Gethin Chamberlain, in Baghdad, for The Scotsman, 10 September 2004
THE blast of the twin explosions sends shock waves rolling across the dusty patch of land on the edge of Baghdad. Smoke obscures the armed men who have just jumped from two land cruisers and rushed up to the building to set the charges against the doors. As the smoke begins to drift away, the doors are gone and the hooded and masked men are already inside the building. There is a rapid crackle of gunfire, a couple more blasts and more shots. Two men in handcuffs are bundled out into the waiting vehicles and driven away.
A short distance away, Alad Allawi nods approvingly. The Iraqi prime minister is a big man in a black suit and blue tie, his right hand wrapped in a yellow bandage. He turns to the man on his right, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, smiles and says a few words. He is impressed with the demonstration, it seems.
They are standing in the baking heat of the late morning near the outer perimeter of Camp Dublin, the new police training base set up on a bare plot of land not far from Baghdad airport.
The prime minister has come to see for himself what progress has been made in creating a police force capable of taking on the terrorists and militias that plague his country.
Around the base, instructors are teaching police officers how to defuse roadside bombs, how to carry out swift snatch operations to seize suspects, how to protect dignitaries from attack. The task of making it all work belongs to Mackay.
The 47-year-old Scot has been told to rebuild the Iraqi force from top to bottom. He and General Dave Petraeus of the US army lead Allawi over to the men of the emergency response unit, who staged the demonstration and are lined up at attention waiting to meet their prime minister.
The policemen wear canvas hoods over their heads, with a slit cut in the front, over which they have fastened ski masks to protect their eyes. Theirs is one of the success stories. On their first raid they breezed into one of Baghdad’s most troublesome streets and arrested 500 people.
Allawi shakes the hand of their commander and heaps them with praise. The police have been heroic, he says, but they must be ready for the battles ahead. They must secure the country against the terrorists. Fundamentalists want to take over Iraq.
Among the men gathered in front of him is Lieutenant Saleh Mahdi Hamed. Six months ago, his right arm was blown off as he worked to defuse the third of three bombs that his squad had discovered. He spent a month in hospital, then went back to work. “Believe me, I work in my job for my people,” he says.
In some parts of Iraq, in Fallujah, Baghdad’s Sadr City and Samarra, the police have lost their way. Gone bad, Mackay says. On the side of the insurgents or too intimidated by them to do their jobs, they have allowed law and order to be subsumed by chaos. Others have held out, to their cost.
Ad Dhora police station has been blown up twice. The last time the bombers drove a petrol tanker into the fuel depot a hundred yards away and detonated it. Six policemen died and 72 were wounded. The others stayed at their posts and the next day everyone reported again for work. So too did those who were not scheduled to come in.
Now it has been rebuilt, again. Inside, Colonel Abdullah Kaldoun is sitting behind the sagging chipboard desk in his spartan office. He is pulling on a Craven A cigarette. There are a number of discarded butts on the floor around him. It is a stressful job, he explains.
There is glass in the window of his office now, though the door still hangs loosely on its hinges, the woodwork splintered around them and the place where the lock and handle had been before they were blown off. Beside the door is a bed; it is the only bed in the station, though many of the men sleep there every night. They take it in turns to use the bed.
No-one used to attack police stations, he says; people were afraid of them. It used to be that the police had all the big weapons and the criminals had pistols and knives and sticks. Now it is the other way around.
When the Mahdi Army tried to take over the police station one day, he rang the Ministry of the Interior and held up the phone so they could hear. Listen to this, he told them, listen to my officers calling for weapons. They are using RPGs, he said, while my officers are holding broken weapons. The weapons are coming, Mackay tells him. But there are problems with bureaucracy.
Kaldoun lights another cigarette and goes on. The ministry wants to cut the number of officers he has. The ministry does not appreciate the work they do. People in the ministry get paid the same as he does for sitting at their desks for six hours a day and drinking tea. He stays all night and his station is bombed and his men killed. All Mackay can do is nod, and try to reason with him, and promise to see what he can do. He tells his adjutant: get on to this person or that person, sort it out. This can’t be allowed to happen, that needs to be done. But as for the pay, he says, that is the same the world over. They part on good terms, with much shaking of hands.
Mackay walks out of the back door. The new land cruisers ordered to replace the 71 cars destroyed in the last blast are crammed into the yard next to the building. The twisted and blackened remains of the bombed-out fuel depot loom beyond the massive concrete blast barrier that has been constructed to protect the station from further attacks. Mackay looks around him in disbelief.
Why, he demands to know, are all the cars parked up so closely when there is a huge area just a few yards away empty of all but a couple of the contractors’ vehicles? A single mortar round landing here would destroy them all, he says. Because that piece of ground is too exposed, the officers tell him. It is next to the street. Mackay looks over to where they are pointing. The blast walls stop next to the road into the police station. Ahead of him, in clear view, is the busy main road down which the last bombers drove. There is no barrier across the entrance.
Get the general in charge of this on the phone, Mackay tells his adjutant. Tell him he’s not getting another dollar until he sorts this out. With that he turns on his heel and sets off to find the contractor who has been given the dollars 400,000 contract to rebuild Ad Dhora, to give him another piece of his mind.