Our efforts to rebuild an Iraqi National Police force began in 2003 after our military’s successful invasion and the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his brutal and corrupt regime. It pretty much continued until the Obama Administration withdrew the last remaining U.S. military forces from Iraq in 2010. Along with the withdrawal of American forces came the end of the large scale American led Iraqi Police Training Mission.

What was left behind is difficult to really judge objectively, there were some successes, but most certainly there also were a lot of failures as well. The challenges of conducting classroom training through a translator alone were difficult enough, but add to that the religious and cultural differences that had to be overcome, and it’s pretty easy to see that the American cops who traveled to Iraq as instructors were fighting an uphill battle.

Thrown into the Baghdad Police Academy, as well as several smaller regional academies spread around Iraq, former American Police Officers from large metropolitan, suburban, and small-town USA departments, as well as county Sheriff’s deputies and even some federal agents, they all had to work together to pool their resources and talents in order to survive and make life tolerable.

There certainly were hardships and challenges every single day, and often time good ole Yankee Ingenuity had to come into play. Resourcefulness was the keyword. Not only did we have to overcome the sometimes onerous American bureaucracy, but an Iraqi one as well. One simply had to think outside the proverbial box in order to get things done.

The curriculum being taught certainly had limitations. Some of the training was completely foreign to the Iraqis, like Police Ethics for instance. Iraqi Police had never established nor practiced any standards of police ethics under the prior regime. “To serve and protect” wasn’t part of the Iraqi Police lexicon.

There were religious considerations as well.

While domestic abuse is an important topic in the United States it wasn’t considered much of a concern in Iraq, since certain levels of spousal abuse were religiously accepted in the Iraqi culture. If your local Imam said it was ok to whack your wife upside her head, then it wasn’t considered a crime.

Defensive Tactics and Compliance Techniques were also difficult for Iraqi students to grasp. For one thing, few were not generally very physically fit. For another, the previous regime wasn’t worried about civil rights or excessive use of force by the police. Often times wailing on a citizen with clubs and nightsticks was accepted practice. In fact, what would be considered brutal torture was regularly engaged in. And more often than not the only crime involved was someone having expressed general opposition to the regime, or to some minor edict issued by local authorities. These were just some of the ‘mindset’ problems that had to be overcome by American instructors.

One of the other issues of concern was the influence of the ongoing Iraqi insurgency that was underway at the time. Instructors just accepted that there would be a percentage of your class that if not outright engaged in insurgent attacks, was at least sympathetic to the goals of the insurgency. One of the reasons I elected to stay the hell away from the firearms range with the students.

The Iraqis put great stock in drill and ceremony, and every school day there was an hour of the six hours per day allotted for training, which was devoted to marching. This was instructed by the Iraqi Police cadre who was assigned to the academy.

Students learned the ‘Iraqi Stomp’. Three steps forward and then stomp the right foot hard onto the pavement on the third step. Marching and stomping was probably the one thing the students really excelled at. Especially considering that some of the cadets that were admitted into the academy were basically illiterate, unable to read or write. They gained admission into the academy based on the family name and tribal affiliation, or they paid a nice bribe to the right Iraqi Police official.

Needless to say, the challenges were large, and sometimes complicated for American cops whose experience on the streets of the U.S. was so much more different than what these Iraqi cadets would face once they graduated from the academy. Yes, American police officers face dangers every day on the streets of America. But in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq the Iraqi Police were huge targets for the insurgency.

The death toll was high. An instructor could look out upon his class of twenty-five cadets and be pretty certain that at good one-third of them would be dead within six months of graduating. 

A sobering thought, especially considering that the training they received in six weeks barely scratched the surface of what an American police officer would receive in a U.S. police academy.

Unfortunately, the goal of the American-led training program was to get as many Iraqi Police back out onto the streets as quickly as possible, with no real concern over how long they might stay alive. As a result of some misguided policies early on during our occupation of Iraq the Iraqi Police force had been decimated, so they weren’t much choice in the matter.

With American Police Training Programs taking place all around the world, serious thought needs to be put into how these programs are being run. Or even if we should continue. Our few successes and many more failures in Iraq and Afghanistan should help us to understand that throwing tons of money into these programs isn’t the answer. It just leads to graft and corruption on the part of the local officials, as well as some American companies and the people charged with overseeing the programs.

And we need to simply accept the fact that in many of these cultures we’re not going to create little Americas where the police do in fact serve and protect. We’re lucky if we can just help them maintain a semblance of control on their streets without them beating the hell out of every citizen they encounter.

Exciting news: Del Wilber’s new book is now available at booksellers everywhere and on the America Out Loud Bookstore.

Author of In the Shadow of the Swords, the Baghdad Police Academy

Life at the Police Academy varied from sheer boredom to moments of terror as mortars and rockets rained in. Leaving the academy to travel through the streets of Baghdad to the Green Zone for meetings could easily result in being ambushed. D. W. Wilber recounts his experiences as part of this effort, and the unique personalities who came to Baghdad to serve as instructors to the Iraqi Police Cadets attending the Baghdad Police Academy.