By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 10, 2007 - The deputy commander of the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team operating in Iraq said today that he's feeling "very, very optimistic" about progress over the past several months. Army Brig. Gen. David D. Phillips told civilian defense experts he's seen big changes since 2004, when he helped stand up the Baghdad Police Academy as commander of the 89th Military Police Brigade.
"I've seen significant differences in the way the academy is run," he said via teleconference from Baghdad.
There's a new level of professionalism, and the instruction is no longer provided by U.S. military police, he said. It's now "an Iraqi-run and Iraqi-taught police academy that I think is effective and would rival just about any academy in this part of the world," he said.
Evidence of that quality was clear in recent days as more than a million Shiite pilgrims gathered in Baghdad's Kadhimiya neighborhood to commemorate the death of the 7th imam.
A coordinated security plan, with local and national Iraqi police working together with the Iraqi army, prevented a repeat of the 2005 commemoration that left almost 1,000 pilgrims dead. This year, Phillips said he "had not heard of a single injury, let alone death."
The commemoration highlighted another big change within the Iraqi police: Female police officers were pulling security alongside their male counterparts.
Phillips remembered the academy's first class graduating in February 2004, with just two women represented in the 700-member class. By the end of that year, about 1,000 women had graduated.
In Kadhimiya, Phillips said, he was impressed to see female officers conducting security searches of suspicious-looking pilgrims. "We are starting to see some changes where female patrolmen are being seen and actually visible on the streets," he said. "I didn't see that a year ago."
As the police force starts to take shape, Phillips conceded he's concerned by sectarian differences that could reverse some progress being made. The differences he's most concerned about aren't within the ranks; they're at the leadership levels, he said.
"I can only describe it as a cancer," Phillips said. "We have a lot of very dedicated senior Iraqi police leaders and deputy ministers in the Ministry of the Interior. But there are those who probably, and most assuredly, have an agenda. And I think that is what could tear apart a lot of the reconciliation efforts."
For example, he's seen cases in which Shiites get preference over Sunnis for hiring and promotions.
"Now, we watch every list to try to get a balance," he said.
Some other issues that have nagged the police force in the past have been fixed, as well, he said.
All applicants for police jobs get biometric checks, with both fingerprint and retinal scans. These get run against a database with hundreds of thousands of files to weed out anyone with a criminal record or known to have a past association with the insurgency, Phillips said.
A weapons accountability system in place for the police "would rival any system (in) any other department," he said. He acknowledged that some weapons, particularly at police stations that fell to insurgents, may have fallen into the wrong hands in the past.
Pay problems have been rectified, thanks in part to a new pay inquiry system set up with help from the Civilian Police Training Team. Police who don't receive their pay can use the system to report the problem, eliminating past problems of corruption and graft, he said.
These new developments are helping change the tide for the Iraqi police, Phillips said.
"I do feel we are making headway over here," he said. "I was a little more pessimistic six months ago, but now I am getting very optimistic about what I am seeing take place."