Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 56 MPs, The IPs, and a TV

December 26, 2007

The 56th Military Police Company, the 56 MPs, are a reserve unit attached to the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade, and they are here in Tikrit to work with the Iraqi police, the IPs, helping them to establish themselves as the law--the law as we know it, which is very different from the law the Iraqis came to know under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship.
If our police force is the thin blue line, then the Iraqi police force is at best a dotted line, not always blue, and sometimes the dots disappear. It is not easy being a cop in Iraq. Anyone who watches the news knows Iraqi police are targets. Knowing the risks, anyone who sets out to be a good Iraqi cop must be very brave, possibly crazy. Some do set out to be good cops; some set out to be bad cops, which requires less courage, but the pay is the same. The 56 MPs have to deal with the good, the bad, and, perhaps the most dangerous group, the ones who haven’t decided which group they belong to yet.
The stakes are high. If the IPs can do their job honestly and consistently, they will earn the trust of the people, and the insurgents will not be able to move about as easily, the terrorists will have a harder time finding willing recruits. By containing these hostile elements, the police will make Tikrit safer for themselves, for the Iraqi people, and for our soldiers. Until then, when IEDs explode on routes our convoys travel, the IPs are in some way responsible. These are their streets.
Developing a dedicated police force in a struggling, divided country is nearly impossible. But it may be some of the most essential work going on in Iraq today. And there are always a few duty-bound individuals at every police station who seem willing to carry more than their share of the burden for the sake of the greater good. These men have earned the respect and admiration of the MPs, who in turn try to do everything they can to support them.
It is winter in Tikrit. The MPs, most of whom are from Arizona, where their unit is based and where the climate is not unlike the climate here, are concerned that the police district headquarters and the six stations that fall under its jurisdiction are not heated. The temperature can drop to below freezing at night, and it doesn’t always warm up during the day. Imagine American cops working in a station without heat. Now take away their gear. Weapons are hard to come by here, as are uniforms, sturdy boots, coats. One soldier, Shawn Peterson, has taken it upon himself to collect extra pairs of boots from soldiers and distribute these among the IPs. It doesn’t seem right that these men should have to live with the fear of being targets and be uncomfortable and ill-equipped to protect themselves too.
During a visit to the district headquarters, MPs Shawn Peterson and Danny Schrader set up shop in a vacant room, one which luckily had a space heater, where they took information on each of the nine prisoners being held at the headquarters’ jail. Each prisoner was brought into the room individually. His date of birth, height and weight, and his crime, were recorded, and then Shawn used biometric equipment to scan each prisoner’s eyes, take his fingerprints, and photograph his face.
There was also a television in the room, the Iraqis love TV, and it was tuned in to So You Think You Can Dance, with the sound turned down, but Arabic sub-titles made it possible for the cops to follow the action. I wondered how we would ever earn the respect of the Iraqi people if this was the sort of programming we were exporting. At the same time, I was hypnotized by all of the dancing, and I had to force myself to pay attention to the activity in the room. On the TV, the dancers occasionally addressed the camera, their faces full of emotion, as if trying to convince the world they really could dance. Meanwhile, in the chilly, smoke-filled police station, a series of prisoners, guilty of everything from missed car payments to forgery to murder, stepped into the room and addressed our camera. But there was no dancing. A commercial came on with highlights from an upcoming Dr. Phil, who was devoting an hour to the struggles and triumphs of a set of blind and deaf triplets.
The atmosphere at any IP station is never as serious or grave as one might expect, and thanks to American television, there will always be a touch of the absurd. The IPs are probably a pretty accurate reflection of the Iraqi people in general. They are tired and frustrated, cold and scared, handicapped by a lack of resources, and some are interested only in protecting themselves, serving their own interests.
Would anyone want to trade places with any Iraqi cop, good or bad, even for a day? It is hard to blame them, then, for turning on the TV and getting lost in a world where dancing well is all that matters. The MPs understand. And they know that proper training and equipment are vital if a police force is to succeed. So they allow the IPs their TV breaks, but they never lose sight of the work that remains to be done, and they will continue working closely with the IPs, both the MPs and the IPs fully aware that changing the situation in the city is not as easy as changing the channel on the TV.

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