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The Powerful Iraqi "State"

[ 0 ] May 30, 2006 |

Responding to my point in comments that it was ridiculous to claim that the U.S. “established” a democratic government in Iraq, because (in addition to the fact that there hasn’t been a succession under the new Constitution) the state didn’t have any substantial coercive capacity, one Jon Kay says:

In any case, people are arrested regularly by Iraqi police all the time. Bzzt!

I trust that the idiocy of the claim that because the police make the occaisonal arrest that Iraq therefore has the coercive capacity of a functioning state is self-evident, so I won’t dwell on it. What might be useful, however, is an inquiry into the nature of the police force that is boldly upholding order and the rule of law:

Jon Villanova had just arrived in Basra last spring to help build a police force in southern Iraq when bodies began piling up. Twenty or more Iraqi civilians were dragged from their homes, shot in the head and dumped in the streets.

The evidence pointed to some of the very people he and his team of foreign police advisers were struggling to train: a cluster of senior officers working out of a station called Jamiat.

But local officials resisted efforts to prosecute the officers. By the time officials in Baghdad intervened nine months later, the corruption in Basra had gotten so bad that the 135-member internal affairs unit, set up to police the police, was operating as a ring of extortionists, kidnappers and killers, American and Iraqi officials said.

“There we are, trying to build a police force that people can believe in, and they are committing murders,” Mr. Villanova said. “It was a quagmire.”

So was much of the rest of Iraq. An initial effort by American civilians to rebuild the police, slow to get started and undermanned, had become overwhelmed by corruption, political vengeance and lawlessness unleashed by the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

There is, of course, no serious functioning state in Iraq, and the fact that some of the sectarian militias that hold the actual power nominally wear police unifroms obviously doesn’t change that:

Even in a country beset by murder and death, the 16th Brigade represented a new frontier.

The brigade, a 1,000-man force set up by Iraq’s Ministry of Defense in early 2005, was charged with guarding a stretch of oil pipeline that ran through the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dawra. Heavily armed and lightly supervised, some members of the largely Sunni brigade transformed themselves into a death squad, cooperating with insurgents and executing government collaborators, Iraqi officials say.

“They were killing innocent people, anyone who was affiliated with the government,” said Hassan Thuwaini, the director of the Iraqi Oil Ministry’s protection force.

Forty-two members of the brigade were arrested in January, according to officials at the Ministry of the Interior and the police department in Dawra.

Since then, Iraqi officials say, individual gunmen have confessed to carrying out dozens of assassinations, including the killing of their own commander, Col. Mohsin Najdi, when he threatened to turn them in.

Some of the men assigned to guard the oil pipeline, the officials say, appear to have maintained links to the major Iraqi insurgent groups. For months, American and Iraqi officials have been trying to track down death squads singling out Sunnis that operated inside the Shiite-led Interior Ministry.

But the 16th Brigade was different. Unlike the others, the 16th Brigade was a Sunni outfit, accused of killing Shiites. And it was not, like the others, part of the Iraqi police or even the Interior Ministry. It was run by another Iraqi ministry altogether.

Such is the country that the new Iraqi leaders who took office Saturday are inheriting. The headlong, American-backed effort to arm tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and officers, coupled with a failure to curb a nearly equal number of militia gunmen, has created a galaxy of armed groups, each with its own loyalty and agenda, which are accelerating the country’s slide into chaos.

Indeed, the 16th Brigade stands as a model for how freelance government violence has spread far beyond the ranks of the Shiite-backed police force and Interior Ministry to encompass other government ministries, private militias and people in the upper levels of the Shiite government.

Sometimes, the lines between one government force and another — and between the police and the militias — are so blurry that it is impossible to determine who the killers are.

But at least the Bush administration did all it could, right?

Up to then, the police training had been handled largely by civilian contractors. In March 2004, the Pentagon handed control of the effort to one of its generals.

Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton was already working to build a new Iraqi Army when he got the job. Instead of getting more resources to train the police, his $2.2 billion budget was cut by a fifth, General Eaton said.

“You just look to the money, look to the people sent over to do it, the numbers to do it, you just have to conclude this wasn’t important in their minds,” said General Eaton, who is now retired and has become a critic of Mr. Rumsfeld’s handling of the war.

This isn’t to say, though, that even a competent administration could have created a functioning state in Iraq; it was always an extremely bad candidate for a forced democratization. But to pretend that there’s a functioning democratic state in Iraq you have to be living some kind of double life.

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