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Sunday, November 19, 2006

The impossible job

Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times
Capt. Stephanie Bagley arrived in Iraq a year
ago expecting to rebuild the police force, having
little idea of how impossible that job would be.

A Captain’s Journey From Hope to Just Getting Her Unit Home

Published: November 19, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 18 — Capt. Stephanie A. Bagley and the military police company she commands arrived in Iraq in December 2005 brimming with optimism about taking on one of the most urgent tasks in Iraq: building a new police force.

Capt. Stephanie Bagley meets frequently with police leaders, like this commander in Balad. “We’re holding their hands so much now,” she said.

Now, as the 21st Military Police Company approaches the end of a deployment marked by small victories and enormous disappointments, Captain Bagley is focused on a more modest goal.

“I just want to get everyone home,” she said. In the past several weeks, Captain Bagley, 30, barred her troops from foot patrols in the most violent neighborhoods and eliminated all nonessential travel. “I’m just not willing to lose another soldier,” she said.

The local police force in her region, as in much of Iraq, remains undertrained, poorly equipped and unable to stand up to the rigors of this conflict. It offers little resistance to the relentless Sunni Arab-led insurgency and has at least partly come under the sway of wily Shiite militias. Casualties are high, morale is low and many police officers do not show up for work.

Captain Bagley, a West Point graduate and the daughter and granddaughter of military policemen, said she has come to realize just how little she and her unit knew when they arrived, and just how much was stacked against their success. The company’s challenges crystallized in a moment late last month during a routine assignment.

Some of her soldiers had gone to the Baya Local Police Station, one of 18 local stations in the troubled southern outskirts of Baghdad where her unit has worked this year. They were picking up a contingent of Iraqi policemen for a daily patrol of Dora, an especially violent neighborhood here in the capital.

On these patrols, the Americans, swaddled in Kevlar from head to hips, travel in Humvees and other armored vehicles. The Iraqis, wearing only bulletproof vests, ride in soft-skinned pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s, the only vehicles they have.

The Iraqi policemen begged the Americans not to make them go out. They peeled off their clothes to reveal shrapnel scars from past attacks. They tugged the armored plates from their Kevlar vests and told the Americans they were faulty. They said they had no fuel for their vehicles. They disappeared on indefinite errands elsewhere in the compound. They said they would not patrol if it meant passing a trash pile, a common hiding place for bombs.

The Iraqis eventually gave up and climbed into two S.U.V.’s with shattered windshields and missing side windows, and the joint patrol moved out. One Iraqi officer draped his Kevlar vest from the window of his car door for lateral protection. During a lunch break, the officers tried to sneak away in their cars.

Later in the day, back at her command center on a military base in southern Baghdad, Captain Bagley said the pleading and excuses were common. But she did not blame the Iraqis. They are soft targets for the insurgency, and scores of officers have been wounded or killed in her area during the past year. The police stations’ motor pools are so crowded with ravaged vehicles that they could be taken for salvage yards.

“I’d never want to go out in an Iraqi police truck,” the captain said. “But we still have to convince them. We’ve been given a job to train them.” But she also points out that her orders were to help train and equip a local force to deal with common crime, like theft and murder, not teach infantry skills to wage a counterinsurgency campaign

If you wouldn't go in an Iraqi truck, why should they?

I've never been in her position, so it would be unfair to sit behind a keyboard and criticize her actions.

I want to hear from people who have.

posted by Steve @ 1:46:00 AM

1:46:00 AM

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