Iraqi cops train to hunt militants with DNA and dogs

Other News Materials 9 June 2009 08:02 (UTC +04:00)

At a sparkling new forensic crime office in Baghdad, trainees in white lab coats drip blood into test tubes in search of genetic clues, Reuters reported.

The seven-month-old DNA analysis facility is an important part of efforts by Iraq to bolster its security forces as the U.S. military hands over responsibility to locals ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from urban centers this month.

"This is the first step, to analyze DNA in Iraq," said Shafan Khalid, a student from Arbil in the widely autonomous northern region of Kurdistan, looking up from his work.

The Iraqi police had to start from scratch after the U.S. authorities disbanded Saddam Hussein's security forces shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Now the country has about half a million police officers who are being prepared to take over the security reins as U.S. combat forces gradually withdraw from Iraq. In the next room at the facility, the "K9" unit is training sniffer dogs to seek out explosives, crucial work in a nation where car bombs and suicide blasts have claimed thousands of lives.

Five policemen stand as a trainee leads a Belgian Shepherd dog past them on a chain. When it reaches the man hiding the fake device, it sits down to alert its handler.

There are 63 bomb sniffing dogs imported from South Africa and the United States now working in Iraq, 33 of them in the capital. There are 11 Iraqi trainers taught by U.S. instructors.

"Now the training depends 100 percent on our Iraqi cadre," said Brigadier-General Mohammed Musshib, the head of the unit, adding that 30 Iraqis are taking part in the eight-week course.

"Even now if the Americans want to leave, it will not be a big deal for us," he added in a corridor lined with dog cages.

U.S. combat forces are due to leave the country by August 2010, although some 50,000 U.S. soldiers will stay on to train and give advice until a 2011 deadline.

As those dates loom, Iraq is stepping up preparations to fill the void in law enforcement and security.

Facilities as mundane as DNA labs will enable professional criminal investigations based on hard evidence instead of current methods that all too often involve rounding up suspects and holding them without charge for extended periods, officials said.

In another department of the Interior Ministry's training institute, about 50 women are taking computer lessons. They hope to graduate in November, becoming Iraq's first ever policewomen to achieve the rank of officer.

Outside on the parade ground, male trainees practice guarding a senior official in a scenario where two gunmen hurl a hand grenade at the VIP as he steps out of his car.

The trainees "shoot" the men playing the role of attackers, and then hustle the official into his vehicle and to safety.

U.S. Colonel Larry Saunders, senior advisor to Major-General Jassim Hassan, the head of the Iraqi ministry's training institute, said the first priority was to create a large enough police force that had the capacity to secure the country.

"The second step is where are we right now, giving them training that is acceptable internationally," Saunders said, adding that the training is being done by Iraqi instructors.

"We are not doing the job, they are doing the job," he said.

Iraq's government had hoped to increase the size of the force further, but has been pegged back by a lack of funds due to lower oil prices, which provide some 95 percent of revenue.

While police have frequently been targeted by insurgents, the jobs are highly sought after by Iraqis as the pay of about $600 per month is considerable in a country burdened by widespread unemployment.

Major-General Hassan, the commander of the training institute, said 500,000 police officers were enough, but that it was vital to train them in a variety of skills.

"The ability to invest in this number is the important thing now," he said. "If we are able to improve utilizing this number, definitely we will have an active and strong police apparatus."