustful it cut off the officers’ salaries, rendering most of them destitute.
Maj. Gen. Khalid al-Hamdani, the Nineveh police chief, said more than two-thirds of the province’s 24,000 officers were trained by the United States as part of its roughly $8 billon program to strengthen Iraq’s police between 2003 and 2012. “These forces did a lot of the front-line fighting in those days,” said James F. Jeffrey, the United States ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, when the American program to support the Iraqi police ended because of a lack of interest in Baghdad. Mr. Jeffrey called their exclusion from the fight “a significant loss” and said their sectarian background and their knowledge of Islamic State-controlled areas could make them valuable assets. “They are locals and they are Sunnis,” he said. “They are exactly what we need.”
The struggling effort to revive the province’s police force revolves around a small camp on a rocky hillside 20 miles northeast of Mosul, where provincial officials are trying to gather the scattered men so they can be registered, trained and armed. The camp’s backers call it the “NinevehLiberation Base,” but during a recent visit, it looked more like a refugee camp. A few dozen tents meant to house police officers stood on opposite sides of an open patch of dirt. Young men, some dressed in khaki army fatigues, unloaded scores of bunk beds to furnish the tents, while others lined up for meals or squatted around large pots of beans. A generator roared nearby, giving the men a few hours of power to charge their cellphones. They had only a handful of rifles, which they were barred from taking outside of the camp by the Kurdish pesh merga forces that control the area. Still, the camp’s organisers say the men are experienced and ready to fight the Islamic State. “There are no other forces inNineveh, and we know the place street by street,” General Hamdani said in an interview in a trailer where the force’s leaders meet. “All they need is support and arms.”
Of the force’s original 24,000 men, only about 50 were sleeping in the camp, a fraction of the fewer than 5,000 who had been registered as prepared for duty, General Hamdani said. A few thousand more were scattered around Iraq and were expected to come once the camp was ready. But about 15,000 officers were still in Islamic State-controlled parts of the province, with little known about their fate. “Are they with ISIS? Dead? Missing?” General Hamdani said. “We don’t know anything about them.” Complicating the revival of the police force is the political conflict between provincial officials and Baghdad. Saad Maan, a spokesman for Iraq’s Interior Ministry, said that a small number of Nineveh’s policemen had registered in other parts of the country and kept working. But Mr. Maan said Government support for the camp was not imminent since it had no military leadership. “There is nothing for them to do there,” he said, saying the men had become “civilians.”
The distrust is mutual, and provincial officials are quick to point out Baghdad’s support for Shiite militias, which are fighting alongside the army but have no official standing. The officials are hoping for direct support from the United States, and Atheel al-Nujaifi, the provincial governor, was inWashington recently to lobby for aid. But American officials say that all support must be channeled through Baghdad. Sitting on their bunks in white tents with trash piled up in the corner were eight men from a 120-man SWAT team that had been formed and trained by the United States. The men had been fighting the jihadists who would become the Islamic State for years and now considered the fight personal. One of the men, Luay Moqdad, swiped through photos on his phone, showing colleagues killed in bomb attacks, assassinated or captured by the jihadists. Others said that after the Islamic State had seized Mosul, its fighters had blown up or moved into their homes with their families.
The group’s older members had worked closely with American special forces and recalled them fondly. One of the group’s commanders, Bassam Mohammed, produced a briefcase full of certificates signed by American officers thanking him for his service and photos showing his men dressed in tactical gear and posing with their American counterparts. “Working with them was really great,” he said. “After two months of drills, you’d see huge progress.” The teams often rode in helicopters and did raids together, he said. On slow days, they bonded over barbecues or soccer games. Maj. Rayan Zeinu, an officer from another unit who was visiting the camp, had photos of himself in the United States, standing in front of the White House and riding a horse in Milwaukee during an American-financed trip to study counterterror and organised crime investigation. With those skills now dormant, he said he was ready to join any effort to battle the jihadists. “But without support, we can’t do anything,” he said. “Five thousand fighters with 50 rifles? It won’t work.”
(Omar al-Jawoshy contributed reporting from Baghdad.)