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Seven Days in Baghdad

For one week last April, an LAPD sergeant served as interim chief of the Baghdad police.

December 01, 2003  |  by Mark G. Stainbrook - Also by this author

Sgt. Mark Stainbrook of the Los Angeles Police Department is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves. As a civil affairs officer, he led a team of Marines who tried to rebuild the Iraqi police force in the days immediately following the fall of Baghdad. The following is an excerpt from his journal.

Sunday, 13 April

Smoke still rolled on the horizon and sporadic gunfire could still be heard around the city when I was ordered to report to the Palestine Meridian Hotel for reassignment. For three weeks, the 1st Marine Division had rolled up through the desert from Kuwait and through the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates river, making our way to Baghdad. Now we were in the fabled city, and it was a chaotic mess.

Open combat was still being waged in the streets between coalition forces and remnants of Iraqi regulars and Fedayeen Sadaam guerillas, looters were carting away anything that wasn't bolted down and coming back with bolt cutters for the stuff that was, and fires still burned throughout the sprawling metropolis. Bringing some order to this chaos was now the job of my Marine Corps civil affairs team. We had only been in Baghdad for about 36 hours.

A Civil Military Operations Center had been set up and tasked to coordinate restarting civil infrastructure. Power, water, and sanitation were out in most areas of the city, as were police and fire service. And at the Palestine Hotel, Lt. Col. Pete Zarcone, a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, told me that my team would be split up, and I was to be the police-fire coordinator in the Marine Corps sector of Baghdad. My mission was to get the Baghdad police up and running in our sector and start joint patrols with Marines as soon as possible.

That was all the direction I would operate under, and the only resources I received were two Marines who were police officers back in the states. Fortunately, the Marines assigned to me were good men. I knew Staff Sgt. Jeremy Stafford and Sgt. Jeff Rand from the LAPD. Both are consummate professionals and good cops, more than capable of operating at levels high above their ranks.

Rand was already hard at work when I arrived. A request had gone out over the radio for senior Iraqis to return to their jobs. They were coming into the Palestine to be interviewed.

Several Iraqi police generals even reported. We screened them with preliminary checks and interviewed them, but I was not comfortable with that alone. We had to make sure that they were not Saddam loyalists. Fortunately, a number of independent Iraqi citizens and some regular patrol officers had also come to the hotel, so we questioned them about our pool of candidates.

While Rand coordinated efforts to bring the generals to the Palestine Hotel for further interviews, I had my first of many unpleasant experiences with representatives from the Iraqi National Congress (INC). They had contacted Lt. Col. Zarcone and demanded a say in the appointment of the interim commanding police general.

After a quick meeting with local INC leader Mohammed Zobeidi and his assistant Jamal Jamir, I agreed to meet them the next morning at the Al Wiyah Club, adjacent to the Palestine, for further discussions. They had invited numerous police officials, and we thought it would be a good place to organize and choose a commanding police general.

The INC placated for now, I moved on to the next pressing problem, finding a base of operations. Most of the police and government facilities were bombed, burned, or looted. Someone suggested the old "Police College," a university for the officers of the department.

When we arrived at the Police College, I had to put a positive spin on things. Looters had trashed the place, smoke was still coming out of several buildings, and sniper rounds could be heard on the edges of the compound. But it did have an administration building, plenty of parking, garage facilities, barracks, storage areas that included an armory (the weapons had been looted), and a kitchen. Most importantly, because I felt that only mass arrests would start making an impact on the looting, it had a jail. We had found our new headquarters.

That evening, the day being far from over, Stafford, Rand, and I made some key decisions. Rather than just try to get a couple Marine/Iraqi patrols going, we would reorganize an Iraqi police command staff and a group of officers that could be the core of a future Baghdad police force.

Unfortunately, we discovered that "Iraqi police" is a somewhat vague term. There had been as many as 14 different agencies and some of them, like Saddam's Secret Police, were not only unwelcome in the new Iraqi police, they were subject to arrest themselves.

We soon discovered, however, that Iraq had some real cops, the "Najda" (helping police) and the "Muhrurr" (traffic police). These agencies were basically patrol and traffic police. They were not too close to the regime, and they worked daily with the local citizens. We decided that these guys would be the foundation for the new Baghdad police.

Monday, 14 April

Stafford, Rand, and I headed for the Al Wiyah on foot, but we were stopped by several bank managers who gave us a report of a robbery in progress at the Central Bank district. After reporting the crime to the Command Center, we were back en route, relieving one overzealous security guard of his AK-47 on the way.

The scene at the Al Wiyah was almost as chaotic as the one on the streets. We walked into the meeting hall and saw that it was packed with hundreds of officers yelling at each other and yelling just to be heard.

It was impossible to work in that environment. I requested the use of a smaller room and finally met with police representatives, including General Zohair, General Gazi, and General Bendar, and with the INC's Zobeidi and Jamir. Rand and Stafford had to physically bar the door and forcefully eject a couple of people, but once we started, things settled down. General Zohair was named commander of the new Iraqi police, subject to my boss's approval.

But it was General Gazi who impressed me as someone who got things done. With jet-black hair, sunken eyes, and the quiet but steely demeanor of a Sopranos' gangster, Gazi cut an intimidating figure. But he wasn't a brute. He was a cop and a good one. When he spoke in the meeting, he talked about winning back the trust of the Iraqi people and needing disciplined officers to restore order. I liked Gazi's background and attitude, and asked General Zohair to make him the operations officer, responsible for patrol, traffic, and the security at the headquarters and fixed posts.

After the meeting broke up, Mohamed Zobeidi, the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Baghdad," came up to me smiling and said that he had put out a radio broadcast for all the Iraqi police officers in the city to show up the next day at the police academy. Hearing that, I realized that we were soon going to be overwhelmed with police applicants. I couldn't have been angrier and I let him know it. This wasn't the last time that Zobeidi and other INC representatives caused trouble.

That night I put together a couple of pages of guidelines, rules of engagement (ROE), and a use-of-force continuum for the new Baghdad PD. It ended up being a combination of the Marine Corps' wartime rules of engagement with elements of a basic police use-of-force continuum, which I hoped would not confuse the Iraqi officers. After all, I had no idea of their level of training or what cultural pitfalls I was flirting with.

The last thing we had to do that night was coordinate the patrols with 7th Marines. Maj. Andrew Petrucci, the 7th Marines' assistant operations officer, helped us out, organizing the combined patrols and moving them out. The patrols would consist of at least two Marine armored Humvees with eight Marines and at least one, but preferably two, police vehicles each with four Iraqi officers. The Marines would be in charge of the actual patrol, but they would work with the Iraqi senior officer.

Tags: Military-related


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