Drawing in Jello: US Obligations Toward Iraqi Police Development


Presentation for the International Symposium for Military Ethics 2007




LTC Tony Pfaff


In September 2006, Reuters reported the US Ambassador to Iraq considered suspending funding for development of Iraq’s police forces because the Ministry of Interior (MOI) failed to punish National Police officials implicated in detainee abuse at a National Police facility known as “Site 4.” Citing the Leahy Amendment, the Ambassador said that the US cannot support organizations involved in human rights abuse.[1] 

Despite the reasonableness of this response, implementing this policy would pose ethical difficulties for US personnel working with Iraqi security forces. The Leahy Amendment was originally established to prevent US tax payer complicity with human rights abuses by foreign governments’ security forces.[2] Interpreted narrowly, this sentiment, if not the law itself, would largely preclude providing Iraqi security forces any US tax payer funded support, given the difficulty of reforming the force. However, international agreements, as well as jus post bellum considerations, also obligate the US to establish a legitimate government in Iraq, capable of providing justice for the Iraqi people. These two imperatives—not to knowingly support organizations involved in human rights abuses and to provide legitimate security institutions for the Iraqi people, routinely clash in Iraq.


This clash causes a great deal of friction, not to mention moral confusion, in US efforts to develop Iraqi security forces.  This moral confusion manifests itself at times in the attitudes US personnel exhibit towards the Iraqi security forces.  For example, during a briefing on the significant increase in the capabilities of the Iraqi police given to the Secretaries of State and Defense, a senior State Department official, referring to certain police units, reportedly stated, “Madame Secretary, it doesn’t matter—they’re still evil.”


This casual dismissal of efforts to improve the Iraqi police forces accurately captures the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” response that has resulted from the failure to successfully resolve the tension between the obligation to provide basic security needs to the Iraqi people and prevent ethical and human rights abuses. As of this writing, there are still reports of detainee abuse, sectarian influence and widespread corruption among police forces, making it reasonable to question whether the US can in fact impact the successful development of an Iraqi police force capable of providing for the basic security needs of the Iraqi people in a democratic environment.


To fully appreciate these competing obligations, this paper will first describe US obligations toward the Iraqi people in a post bellum environment where the transfer to sovereignty and elections has already occurred. The paper will then explore the political, organizational, and cultural constraints which exist in the Iraqi security forces and inhibit their ethical development and which conflict with US obligations. Finally, this paper will outline a path to resolve these difficulties.



US Obligations to Iraqi Police Force Development


To fully understand the nature of the dilemma the US faces, we must first establish what obligations the US has towards Iraqi security force development. According to Philosopher Michael Walzer, just wars are fought to establish a better state of peace, and “better” in this context means more secure than the status quo ante bellum.[3]  In traditional just war theories, which typically view justice as the absence of aggression against a sovereign state, this  has meant leaving in place a government that will not be a threat to other states.  These theories have had little to say about the internal justice of the defeated country, other than to state, as Walzer does, that it must be “safer for ordinary men and women and for their domestic self-determinations.”[4] While this vague injunction suggests the US has an obligation to restore stability in Iraq, it says nothing about how it should fulfill that obligation. As long as the internal situation does not threaten the political sovereignty or territorial integrity of other countries, the theory is relatively silent on what political arrangements—including type of government—the victor must establish in the country. International law, in the form of the 1907 Hague Convention does place the responsibility for the security of the defeated nation’s citizens in the hands of an occupying force; however it is silent on those obligations once the occupying force departs.[5]


While the 1907 Hague Convention stipulates these arrangements should benefit the citizens of the defeated country, it does not specify what those arrangements should be. Further, it does not specify what obligations the victor has after it has restored sovereignty to the defeated nation. Many jus post bellum thinkers will argue that sovereignty is restored after democratic elections are held for a new government,[6] which suggests that once the new government is in place, the victor’s moral obligations are fulfilled. However, the lesson of Iraq is that a democratically elected government is not sufficient or even necessary for a level of stability that would satisfy Walzer’s criteria above. Further, the instability in Iraq is creating a permissive environment for terrorism, which is itself a threat to the sovereignty of other nations.


But Walzer notes that the just ends of war are “relative in character.” The threat of future aggression need not be eliminated, just reduced. Citizens of the defeated nation need not be invulnerable, just less vulnerable. They need not be safe, just safer. As Walzer states, “Just wars are limited wars; there are moral reasons for statesmen and soldiers who fight them to be prudent and realistic.”[7] Therefore prudence places limits on how relative these criteria can be. It does not do any good to say citizens are less vulnerable or more safe if they are still left vulnerable and unsafe. Thus we need to identify the criteria a minimally just state of affairs must meet if the victor is to fulfill the requirements of a just war.


According to Walzer, the right of a government to claim political sovereignty and territorial integrity rests on its ability to guarantee the rights of life and liberty of its citizens.[8] This does not mean it will always be successful, but it does mean that in general the security institutions which support the government will be capable of defending its citizens from external aggression, internal threats to its sovereignty, and crime. Brian Orend, in The Morality of War, further argues that a government is minimally just if it is: “1) generally recognized as such by their own people and the international community; 2) avoids violating the rights of other countries 3) makes every reasonable effort to satisfy the human rights of their own citizens, even if they lack the resources to achieve the standard perfectly.[9]” The advantage of Orend’s framework is it allows us to take into consideration cultural and political realities without betraying the fundamental moral ideal. It does not matter how rights to life and liberty are understood, or if honest efforts to uphold those rights are always successful, as long as the government maintains the consent of the governed.


However, despite the successful election in December 2005, where more than 76% of the population voted, Iraq has yet to develop a functional government capable of defending the rights of life and liberty of its citizens. Thus, as of 28 November 2006, the United Nations Security Council again extended the Multi-National Force mandate to “take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq,” provided it has the consent of the sovereign, legitimately elected Iraqi government. But this is a permission, not an obligation. This mandate is contingent, according to the language of the resolution, on the willingness of the Coalition as well as the Iraqi government.[10] Nor does the resolution explain how these obligations must be fulfilled.  Certainly, as long as the Coalition accepts the mandate, it must take the interest of Iraqis into account,[11] but how it takes these interests into account is up to the discretion of the Coalition’s members.


Fully articulating US obligations to Iraq is further complicated by the fact that sovereignty has been transferred to an elected Iraqi government, but one that has yet to develop the capability to meet the demands of minimum justice, as defined by Orend. The reasons for this are complicated and beyond the scope of this paper to fully explain. However, despite the elections, many Iraqis have yet to consent to its governance. Thus, while the government attempts to build political consensus, the current UN mandate has allowed the Coalition to share elements required to govern, namely the monopoly on the use of force, with the Iraqi government.


This leads to an important question. If a deep, patterned, and genuinely widespread resistance has developed, is it appropriate to call the current government legitimate? If the government is not legitimate, would it then be permissible to continue supporting police force development, in the hopes a legitimate government will emerge?  


The trouble with rejecting the legitimacy of the current Iraqi government based on the level of resistance to it, is that there is no one resistance opposing one political process or entity. The Sunni resistance, which is the greatest threat to the current Shia-dominated government, opposes the Coalition and the Shia-dominated government. Some Shia militant groups, on the other hand, oppose the Sunnis and the government, despite holding key positions within that government. In addition, the various Shia and Sunni militant groups often conflict with each other as they attempt to establish their power bases in cities throughout Iraq.


Further, there is no broad consensus on how to increase government functionality and boost its legitimacy among all elements of the Iraqi population. As the Iraq Study Group’s findings noted, it is not clear that any strategy will lead to success.[12] This has caused many in the US to argue that what is morally obligated is to depart Iraq as soon as possible. This brings us to our first major argument regarding what the US owes Iraq.


An important criterion for a just war is a reasonable chance for success. Even in a just cause, it makes no moral or practical sense to continue to risk lives and property to continue to fight if there is no chance of victory.[13] Whether this is the case in Iraq is beyond the scope of this paper to determine, but it does make sense to raise this issue in the context of developing Iraqi security services. According to noted scholar Juan Cole:


The US military cannot shore up this (the Iraqi) government, even with an extra division, because the government is divided against itself. Most of the major parties trying to craft legislation are also linked to militias on the streets who are killing one another. It is over with. Iraq is in for years of heavy political violence of a sort that no foreign military force can hope to stop.”[14]

If Dr Cole is correct, then it also makes no sense, to continue to provide support for Iraqi security forces or even to substitute US forces in their place. It does not do any good to say the US owes stability, democracy, or security to Iraq if it cannot provide it.  If that is the case, then risking lives and spending tax payer’s money to build Iraq’s security forces is not morally defensible.


However, as Charles Beitz pointed out in Political Theory and International Relations, the ideal cannot be undermined simply by pointing out that it cannot be achieved at present. He points out that one needs to distinguish between two classes of reasons for which it is impossible to implement an ideal. One class includes obstacles that can be, in theory at least, modified over time. The other includes impediments that are unalterable and unavoidable. Only in the second case can one appeal to the claim of impossibility in arguing against fulfilling an ideal. [15] This paper will argue that while political, organizational, and cultural impediments to establishing a functioning, democratic police force are immense, and perhaps unavoidable, with culturally sensitive engagement, they are, in principle, alterable. 


It is beyond the scope of this paper, however, to determine whether efforts in Iraq will ultimately be successful at creating a stable, minimally just government. Such an outcome depends on a number of factors such as development of a functioning judicial system, building political consensus for the current government, and economic development which fall far outside the purview of police force development. But even Dr Cole’s comments indicate there will eventually be a resolution. Whether the US is able to affect that resolution, morally or  practically, will depend on continued engagement. 


One can argue that continued involvement of US forces sufficiently conforms with utilitarian requirements to do more good than harm. As long as the prospect for a minimally just government exists, it will always be easy to argue that Iraqi forces are owed US support, since this will inevitably yield more good than harm. This utilitarian approach requires tolerating some injustice, but argues that the future benefit of engagement will overcome these harms. But the weaknesses in utilitarian arguments in general make this position ultimately unsatisfying. Most important of these objections is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell if the future benefit will ever be realized. Further, by not setting limits on the amount of injustice that must be tolerated before support is withheld, this approach risks making the American taxpayer complicit in significant moral harms with no commensurate benefit.


However, the bright line of withholding support if certain ethical and humanitarian standards are not met is unsatisfying as well.  This absolutist position allows the US to underscore its opposition to such abuse, but comes at the cost of impeding the fulfillment of its larger ethical obligation to restore justice. This is also not satisfactory for the obvious reason that rather than solving the problem, it does not recognize there is one, since the answer is to distance the US from Iraqi forces regardless of the consequences.


If we accept that the US is morally obligated to establish a more just situation than existed before hostilities, then establishing a capable civil security force is a moral obligation. This is because such a force is necessary, though not sufficient, to providing the state with a monopoly on the use of force, which is itself a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to providing justice. The question which remains is how much, if any, injustice may be tolerated to establish a capable police force.


Understanding Iraqi Police Forces


Critical to understanding the complexity of this problem is how political, cultural, and operational factors contribute to the climate of abuse and corruption. The factions that compose Iraq’s government also sponsor militias which compete with it and have not truly yielded the monopoly of the use of force to one central government. In some cases, elements of these parties have attempted to co-opt and intimidate security forces to serve their own sectarian ends.  At the local level, conflicts between these interests are further complicated by political, economic, tribal, and even family concerns.  At every level, culturally-driven loyalties further complicate efforts to establish a police force that serves the people, rather than the government (or in some cases local interests), as it did under Saddam’s regime.


Political and Cultural Constraints:


A fractured government coupled with complex cultural factors has created a difficult environment in which even dedicated Iraqi security officers and government officials find it difficult to make progress in building a capable police force. As each party attempts to expand its power and political influence, it does so by attempting to increase its influence in Iraq’s security forces. Not only is there high-level brokering for ministry leadership, but at the lowest levels parties compete for control over individual police stations and key officers. As a result, much of the cooption and intimidation of Iraqi police forces comes from sources external to the force and is aimed at mid-level commanders and other officials. In many cases, these mid-level officials are ill-equipped to defend themselves from retribution if they fail to cooperate.


The Ministry’s ability to deal with this corruption is further complicated by the decentralized nature of the new Iraqi police system, where hiring and firing of individual police and their leadership is largely in the hands of the provincial government, rather than the Ministry of Interior. This new political reality, coupled with influence by outside sectarian forces, has made it difficult for reforms at the top to have significant impact at lower levels. In fact, it has set up parallel reform and reconstruction efforts, where ministry development—including improvements in the ability of the ministry to support police operations are filtered through provincial governments which have their own interests and agendas.


Paraphrasing Hobbes, when authority breaks down and a society collapses into a state of nature, “men will do anything to avoid being poor and solitary.”[16] According to Thomas Friedman, describing the situation in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, “man’s natural state is as a social animal who will do anything he can to seek out and create community and structures when the larger government or society disappears.”[17] Just as in Lebanon, Iraqis are tied together by “interlocking bonds of family, friendship, and religion.” These bonds are then given moral, as well as practical, weight based on how the individual places values on the different elements of his identity. And as sociologist Jeremy Boissevain notes, “in a situation of conflict persons will attempt to define the situation and align themselves in such a way that the least possible damage is done to their basic values and to their important personal relations.”[18]  Iraqis, like most Arabs, identify first with the immediate family, then the extended family or clan, then the village, and the tribe, followed by his country and his religious sect.[19]


This values and considerations will impact the moral decision making of Iraqi police and their leaders, especially as long as it is unclear that the government that will emerge will be one to which they will consent. In the current security and political environment, this means Iraqis at all levels will give greater moral weight to the concerns of those closest to them rather than to civic or even religious duties. In the Iraqi context, this means loyalty to the party, most of which are largely made up of those who share common identities, will often supersede loyalty to the government. This is how the Shia parties can band together to win the national elections, but then resort to violence to establish power bases at the local level, where these otherwise reinforcing bonds conflict.

An example of how these competing loyalties complicate police reform, is the violence which erupted in Amarah, the capital of the Maysan province, after the withdrawal of British forces in October of 2006. The competition between the Badr Organization and its rival Jaysh al Mahdi, both of whom are part of the same Shia Alliance which won January 2006’s national election,[20] resulted in a chaotic struggle which the police were ineffective to quell. According to press reports, the fighting in Amarah began when the head of police intelligence for the Maysan province, Qassim al Tamimi, who was also associated with the Badr Organization was killed by a road side bomb, they believed planted by Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM), the militant faction loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr. The Badr Organization, which had a significant presence in the police, then retaliated by kidnapping the brother of the JAM commander and demanding the handover of Tamimi’s killers. This led to clashes between the groups – all of whom had representatives in the local police force and provincial government. As a result of these clashes, 22 civilians were killed.[21]

This confused political atmosphere also complicated Iraqi police development in Babil province. There the police chief, whose brother was reportedly a member of the Dawa Party, was profoundly politically neutral and pro-Coalition. By all accounts of US personnel working with him, he was committed to democracy and a unified Iraq. He resisted efforts by the provincial council, which was heavily influenced by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Dawa, and to a lesser extent JAM (and other members of the Shia alliance), who wanted to increase their influence in the police. The council repeatedly tried to by-pass standard recruiting practices to get loyalists into police training—displacing hundreds of Sunnis who had been promised spots at the academy through the appropriate process—with the purpose of increasing sectarian control over an ethnically diverse province.


Eventually, in frustration, the council voted to fire him, which, in accordance with Iraqi law, it had the right to do. If it had been successful, the council would have been able to solidify sectarian control over the province and isolate the Sunnis in the north and increase the likelihood of unrest. In fact, in response to previous attempts by the council, Sunnis leaders threatened demonstrations at the police academy had their candidates been displaced. However, the Minister of Interior at the time, Bayan Jabr, himself a member of SCIRI, intervened to prevent the police chief’s dismissal.[22] It is difficult to explain exactly why he did this. It could have been because he wanted to preserve a competent an experienced police chief, but most likely it was out of deference to his senior US advisors with whom he enjoyed a good relationship, it is difficult to know.  If the latter is in fact the reason, this underscores the importance for US advisors to develop good relationships with the Iraqis they work with, as it is one of the most efficient means to effect reform. If advisors can become part of the moral decision making process, they stand a better chance of serving the US’s as well as the Iraqi’s interests.


An interesting story told to the author by advisors to the Babil police department underscores the point that even a just policy force may not always function in accordance with Western norms. In this incident, the police chief’s brother was implicated in the murder of a member of a rival party. But rather than arrest him, the police chief paid “blood money” to the victim’s family, in accordance with Iraqi custom. In a Western setting, this kind of familial favoritism would have resulted in grounds to fire the police chief, if not prosecute him. In the Iraqi context, his actions can be considered skillful keeping of the peace which ultimately upheld both the duty of the police chief to maintain the peace and the deeply seeded communal values of Iraqi society. 


Culturally-driven considerations also result in considerable variation in terms of how subordinates, even those accused of violating Iraqi law, are treated. In early 2006, US Advisors confronted the Minister of Interior over allegations that a certain police brigade commander abused detainees.  This brigade was considered highly successful as its operations had substantially decreased insurgent activity in its area of operations.  Still, the Minister agreed to relieve the commander, but only after US officials threatened to withhold support to the unit. However, a few months later, the commander turned up on the Ministry’s staff.


The reappearance of this officer caused many on the US side to question the sincerity of the Minister, and the Ministry in general, to seriously engage on the issue of human rights abuse. Under the absolutist view, this would be sufficient grounds to withhold support from the Ministry. The Minister’s failure to remove this officer from Ministry service (much less his failure to prosecute him) indicated that effective measures, as required by the Leahy Amendment, were not in place.


But what this absolutist approach failed to consider was how cultural and political constraints impacted on the way the Iraqi leadership could deal with the situation. In the West, we tend to view justice in terms of holding individuals responsible for the rules they break. In determining how to handle violations, the only considerations Westerners believe typically take into account are those that pertain to the individual’s ability to understand right and wrong in that particular case and their ability to avoid that wrong. This may not eliminate responsibility, but it does tend to mitigate our judgments about the individual’s liability. This is not true in Iraq.


As noted above, what will also matter to Iraqis is the relationship of the subordinate to the person in authority. The number and quality of overlapping ties exist between the two individuals will affect how the person in authority punishes the subordinate, if at all. This is large part due to the fact that in many Middle Eastern cultures, one is not viewed as an individual, but rather as a member of a community, whether it be family, clan, or tribe. Thus, when harm comes to the individual, it is felt by the community and the community then is obligated to redress the grievance.[23] When one shares this community with the person being punished, one’s relations with one’s own community can be greatly complicated, especially if other communities or interests benefit. As a result, depriving the brigade commander of his livelihood could create a number of political enemies for the ministry, undermining its effectiveness and putting its members at risk.[24] This last point is important. What Westerners may view as crass favoritism may be justifiable in the Iraqi context as a proper expression of filial loyalties as well as the most efficient means to achieve the larger organizational and even moral goals. It will take an experienced advisor to tell the difference between the simple, destructive sectarian favoritism which does occur in Iraqi security forces from skillful, nuanced moral decision making.


This situation is further complicated by an organizational culture that does not necessarily see the commander’s behavior as wrong, or at least views it as justifiable given the extreme circumstances.[25] From a cultural perspective, the brigade commander’s community would then have a cultural obligation to act, violently if necessarily, in response to the loss of one of their community member’s livelihood. This means that in order to serve a large number of competing interests, Iraqi leaders will seek to find a way to balance them all, giving weight to the interest of those closest to them. This will manifest itself in what will appear to be very inconsistent treatment of those suspected of corruption. But if US advisors attempt to constrain an Iraqi’s options by attempting to impose the same punishment for each offense, they may undermine that person’s ability to affect real change.


This is not to say that there will not be times when US advisors should not threaten to withhold support or even take enforcement into their own hands. As will be discussed below, it is an important tool US officials can use to motivate Iraqi leaders to take action. The question is how to wield this tool without compromising other moral obligations. When used judiciously, this can have the positive effect of relieving pressure from the Iraqi leadership, allowing them to take action, without suffering setbacks which can undermine their position within the community and ultimately their ability to lead. Knowing when to threaten extreme action or to tolerate some inconsistency will depend on the quality of the relationship US advisors have with the people they advise.    



Organizational and Leadership Constraints 


Iraq’s thirty years of brutal dictatorship, resource limitations, and the brutality of current hostilities, has created conditions leading to detainee abuse which sincere efforts on the part of US and Iraqi officials have not been able to eliminate. The occasional revelations of such abuses have gone a long way to stoke popular animosity towards the government and further divide the Iraqi public. In addition to a higher tolerance for treatment we would categorize as abusive, Iraq’s authoritarian legacy has left it with a leadership that respects authority but which does not accept responsibility for orders they did not give. This decoupling of authority and responsibility has created a situation where Iraqi leadership, some of whom were victims of torture themselves, sincerely denounce torture, but also do not see themselves as responsible for eliminating it from their organizations. This is further complicated by the role confession plays in the Iraqi justice system. In this section, several examples will be discussed which illustrate these points.


There are numerous examples to illustrate the difficulty in getting a handle on detainee abuse in Iraq. In January 2004, the following story was related to the author by British soldiers in Basra. They had recently established a police intelligence unit whose responsibility was to assist local security forces in targeting insurgent forces in the area. They reported that they had left the unit alone for a few weeks, and when they returned they found evidence of detainee abuse, including devices used in torture. When they told the intelligence unit this practice would not be tolerated, the incredulous Iraqis asked, “how else do you get a confession?” This story is important, because it underscores the importance of confession in law influenced by Islamic thought.[26]


While Islamic law (Sharia) accords confession a special evidentiary status, it does not permit judges to accept confessions which are coerced. However, this reasonable constraint was perverted under Saddam’s regime where torture was frequently resorted to obtain confessions in order to provide a veneer of legitimacy for otherwise unjust legal proceedings. Today, confession is often the only evidence available to the judges of the barely-functional Iraqi courts to help them decide whether to convict a suspect. Poor records maintenance and inexperienced police investigators, coupled with a great deal of distrust between Ministry of Justice investigators and the police has made it difficult provide comprehensive and compelling forensic evidence to the courts. This often means confession will be the most reliable means to a conviction. Given the pressure resulting from the current poor security environment, it is not surprising some interrogators will go to extreme lengths to ensure a conviction. Thus in part, eliminating detainee abuse will be greatly facilitated by increasing the capacity of the Iraqi courts and investigators.


How the Iraqi police leadership interpret their duties and responsibilities also impacts on the efforts to eliminate detainee abuse.  The following incident illustrates this point. When the abuse was uncovered at Site 4, US advisors confronted the National Police commanders who were responsible for the units which operated the site.  At first, the senior National Police leadership rejected any responsibility for the incident since they had not, in fact, authorized the abuse. In fact, while the abusive treatment was facilitated by members of the National Police, it was actually conducted by interrogators who belonged to a separate organization, which made them difficult to identify. Thus in the view of the National Police leadership, their organization was not responsible for the abuse since they had not ordered it nor were the personnel under their direct control responsible for it, despite the fact the detainees remained in National Police custody throughout the time of the abuse. Therefore, they were slow in taking action against the perpetrators and facilitators until US officials threatened to withhold support.


From the perspective of the individual guards involved, they were simply following orders, which in Iraqi security services, like the old Soviet military on which they were based, is considered to be the highest duty.[27] This is especially so in the Iraqi context, where failure to follow orders could have severe consequences for one and one’s family. Thus, in an environment where following orders is the highest value, the maxim, “do not torture,” which many will readily accept, does not translate as “do not permit torture” especially when other authority figures are present,


This organizational climate creates a kind of “responsibility vacuum” where those at the top have all the authority, but only consider themselves responsible for what they order others to do, and then only if they were the originator of the order. At the bottom, the individual has all the responsibility for ensuring they accomplish assigned tasks successfully, but no responsibility (or authority) to question or modify those orders. In such an environment, it is not hard to see how persons in intermediate or lateral authority can undermine genuine reforms emanating from the top.


In such a confused situation, the only recourse is to raise the issue to the ministry level. But then any ensuing investigation becomes one more burden for an overly taxed administration to manage. This almost guarantees that despite the best intentions of the investigator, the investigation itself will take a long time to complete. Further, this can also allow those who are guilty of abuse time to cover up evidence.


At this point it is worth mentioning some of the difficulties in addressing specific allegations of abuse. The author once received a phone call from a member of the US military who worked on the US Embassy staff. He had just received a phone call from a high ranking member of the Ministry of Defense (MOD) who reported that three close relatives were arrested on suspicion of being insurgents and were being held at “the MOI hospital” in Yarmuk since they were injured during the arrest. The official added that they were being denied treatment by “MOI intelligence.” He reported that one had died and the others would die as well. 


In investigating the incident, it was discovered that the Yarmuk Hospital was indeed under control of the Ministry of Health (MOH), which is headed by a minister close to the radical Shia cleric Muqtadah Sadr. The confrontation was not between the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense, but between Facilities Protection Service (FPS) forces of the MOH and MOD.  The Iraqi had misidentified the security service as MOI because under Saddam, FPS forces did fall under the MOI and wore uniforms closely resembling police. They were moved to control of the individual ministries by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in order to prevent too much power accumulating under one ministry, but outwardly, they look very much like Iraqi police. There are plans to address FPS command and control issues. There are also plans to change their uniforms so they will be more easily distinguished from MOI forces.  But at the time of this writing, this has not yet happened.


This was not an isolated incident. The author received a number of calls to investigate illegal detention or abuse by MOI forces only to find that the accusations were baseless. This does not mean there were not a number of times when the allegations were accurate, but Iraqis are all too quick to cry “Wolf Brigade,”[28] when confronted with the increasing violence in Iraq. This can make holding MOI forces accountable difficult since the first reaction of higher level officials is to conclude such abuse was the fault of units that either look like the police (such as the FPS) or who have disguised themselves as police.


Despite this confusion between authority and responsibility,  it would be wrong to conclude that MOI leadership does not take eliminating human rights abuses seriously. Jawad al Bolani, who had just taken over as Minister when the Site 4 incident occurred, visited the detainees after being briefed by US advisors on the nature and extent of the abuse. During the visit he apologized to the detainees, spent time discussing with the detainees their role in a future Iraq, and instructed the National Police leadership present to provide the detainees with food, water, and other necessities they were lacking. Of particular note, he told the senior police officer present that there were good people in the cells and they should be treated as such. The author was present at this incident and was struck when the detainees applauded the minister when he left.


When the incident first occurred, National Police leaders did arrest a number of guards and interrogators suspected of participating in the abuse. Yet a few days later, some of those arrested were seen going about their duties. After continued US pressure, including the threat by Ambassador Khalilzad to withhold support, many of the perpetrators were re-arrested and at the time of this writing, are reportedly still in custody.  Whether they will be meaningfully punished for the abuse is at this moment a matter for the Iraqis. But Iraqi security force development is full of stories of mixed results where apparent sincerity does not translate into the kind of transformation necessary to rid Iraqi security forces of abuse, corruption, and sectarianism. But what is equally evident is that many in the Iraqi leadership are committed to overcoming this situation and establishing a just and equitable police force.  


What may be an important indicator of the potential, as well as the pitfalls of the ethical development of Iraqi police are the results of a survey conducted by the MOI’s Center for Ethics and Human Rights. According to the survey, Iraqi police consistently related themselves high in terms of ethical behavior, but peers and superiors lower. Further, the survey indicated that Iraqi police valued loyalty, service, honor and duty over justice, religious commitment, and trust.[29] This is to be expected in autocratic organizations where initiative is stifled and decisions about right and wrong are only for those at the top. But the fact that this survey was conducted by Iraqi police for the purpose of developing programs to address these shortcomings indicates that there is hope for transformation as well.



Progress in developing an ethical Iraqi police force


It is tempting in the face of such difficulties to abandon support for the Iraqi police forces. The appearance of success without the corresponding improvements on the ground can make working with Iraqi police forces morally analogous to drawing on Jello. The image lasts for a few moments, but it disappears quickly. But it is important as well to acknowledge the measures the Ministry has taken to promote an effective, humane police force. To understand what must count as genuine progress, we must first establish what standards the Ministry should meet if it is said to meet the minimum requirements of justice.


To support a government that meets Orend’s criteria, a  minimally just police force will require an institution that is both transparent and capable of policing itself. It will also require the ability to create and sustain a culture of democratic, humane policing, at least to the level of regional standards. To these ends, the ministry has taken some first steps to reduce sectarianism, detainee abuse, and corruption by increasing awareness, transparency, and the capability to police itself.


The Ministry has increased awareness by supporting extensive ethics training for police recruits and has established an ethics center to further institutionalize ethics training not only at the academies, but in the field as well. To this end, the center has produced curriculum specifically aimed at eliminating detainee abuse and even completed an ethical climate survey of the Iraqi police mentioned previously. What is most remarkable is that these events occurred despite the kidnapping and murder of the center’s director, BG Osama Badri. Despite this setback, the center has still been able to recruit qualified Iraqis to serve on the staff.


The Ministry leadership has increased transparency and its ability to police itself by establishing an independent Internal Affairs organization that reports to directly to the Minister. Further, the Ministry has relieved a number of commanders for detainee abuse and corruption. And as in the Babil province case, the Ministry has enforced fair hiring practices, even in the face of political pressure to do otherwise. It is difficult to fully explain all the factors that contribute to this progress or to determine if this progress will be lasting. But what the previous examples demonstrate that at least two things are clear: 1) Iraqis are capable of building such a force, though sometimes they lack the will to stand up to sectarian and criminal pressures and 2) Iraqis are more likely to find the will to stand up to these pressures when they have good relationships with Coalition partners who can provide resources and moral support. 


Finally, it is important to note that thousands of Iraqis continue to join the ranks of the police, despite the force suffering incredible losses, because they realize that their future is wrapped up in the success of the police force.[30] They realize that the real battle for Iraq is occurring within the security forces. If the US wants to influence that battle, then close cooperation with the Iraqi police forces is a moral imperative.  The police are an arm of the state and the ability of the police to function justly and morally impacts on the ability of the State to govern peacefully.



A framework for meeting US moral obligations:


While we have described the nature of the difficulties involved, we have also described reasons for hope that change, over time, is possible. If this analysis is correct, then Beitz’s condition that it is not permissible to abandon an ideal if the impediments to it are alterable, is met, and the obligation to develop Iraq’s police forces remains. We have also established that withholding US support can be an effective tool to gain compliance by Iraqi forces; however, using that tool to broadly deny support to the Iraqi police can conflict with US obligations to establish a minimally just government in Iraq.


To determine how to resolve potential conflicts, we need to establish the limits of that obligation. So far we have only applied a utilitarian approach to assessing support for Iraqi police, despite evidence of corruption and detainee abuse. But we have not established the limits for this support. It clearly is not permissible to tolerate any injustice simply because there is hope for future benefits, but in the same way, we need to establish limits on the use of methods which can affect police force development.


US efforts to develop an ethical police force have largely focused on institution building and partnering, which are aimed at training the police before they go the field and then to reinforce that training once police are at their stations. Institution building efforts have been largely aimed at developing effective police academies as well as a ministry capable of sustaining and developing the force. This component of Coalition engagement allows for ethics education in entry level classes which will reinforce ethical policing norms as part of the Iraqi police identity. Partnering with police in the field allows for an extra layer of transparency which gives dedicated Iraqis the cover to stand up to corruption, abuse, and sectarian influences. Security concerns as well as limited numbers and resources have made faster progress difficult, but this analysis suggests that continued, if not expanded, engagement on these two levels will be essential to developing an effective and ethical police force.


To establish institutions capable of developing and administering an ethical police force, implementing an approach which is sensitive to the culture and environment is more important than a strict compliance based approach. But as noted above, successful reform of the police force will require sustained will on the part of the Iraqis, increased institutional capacity for administration as well as self-policing, and relatively open access to Iraqi police facilities and operations. This suggests, then, that continued support for this process should be contingent on the possibility of continued reform as evidenced by:


1) Continued support by senior Iraqi leadership for reforming the ethical and human rights culture of the police assessed in terms of willingness to devote resources to enforcing Iraqi law and regulations as well as establishing and maintaining a ethnically and confessional balanced force;


2) Continued development and support for ethics training and education. Despite high-level support, other factors can undermine the developing of the requisite educational and training institutions necessary to acculturate a new generation of Iraqi police to democratic and humane policing. If these factors overwhelm or undermine execution of robust ethical training programs, then support should be withheld until the situation can be rectified. The exception to this would be any efforts by Coalition advisors to get these programs back on track;


3) A functioning, independent internal affairs and inspector general as evidenced by measurable increases in arrests and prosecutions of Iraqi police suspected of sectarianism, abuse, and/or corruption.


4) Access for US partners as well as non-governmental organizations to all levels of Iraqi police and MOI organizations and facilities. 


Additionally, this analysis suggests that US advisors and policy makers should establish intermediate sanctions, short of withholding support for the whole ministry, which can motivate, and give cover to, Iraqis who are trying to reform the police forces. This analysis also suggests that use of broad withholding of support is permissible when hope for continued reform has evaporated. But it should only be used with the intent to alter that behavior. This way, application of this measure does not violate US obligations since the obligation is removed when hope evaporates.  This analysis also suggests increasing the level of Coalition partnering with police forces in the field should be a part of any continued engagement with Iraqi security forces since only Coalition forces can provide the required oversight to ensure transparency at the local level and prevent sectarian or criminal influences from overwhelming local police forces. 





Developing Iraq’s security forces has proven to be one of the most complex tasks undertaken by the US military in many years. To successfully and ethically meet US moral obligations, military commanders working with Iraq’s nascent security ministries must directly confront corruption and human rights abuse. But to do this effectively, they will require latitude to account for political and cultural complexities in dealing with these forces which an absolutist view does not permit. But it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water and commanders must not use these complexities to excuse turning a blind eye to abuses. Otherwise we lose sight of the larger moral aims we hope to achieve. Otherwise, commanders risk violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the Leahy Amendment.  


Perhaps the best indicator of hope is evidenced by a conversation the author had with a senior MOI official who had a reputation for corruption. During a discussion about resourcing the ethics center, the official enthusiastically agreed to support it. This is of course easy to dismiss as bluster for the benefit of the Coalition members present and would have been dismissed as such had he not added his reasons for his endorsement. He stated that he had lived in Europe for over a dozen years after fleeing Iraq in the 1980s. He stated that he noted a difference between the way the European police and Iraqi police treated their citizens, and he preferred the European way. The US may not be able to rid the Iraqi police of all corruption and abuse, but this brief conversation indicates that Iraqi leaders do have a vision of what good, democratic policing looks like. It will just take US and Coalition support to get it there. 


LTC Tony Pfaff: The author is a Middle East Foreign Area Officer who has spent two tours in Iraq, including nine months working as the Senior Advisor for the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team as the Senior Advisor.




[1] Reuters, “US Threatens to Cut Back IP Funding,” Sat 30 Sept 2006

[2] The Leahy Amendment is a part of each appropriations bill and as such is different for each bill. It is not the purpose of this paper to address the legal complexities of the amendment nor to determine if it, as attached to any particular appropriations bill, will interfere (or promote) Iraqi security force development. The language for the Leahy Amendment for 2006 reads as follows: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be provided to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights, unless the Secretary determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the government of such country is taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.”

[3] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 2ed  (New York: Basic Books, 1977, 1992)  p. 121.

[4] Ibid. 121-122

[5] Documents on the Laws of War, Adam Roberts and Richard Guelff, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) pp. 55-57.

[6] Brian Orend, The Morality of War (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2006) pp. 35-37.

[7] Walzer, p. 122

[8] Walzer, pp. 53-54

[9] Orend, The Morality of War, p. 36

[10] UNSC 1546 (http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N04/381/16/PDF/N0438116.pdf?OpenElement and most recent renewal, UNSC 1723 (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=20771&Cr=iraq&Cr1=)

[11] Noah Feldman, What We Owe Iraq, (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2004) p. 68.Feldman argues that the United States should understand its role as a trustee holding in trust the right to govern, which it must transfer to the Iraqi people as circumstances permit. Decisions made by the United States government must ensure that at a minimum they coincide with the interests of the Iraqi people.

[12] James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton, “The Iraq Study Group Report,” ( Vintage Books , New York, 2006) p. 1

[13] See Paul Christopher, “The Ethics of War and Peace,” (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999) p. 85 amd James Turner Johnson, “Morality and Contemporary Warfare,” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 34. In both accounts, what is being rejected is not a fight against the odds for a just cause, but rather futile or suicidal resistance which has no chance of success.   

[14] Juan Cole, Top Ten Myths About Iraq, in “Informed Comment”, http://www.juancole.com/2006/12/reprint-edn.html

[15] Charles Beitz, “Political Theory and International Relations,” (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979) p. 156

[16] Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (Anchor Books, New York, 1989 ) p. 30

[17] Ibid, p. 42-43.

[18] Jeremty Boissevain, “Values and Interaction in a Conflict Setting,” in Friends of Friends, Networks, Manipulators and Coalitions (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1974) p. 50.

[19] William Wunderle, (California: Rand,2006)  p. 63

[20] It is important to note that the Badr Corps, now called the Badr Organization, and the Jaysh al Mahdi have different legal statuses in Iraq. In accordance with CPA 91 (Regulation of Armed Forces and Militias in Iraq), the Badr Corps was permitted to integrate 1000 members into Iraqi’s security forces in exchange for disbanding. While many times that number have joined both the police and the Army, the organization has claimed to have renounced its role as a milita and become political organization, Jaysh al Mahdi, which had not fully formed when CPA 91 was drafted, was not a part of the agreement. See http://www.iraqcoalition.org/regulations/#Orders for a complete text of CPA 91.

[21] Bloody battle for Amarah a glimpse of future by Kim Sengupta  in “The Independent”http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article1916342.ece 21 October

[22] For the complete text of CPA 71 (Local Government Powers) see http://www.iraqcoalition.org/regulations/#Orders

[23] This has precedent in recent Iraqi history. Saddam exploited family relations to arrange the assassination of his son-in-law Husayn Kamel, whose defection to Jordan deeply embarrassed Saddam. To avenge this embarrassment, Saddam called on Kamel’s khams—the five generational unit within which every adult male is responsible for avenging the group’s honor—to resolve the matter by killing Kamil when he returned to Iraq, despite having been forgiven by Saddam. See Amatzia Baram, Building Towards Crisis, Saddam Husayn’s Strategy for Survival (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998) pp. 13-15.

[24] Anne Bobroff-Hajal, “Why Cousin Marriage Matters in Iraq,” Christian Science Monitor, 26 December 2006, http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1226/p09s01-coop.html 

[25] According to two polls conducted for the Ministries of Defense and Interior by the Multi-National Security Training Command-Iraq, while most Iraqi soldiers and police report they value humanely treating detainees, they rate others in their organizations low regarding whether they believe they hold that value as well. Coalition advisors who participated in the MOD poll rated all Iraqis low in holding this value. The MOD poll was conducted in December 2005. The MOI poll was conducted in November 2006.

[26] Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Kate Daniels, Adel Omar Sherif, Criminal Justice in Islam: Judicial process in the Sharia (London: IB Taurus, 2003) pp. 66-67.

[27] This was also reflected in the MOI and MOD polls. In the MOI poll, police consistently rated loyalty and duty higher than justice and religious commitment. This indicates a culture ready and willing to follow orders, but not capable, at least at lower levels , of determining if orders conflict with the demands of justice and morality. 

[28] The Wolf Brigade, later renamed the “Freedom Brigade,” had become closely and publicly associated with detainee and other human rights abuses. Despite the veracity of some of these accusations, there were numerous accounts in the Iraqi press of Wolf Brigade “atrocities” which occurred in areas the brigade did not operate in. These accounts were so widespread that over time, the “Wolf Brigade” became synonymous with the Iraqi police.

[29] MOI Survey

[30] Lauren Frayer, “Study: 12,000 Iraqi Police Slain,” Associated Press, 25 December 2006.