BAGHDAD, Iraq - Some 800 Sunni Muslims are among 2,000 newly trained recruits in the Iraqi National Police, a force that a Pentagon report a year ago called a brutal organization infiltrated by Shiite militias and even death squads.
Another 2,000 Sunnis are expected to be trained and to join the National Police in coming months, a U.S. general in Iraq said Thursday.
America's top military policeman in Iraq, Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, praised the move by Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki as creating "a whole different National Police from a year ago."
The Shiite-dominated national police have long been criticized as a sectarian force and accused of extrajudicial killings of Sunnis and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the most powerful Shiite party in the country, has been backed by the Bush administration, and most of its militia members have been absorbed into Iraqi security forces, particularly National Police.
Although it's still small, U.S. government officials and international observers view the number of Sunnis entering the National Police as a signal that the Iraqi government is at least cosmetically concerned with presenting a broader-based, power-sharing structure to both domestic and international audiences.
Phillips, a Cleveland native who'll soon be leaving his post after 16 months as deputy commanding general of the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, made his comments to a small group of U.S. reporters in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone where U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work.
He said the efforts to include more Sunnis in the National Police would be used to help newly trained units "stand up" in such crucial areas as Mosul, Salahuddin, Samarra and al Anbar province, at various times the scenes of bitter sectarian battles and attacks on U.S. forces.
Despite the new Sunnis recruits, who are being trained by Italy's famed Carabinieri, or military police, Iraq's 36,000-strong National Police force remains 90 percent Shia. Even so, Phillips suggested that the police force has become "a counterforce to the (Iraqi) army — there may be a fear if you have just one armed force" in the country.
The general also said that he thought the level of corruption among National Police officers is declining; that they were becoming a "nationalistic force" more than a sectarian one; and that even with the Italian police agency conducting the main training of the Iraqi cops, 10,000 to 15,000 American troops "are touching the policing" to help teach Iraqis such law enforcement techniques as forensic investigation and the use of DNA in investigations.
The self-styled "guy from Cleveland who couldn't afford college" conceded that one area of Iraqi law enforcement remains a major disappointment — the number of female police officers. In the police academy class of April 2004, for example, which numbered around 500, half were young women. However, by the time another class entered in February 2006, there was only one female. "I have never watched an Iraqi female policeman doing what you'd consider police duty," he said.
Such a discrepancy comes at a time when a growing number of female insurgents are becoming suicide bombers. Phillips blamed the lack of female cadets on institutional sexism as reflected in what one Iraqi major general told him: "In this society women don't protect men — men protect women."
In the latest attack on Iraqi police, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest blew himself up Thursday in front of the Police Directorate in Sinjar, in northern Iraq. The blast killed 16 and wounded 16 others.
Qassim Dakheel, the district commissioner of Sinjar, said in a telephone interview that the registration process for police recruits had just ended when the blast occurred. The young men were asked to disperse, but stayed on in hopes of getting jobs with the police.
"The suicide bomber then detonated (the explosives) in the crowd," said Dakheel, who blamed the blast on the Sunni extremist group al Qaida in Iraq. "The victims were from both the police force and young civilian men who came to join."
In a bizarre incident in Tikrit, also in northern Iraq, security officials said they discovered at least 10 men wearing explosive vests and gear hidden in a tanker truck, police said. After a gun battle between Iraqi forces and the driver and a passenger in the truck, both of whom were killed, the security forces found the other men inside and executed them, police officials said.
According to a local police official, however, the identities of the men inside the tanker who were executed remained unknown. He speculated that they were being "smuggled away from or to some destination unknown as yet."
(Tharp reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondent Yasseen Taha contributed from Suleimaniyah and special correspondent Hassan al Jubouri contributed from Tikrit.)