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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

Tuesday, 15 April

Thanks to Zobeidi, the number of police officers was increasing rapidly. As the interior of the Academy became chaotic, I decided to bar the flimsy gates and try to make the eager officers line up outside in order to sign up for work. This was nearly impossible because a hole had been crashed through a section of the academy's fence.

As officers streamed in on foot and by vehicle, I thought for sure we would have a riot. There were fights and arguments breaking out everywhere. Everyone wanted to be the first to sign up and the first to go back to work. Patience was wearing thin and tempers were flaring.

The Marine security detail on the gate was soon overrun and I had to have everyone pull back to our Humvees. It was that morning that I learned something very important about Iraq. When things were going like this, it was better to sit back and let the Iraqis work things out their own way. I got General Zohair and General Gazi together and told them to restore order and then see me once they had some control of the place.

They did things their way alright. After about three hours, things started to calm down and I do believe General Gazi was about to have an aneurysm. I saw him threaten several officers with a beating from his piton.

All we needed to make the day complete was the press. And, of course, they showed up. Somehow I ended up on camera with Christiane Amanpour from CNN. The day couldn't have been more surreal. She asked me how I was supposed to get a police department running in all this insanity. I remember telling her that I was just glad that the officers wanted to work, which was in part true, but we needed time to organize them.

Everything died down around noon, and I asked the generals to meet me at the Palestine Hotel so we could discuss some issues. Most important of these was the lack of respect being shown to Staff Sgt. Stafford and Sgt. Rand by some of the senior Iraqi police officers.

This is a common problem with foreign military officers working with U.S. military staff and noncommissioned officers. Their sergeants and junior officers are not usually as educated or knowledgeable as ours, nor do they have the initiative to accomplish tasks that are frequently handled by our enlisted Marines. I addressed that issue and the total lack of control in our new police headquarters. And for the first time in my career, military or police, I yelled at generals and the equivalent of police chiefs. I have to admit that felt good.

We had a mostly cooperative relationship with the Iraqi police staff. They were professionals and the disorder occurring in the city was upsetting to them. The vacuum created by the destruction of the Hussein regime gave every criminal, every ex-regime henchman, and everyone with a beef the opportunity to come out and cause trouble. The Iraqi cops didn't like what was happening. And I didn't blame them. I knew that I would take it personally if Los Angeles were being torn apart like this and I couldn't do anything about it.

And we truly wanted to help them help themselves. So we made it clear that we would work together with them. While they were subordinate to our authority, we treated them as equals and not a conquered people. I tried to clarify that we came to free them from Saddam and that they needed to participate in their future. But that's a pretty tough thing for people who have been under the thumb of a tyrant for three decades.

General Gazi surprised us later that day. He assigned us a security team. Our body guards, Maison and Gasson were Iraqi Christian officers who only had one pistol between them. It didn't matter. Gasson looked like he didn't need a pistol or anything else to take care of business. He was thick and squat, and his nose must have been broken at least three times. He was the kind of guy that people take one look at and decide they don't want to cause any trouble.

Maison and Gasson would become our best friends for the next five days. And they helped solve a cultural issue that was plaguing me. Whenever I stopped to talk with anyone for more than 30 seconds, a crowd of officers gathered. Invariably, a quick stop to correct a problem turned into a half-hour discussion with 10 officers spouting an opinion, question, or comment. Gasson took care of that immediately. He made sure that nobody approached me without permission.

Later that day, the new Baghdad PD went into business. We assembled the group of approximately 25 Iraqi officers who would go on the first joint patrol. But before they hit the streets, I called everyone together for roll call and gave them an hour lecture on the rules of engagement, guidelines for dealing with civilians, how to work with Marines, and making arrests. I didn't want any mistakes.

Funny thing. As I spoke to these Iraqi cops, I noticed I got the stare and the head-to-toe visual inspection from most of the officers. Any cop would recognize what they were doing. They were looking to see if I packed the gear. It reminded me that cops must be the same the world over.

And just like cops the world over, they were wary of the "new guys." As we walked out into the parking lot, the place looked like a high school dance, Marines on one side and Iraqis on the other, all looking at each other but no one making the first move. So I decided to make the first move. Maj. Petrucci, Lt. Col. Jassin of the Iraqi police, and I sent out the first patrol and after that everything went smoothly. During the rest of the week, some Marines and Iraqis even requested to go out in the same teams. They were becoming partners. It was a surprising but welcome development.

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