Iraqi civil defense units stumble on

HALF-COCKED: Nervous, hastily trained and shoddy marksmen, the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps is supposed to replace coalition soldiers as keepers of the peace


Reprinted In Taipei Times

Sunday, Jan 04, 2004, Page 7

A foot patrol of US-trained Iraqi civil defense officers emerges from an alley into the bustle of this city's main highway. Quickly, some of the men wrap scarves around their faces, fearful of being recognized by insurgents attacking Americans and their Iraqi allies.

The 16 Iraqis, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, are part of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), meant to be one of the country's key emerging security forces. But cracks are beginning to show in at least one part of the corps, here in Tikrit, five months after its first men hit the streets.

Some US trainers in Tikrit say the Iraqi force is ill-equipped, prone to corruption and so trigger-happy that some have shot at their own comrades. Added to that is the threat of anti-US guerrillas targeting Iraqis cooperating with the coalition.

By some estimates, it will take years before this ragtag militia of former Iraqi soldiers, impoverished farmers and jobless men and youths will be able to shoulder the burden of securing Saddam Hussein's hometown.

"Oh my God, it will be a while," said US Staff Sergeant Hugo Olveraleija, 26, one of the corps' trainers.

"These guys are farmers," he said.

Along with a new army and police force, the civil defense force, it is hoped, will gradually take over when US soldiers leave.

US commanders in Baghdad have touted the force as a success so far and say it's ready to take over control of all but a few neighborhoods in the capital. Brigadier General Martin Dempsey said US troops in Baghdad now rarely conduct raids or patrols without civil defense officers.

In Tikrit, Olveraleija and another US soldier led the Iraqis on patrol Friday morning near a base that houses the US Army's 4th Infantry Division at one of Saddam's riverside palace complexes.

He was angered to see some of them covering their faces as they moved out onto Highway No. 1, a busy thoroughfare of shops and restaurants that has been a shooting gallery for insurgents attacking US forces.

"You can see that they're scared, covering up their faces," he said.

The Iraqis say they have good reason to hide.

Jassim Sliem, 21, said men in two cars followed him to his family's home one night recently and asked him what he was doing at the base. Frightened, he lied that he was a detainee just released from the base lockup.

Others say their lives have been threatened.

"This job is very dangerous," said Adnan Wadi, 34, a company commander in the new force who was a soldier in the old Iraqi army.

He said that the US military has not outfitted civil defense officers with adequate gear, particularly body armor.

But he took the job, he says, out of a sense of duty to help rebuild and secure a new country.

He's confident that will happen.

"OK, when the Americans leave, we are here, ICDC," Wadi said proudly, wearing reflective sunglasses.

He adds that they'll need helicopters and their own headquarters, drawing laughter from several US soldiers overhearing the conversation.

Recruits receive three weeks' training on how to patrol, fire weapons and run checkpoints, and to study the rules of engagement. In three groups, the base in Tikrit has trained about 350 of them since midsummer. Some 14,000 are deployed throughout the country.

Paid US$130 a month, the Iraqis also guard government buildings, radio towers and other infrastructure.

In the future, the unit will be attached to the new Iraqi army.

Before dawn on Friday, gunmen fired automatic rifles at a group of civil defense officers manning a checkpoint in a nearby village, though no one was injured.

Wearing the brown uniforms and metal helmets of the old Iraqi army and carrying rifles seized during raids by US forces, a small group marches through Tikrit's narrow, muddy streets.

Some of them, as young as 15 years old, are goofing around. One gestures playfully with his rifle for a group of children.

Another dangles his weapon loosely at his side, a lit cigarette in the other hand.

Some of them ask for the chocolate that the US soldiers hand out to the children.

"They are great at what they do, but ... if you don't supervise them they start slacking off," Olveraleija said.

He added that some small-time crooks among them have abused their new power.

One group pressured a gas station owner to give them free gas and let them jump to the front of lines that have grown long because of fuel shortages.

On a few occasions, some in the Iraqi corps have mistakenly fired on their own men, Olveraleija said.

Once, while guarding an entrance to the US base, they sprayed bullets at a car carrying their returning comrades. No one was hurt.

"The good thing is they can't hit anything," Olveraleija said.