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Good Cop, Bad Cop

In Iraq, They Could Be One and the Same

Photos by David Axe
An Iraqi special policeman outside a farm being raided by British and Iraqi forces in the town of Az Zubayr.
British trainer Chris Sparks (far right) and Col. Fadhil Authaman (foreground) review Iraqi recruits at Samawah police academy.
British troops and an Iraqi cop patrol Samawah market.
British army Sgt. Gary Howe consults with Iraqi officers in Al Amarah.
Special police Sgt. Amar Shaker provides security during a joint Iraqi-British raid near Az Zubayr.

By David Axe | Posted 11/2/2005

It’s hard to fault Steve Vincent for having felt confident. For this New York art critic-turned-freelance Iraq correspondent and blogger, life was good. In the Red Zone, his book about wartime Iraq, had done well, and he was working on a follow-up about the southern city of Basra, an oil-rich Shi’ite stronghold and the economic capital of Iraq. He was deeply invested in the city, having set up in a downtown hotel and established relationships with local stringers, including 31-year-old Nooriya Tuaiz, a single female interpreter, rare in this increasingly patriarchal state. Months of work had landed him close to what he believed was a major source of Basra’s ills: its own police. Vincent had suckered The New York Times into buying his op-ed on the subject. It ran July 31.

In the article, Vincent claimed that many of Basra’s 7,000 cops were affiliated with religious parties like that of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He also accused police in Basra of assassinating former Ba’athists in the city.

Two days later, Vincent and Tuaiz were leaving a Basra currency exchange when, according to information from the FBI relayed by Vincent’s wife in Manhattan, men claiming to be police grabbed both Vincent and the interpreter and shoved them into a car. That night, the two were found shot and dumped in Basra. Vincent was dead, Tuaiz very nearly so; she’s recovering.

Early press reports cited Vincent’s unusually close relationship to Tuaiz as the reason for his murder. After all, this was Shi’ite southern Iraq, a place hostile to foreigners and where it’s not uncommon for men to murder their own female relatives on suspicion of sexual indiscretion—and get away with it. It’s dangerous being a Westerner in Basra. Being a Westerner suspected of involvement with a native woman is almost suicidal. Was Vincent killed by tribal or religious enforcers?

Even for Basra, such a tale seemed too lurid to be true. As the press dug deeper they turned to a seemingly more likely culprit: the very police Vincent had fingered in his op-ed piece. Subsequent events seem to support this suspicion. On Sept. 19, Fakher Haider, an Iraqi photographer and journalist working for The New York Times, was found shot dead in Basra, only days after filing reports on tension between British forces and Shi’ite religious parties. Witnesses told the Times that men in a police car had abducted Haider. The FBI has dispatched a team to Basra to investigate.

Of all Iraq’s security forces, the regular uniformed police are the most numerous, the most visible, and the most vital to maintaining security in this troubled country. They’re the ones in the best position to stop terrorism and civil strife where they start—on the streets. They’re also the most corrupt and the least reliable of Iraq’s security forces. At best, the consistent failure of the Iraqi police to effectively address the country’s problems threatens to undermine efforts to build a peaceful, prosperous, and pluralistic Iraq. At worst, and if Vincent was right, the police are the country’s problem.


The quality of the Iraqi police is wildly inconsistent. In the Sunni city of Baqubah, U.S. soldiers have openly accused the police of being insurgents. In Qayyarah, south of Mosul, the police force deserted under pressure from insurgents in 2004 and has since been rebuilt from scratch. According to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Bradley Becker, former commander in Qayyarah, the new police force is well-equipped, well-led, and doing a great job even by Western standards. Visits to Qayyarah police stations in March seemed to corroborate his claims.

This inconsistency is partly due to piecemeal efforts by Baghdad to impose national standards. According to Chris Sparks, a 50-year-old police trainer working for the British Foreign Office in the southern city of Samawah, it wasn’t until June that Baghdad began requiring standardized basic training of new police recruits. Even then, transporting recruits to Jordan, where they’re trained, has proved difficult; many police recruited before this requirement serve without any training at all.

British army Maj. Andy Hadfield, 37, commander of A Company, Staffordshire Regiment, which is deployed to Basra, says that many local cops are friends and family of current cops and were put on the payroll without vetting or training.

Compare the national police force’s recruitment and training system to that of the new Iraqi army, which since its inception in 2003 has recruited and trained under the supervision of coalition forces. Notably, no one is accusing the Iraqi army of murdering journalists. Even though many critics still call the disbanding of the old Iraqi army a mistake, some coalition officers attribute the army’s relative reliability to its being disbanded and rebuilt across the board. As for the police, different units demonstrate vastly differing levels of equipment, training, and reliability even within the same city—no more so than here in Basra.

On Sept. 1, Hadfield leads a patrol through southern Basra, visiting police stations. Outside the Al Quibla station, there’s a battered blue-striped Iraqi police cruiser. It has seen too many anarchic rush hours and attacks by kids throwing rocks. But it still runs, and for the Al Quibla cops that’s enough. The cruiser is encouraging evidence that someone at Al Quibla’s been working.

In the chief’s well-appointed office, uniformed Iraqis are in an animated meeting with British soldiers from another unit. Another good sign.

Outside, some junior cops are keeping an eye on traffic. Abass Ali Mahdi, 21, a cop since 2001, describes his typical workweek at Al Quibla as three or four 24-hour shifts guarding the station, manning checkpoints, and serving warrants issued by local judges. He says the community is supportive.

Asked if he’d been to Jordan, Mahdi says no: The only formal training he’s received is locally, on firearms. Despite what he claims is a shortage of pistols and batons at the station, he feels well-equipped—and, Mahdi adds, he’s always paid on time. The bottom line, he says, is that “when the British leave, we can maintain peace here.”

But at a station near Basra’s sprawling “Five Mile” market, attitudes are different. Sgt. Glen Goldthorpe of the British army’s Coldstream Guards Regiment drops in on a September afternoon intending to organize a patrol with Five Mile cops. Approaching the seemingly deserted station building, Goldthorpe grumbles his suspicion that everyone inside is asleep. He’s wrong. Only half are asleep. The chief is awake but refuses to see anyone. He says he’s too busy.

With focused fury, Goldthorpe rouses a handful of sleepy-eyed Iraqi cops and bullies them into donning their armor vests, grabbing their rifles, and joining the Coldstream Guards outside. The idea is to walk through the market—a presence patrol, it’s called, the basis of Western-style “community policing”—but the Iraqi cops don’t feel like walking and pile into a truck instead.

Goldthorpe is livid. Between getting rebuffed by the chief, waking the cops, and motivating them to walk, he’s invested an hour for what turns out to be a 10-minute patrol. He wonders aloud if there isn’t more than laziness behind the cops’ heel-dragging. “We probably interrupted [the chief] doing ‘other business,’” he says, meaning there might have been money changing hands.

As disappointed as he is, Goldthorpe isn’t surprised by the cops’ poor performance, saying, “That’s how it always is here.”

Whether Basra cops are murderers and assassins is uncertain. But one thing is certain: Many are not good cops. In this economic and cultural fulcrum of southern Iraq, a city that has seen a spike in bombings and (as Vincent noted in his blog) steadily increasing religious tension—not to mention violence against Westerners—good cops are more important than ever. And they’re hard to find.


For hours before Steve Vincent was shot to death in a Basra warehouse on Aug. 2, he and Nooriya Tuaiz were apparently tortured—this according to statements by area residents who could hear the screams. While it’s not clear whether or not Basra police were directly involved, none came to Vincent and Tuaiz’s aid.

The outcome was tragic but not surprising. As Vincent pointed out in his Times op-ed piece, Basra’s 7,000 cops are all but subject to the city’s religious parties, few of which would object to another dead Westerner.

Perhaps the meanest part of this mean city is Habbaniyah, a strip of poor housing nicknamed “Shia Flats” by British forces. The neighborhood was the target of a Sept. 7 bombing by Sunni insurgents that killed 16 people. Such is Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s sway here that the local police chief, 30-year-old Capt. Ali Mater, says he’s powerless. Habbaniyah businessman Kadem Homoed, 58, says tribes and religious parties sort out most of the crimes.

Maj. Andy Hadfield says police in Basra won’t touch crimes perpetrated by or against tribes and political parties. He says the tribes and parties themselves settle accounts. How any crimes at all fall outside the tribal/party rubric in a town so dominated by these groups is a mystery to Hadfield. Coalition officers struggle to understand southern Iraq’s true power structure.

At the British army’s Camp Chindit in the town of Az Zubayr, west of Basra, an interpreter has sketched a chart of tribal relationships for the British commander, Maj. Mick Aston. The chart is a maze of names. Aston says he stares at it every day but still can’t make sense of it.

Chindit is a former Iraqi prison. There are crude hooks in the ceilings. Aston jokes that the hooks were for ceiling fans, but he knows better. They were for people. The British occupation has brought foreign aid and some investment, and it has facilitated elections, but that hasn’t changed the fact that Az Zubayr is fundamentally a tribal town—corrupt and violent, ruled by thugs with guns. There are a thousand cops in this town of 450,000, but they have little real power.

While on a mission to Az Zubayr’s largest market and two adjacent police stations on Aug. 31, Aston and British army Capt. Phill Moxey, 27, try to describe the local police. The first thing, Moxey says, is to “get away from expecting Western standards. The question is, do they operate in an effective way by the standards of this country?” He says yes.

But, Hadfield says, the standards of Iraq mean that the tribes and religious parties are in charge. Tribal and religious affiliations often overlap—and both tribes and parties maintain militias. Who’s most powerful where is a question few Western observers are qualified to answer.

After visiting the Al Quibla station on Sept. 1, Hadfield drops by nearby Jehad station. Surveying the neighborhood, Hadfield points out where two Western contractors were murdered on July 30.

Jehad’s chief, Ali Mater, complains that his police have no authority. Part of the problem, he says, is that the neighborhood is awash in guns. “The government before kept weapons off the street,” he says. “Now everyone has a white card”—white government-issued cards authorizing households to each own one assault rifle for self-defense. The system makes it easy for tribal leaders to form militias and challenge police authority. Here, in Mater’s neighborhood, the militias have won.


Ali Mater seconds Kadem Homoed’s assessment of the power structure in Basra. He says police authority in Basra has been waning since the old regime fell in 2003. He disparages what he calls the new “multiparty” Iraq, where tribe and sect trump government.

However, Hadfield says the waning authority of the police is not entirely a bad thing, recalling that the police in the Saddam Hussein era ruled by fear—and that’s not how it’s supposed to work in a democracy.

But then, as Vincent pointed out in his New York Times op-ed piece, parties (and tribes) rule by fear, too.

As coalition officers say, Iraqis can’t be held to Western standards, and their democracy won’t look like ours. Perhaps more fear of the (good) police would make Iraq safer. But it’s hard to fear any force that appears to be so lazy.

Sgt. Glen Goldthorpe says it’s hard to motivate the police here because it’s hard to fire them. This, too, is a tribal problem. Basra’s Five Mile station has been through a half-dozen chiefs in recent years, he says, and the good ones promise to clean house of ineffective cops. Then the tribes threaten: Fire our boys and you’ll have trouble. Tribal violence against police officers is common in Basra. Good police chiefs don’t last in an environment like this. Bad ones just might.

Police forces in Iraq don’t just stand aside and let the tribes and parties have their way. It’s not that simple. Many police officers are themselves active members of tribes and parties. As much as 60 percent of Basra’s population is affiliated with al-Sadr. So the men who abducted Vincent may really have been Iraqi police. But whether they were acting as police or on orders from their tribes or parties is another matter.

In his Times piece, Vincent accused British forces of failing to teach Iraqi police democratic values. Vincent was wrong. There has been an effort to instill Western values in recruits. “We’re trying to make these people accountable to the law, firstly,” says Arnie Morgan, 51, a British police trainer from Armor Group, a firm that employs civilian police officers as advisers in Iraq.

At some stations, Armor Group has made headway, only to see the reformed police run headlong into an unreformed populace.

Ibrahim Kamil, 32, a police captain in the town of Samawah, says his officers struggle to enforce rules and regulations in a society that values tribe and family over law. “Men,” Kamil says, “use their tribes to protect them.” On June 4, for example, Kamil’s officers arrested several Iraqi men for carjacking. Within hours the suspects’ families attacked the police.

The British are trying; some Iraqi cops are, too. But you can’t change the attitudes of 25 million people overnight.


Steve Vincent was wrong about the Brits, but he was right to blame Basra’s cops for bowing to tribe and party. However, the consensus among British officers and interpreters in Basra is that Vincent’s criticism of the police isn’t what led to his murder. As was initially suspected by some observers, it is thought here that Vincent’s perceived relationship with Tuaiz probably got him killed. What’s more, Vincent made no effort to blend in. He dressed like a Westerner, spoke little Arabic, and flaunted his friendship with Tuaiz. British officers say they warned him he was in danger. There’s no need to invent police conspiracies to explain Vincent’s murder.

Vincent’s killers probably were cops. But in the new Iraq, their being cops is incidental. When sheikhs and imams order their thugs to exact retribution on a white Christian who—to them—seemingly loves a Muslim woman, the only allegiances that matter are not to a uniform or to law, but to a more primal code.

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