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Questions arise over U.S. arms to Iraqi police

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials are doling out millions of dollars of arms and ammunition to Iraqi police units without safeguards required to ensure they are complying with American laws that ban taxpayer-financed assistance for foreign security forces engaged in human-rights violations, according to an internal State Department review.

The previously undisclosed review shows that officials failed to take steps to comply with the laws over the past two years, amid mounting reports of torture and murder by Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces. The review comes at a time when the U.S. military emphasis in Iraq has switched to training and equipping Iraqi forces to replace American troops.

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As Iraq slides deeper into sectarian violence, the performance of U.S.-supported Iraqi units could be crucial, because some are infiltrated by militias believed responsible for much of the strife.

The laws in question are called the Leahy Amendments for their author, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. Unless the administration reports to Congress that "effective measures" are being taken to bring abusers to justice, it is supposed to cut off support for any unit in a foreign security force whose members commit serious human-rights violations. Units also are supposed to be vetted before receiving assistance.

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But the internal memo suggests that U.S. officials believe it is not possible to comply with the laws in Iraq, noting the "burden of following the usual State Department procedures as they are practiced at other posts would vastly overwhelm [the Baghdad embassy's] available resources."

It also points to what are called unprecedented challenges created by Iraq's violence, the size and importance of the U.S. effort to establish effective Iraqi security forces, and what officials say is a lack of resources.

The Chicago Tribune was given access to the memo, which was drafted after the newspaper raised questions about reports of serious abuses corroborated by American military officials and the former United Nations human-rights chief in Iraq.

Among the shortcomings in compliance identified by the State Department is the fact that U.S. officials have not tracked the arms they distribute nationwide to local Iraqi police, nor have they vetted the units receiving those weapons to make sure they have not committed human-rights violations.

The memo says U.S. officials face "a serious challenge" in compiling, sorting and analyzing reports of Iraqi rights violations, a move identified as a "necessary first step" for complying with the laws. Similarly, there is still no comprehensive system identifying Iraqi recruits receiving aid and training.

A State Department official in Washington said the U.S. has taken other steps to aggressively "shape an environment that promotes and respects human rights" in Iraq, including requiring human-rights lessons for "all police and military trainees."

Leahy, in a statement, said the purpose of the laws that carry his name "is to prevent U.S. aid from going to perpetrators of atrocities so we are not implicated in those crimes."

He said it would be "a serious violation of U.S. law" if "our weapons and other aid have been given to Iraqi security forces without first identifying the officers to receive it and investigating their backgrounds, despite abundant evidence that these forces have engaged in torture and extra-judicial killings."

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Leahy crafted the restrictions after disclosures in the 1990s of abuses by U.S.-supported forces in Latin America.

Strict adherence to the laws in Iraq could pose a serious challenge for the Bush administration's exit strategy, which involves training and outfitting enough Iraqi forces to effectively replace American troops.

That problem appears to be recognized in the memo, which states that future steps "toward normalized Leahy vetting procedures must be taken without slowing the training and equipping of [Iraqi security forces] and without overwhelming the [U.S. Embassy] with additional work that would divert the scarce resources" available.

Top American officials have declared 2006 the year of the Iraqi police. The Defense Department is expected to spend about $1 billion on training and equipping those police this year in an effort to create a competent, 200,000-strong force.

U.S. military leaders also said this year that they would assign 2,000 advisers to work with Iraqi police units.

Some U.S. military officials in Baghdad have taken Iraqi human-rights abuses seriously. Late last year, Brig. Gen. Karl Horst carried out a raid on a secret bunker used as a detention facility by the Interior Ministry. Many of the detainees had been tortured.

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In addition, Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, commander of the police training effort, said in a recent interview in Baghdad that he personally handed a translated copy of the Leahy amendments to Interior Minister Bayan Jabr in an effort to convince the Iraqi official of the seriousness of the issue.

And as reports of abuses began to emerge, it became clear that it was necessary to focus on the quality of the force, so the 10-week training program now includes 32 hours of instruction on human rights, Peterson said.

And Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, issued a public threat earlier this year to cut off assistance for Iraqi security forces unless they were put under the control of neutral officials.

But the State Department memo and interviews with officials in Iraq make clear that U.S. efforts have been uneven.

The most serious lapse appears to be the failure to identify, vet and track units that have received weapons or other U.S.-financed equipment.

Interior Ministry forces were issued more than 10,000 AK-47 rifles, 16,000 pistols and 800 light and medium machine guns in one recent three-month period, according to a Defense Department report in February.

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The State Department memo says such weapons have been issued to local Interior Ministry police forces nationwide based solely on "hand receipts" signed by any of the 18 provincial police directors in the country.

The official in charge of a province is then free to "subsequently issue [guns] to subordinate units," the memo shows.

The State Department official in Washington said the U.S. military plans to have some of the 2,000 advisers joining Iraqi police units this year hand-check weapons and track their distribution.

Despite the discovery last fall of tortured detainees in the bunker used by the Interior Ministry and promises that other abuses would be probed, "Americans are not inspecting Iraqi detention facilities," said another U.S. diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Sectarian violence in Iraq has increased drastically over the past year.

It has become routine for corpses of Sunni men to appear on the streets of Baghdad. In most cases, witnesses reported that the men had been detained by security forces wearing the uniforms of the U.S.-supported police commandos. That has raised concerns that the commandos acting as anti-Sunni death squads are widespread.

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In some instances, U.S. officials say they suspect insurgents are disguising themselves as police, or that Shiite militias are using police uniforms.

The U.S. military has confirmed the existence of at least one death squad operating under the ministry's auspices, and is convinced others exist.

Jabr, who heads the ministry, is a senior official in the pro-Iranian Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The party's armed wing, the Badr Organization, is suspected of involvement in many of the abuses.

The U.S. military acts on every report of abuse it receives, said Peterson, the police training commander.

"Every time we find abuse, it's reported up the chain of command," he said.

But there still is no formal mechanism within the U.S. Embassy for monitoring or measuring abuses, according to the State Department memo and interviews with U.S. officials.

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Even when the embassy receives handwritten allegations from Iraqis, it does not track such reports, the memo indicates.

A U.S. diplomat in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity, questioned whether it would be useful to withdraw funding from the security forces now that the U.S. police-training effort contains a greater focus on rights.

"There must be a fine line between taking away funding that we think would strengthen human rights at the [Interior Ministry]," she said.

Cam Simpson and Liz Sly write for the Chicago Tribune.


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