by David Axe & r & BASRA, IRAQ -- It's hard to fault Steve Vincent for having felt confident. For this New York City art critic-turned-freelance Iraq correspondent and blogger, life was good. In the Red Zone, his book about wartime Iraq, had done well and he was working on a follow-up about Basra. He was deeply invested in the city, having set up in a downtown hotel and established relationships with local stringers, including 31-year-old Nooriya Tuaiz, a single female interpreter, rare in this increasingly patriarchal state. Months of work had landed him close to what he believed was a major source of Basra's ills: its own police. Vincent even got The New York Times to buy his op-ed on the subject. It ran on July 31.

In the article, Vincent claimed that many of Basra's 7,000 cops were affiliated with religious parties like that of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He also accused police in Basra of assassinating former Baathists in the city.

Two days later, Vincent and Tuaiz were leaving a Basra currency exchange when, according to information from the FBI relayed by Vincent's wife in Manhattan, men claiming to be police grabbed both Vincent and the interpreter and shoved them into a car. That night, the two were found shot and dumped in Basra. Vincent was dead, Tuaiz very nearly so; she's recovering.

Early press reports cited Vincent's unusually close relationship to Tuaiz as the reason for his murder. After all, this was Shiite southern Iraq, a place hostile to foreigners and where it's not uncommon for men to murder their own female relatives on suspicion of sexual indiscretion -- and get away with it. It's dangerous being a Westerner in Basra. Being a Westerner suspected of involvement with a native woman is almost suicidal. Was Vincent killed by tribal or religious enforcers?

Even for Basra, such a tale seemed too lurid to be true. As the press dug deeper, they turned to a seemingly more likely culprit: the very police Vincent had fingered in his op-ed piece. Subsequent events seem to support this suspicion. On Sept. 19, Fakher Haider, an Iraqi photographer and journalist working for The New York Times, was found shot dead in Basra, only days after filing reports on tension between British forces and Shiite religious parties. Witnesses told the Times that men in a police car had abducted Haider.

Of all Iraq's security forces, the regular uniformed police are the most numerous, the most visible and the most vital to maintaining security in this troubled country. They're the ones in the best position to stop terrorism and civil strife where they start: on the streets. They're also the most corrupt and the least reliable of Iraq's security forces. At best, the consistent failure of the Iraqi police to effectively address the country's problems threatens to undermine efforts to build a peaceful, prosperous and pluralistic Iraq. At worst, and if Vincent was right, the police are the country's problem.

The quality of the Iraqi police is wildly inconsistent. In the Sunni city of Baqubah, U.S. soldiers have openly accused the police of being insurgents. In Qayyarah, south of Mosul, the police force deserted under pressure from insurgents in 2004 and has since been rebuilt from scratch. According to U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Bradley Becker, former commander in Qayyarah, the new police force is well equipped, well led and doing a great job even by Western standards. Visits to Qayyarah police stations in March seemed to corroborate his claims.

This inconsistency is partly due to piecemeal efforts by Baghdad to impose national standards. According to Chris Sparks, a 50-year-old police trainer working for the British Foreign Office in the southern city of Samawah, it wasn't until June that Baghdad began requiring standardized basic training of new police recruits. Even then, actually transporting recruits to Jordan, where they're trained, has proved difficult, and many police recruited before this requirement are serving without any training.

British Army major Andy Hadfield, 37, commander of A Company, Staffordshire Regiment, which is deployed to Basra, says that many newer local cops are friends and family of current cops and were put on the payroll without vetting or training.

Compare the national police force's recruitment and training system to that of the new Iraqi Army, which since its inception in 2003 has recruited and trained under the supervision of coalition forces. Notably, no one is accusing the Iraqi Army of murdering journalists. Yet even different police units in the same city demonstrate vastly differing levels of equipment, training and reliability -- no more so than in here in Basra.

On Sept. 1, Hadfield leads a patrol through southern Basra visiting police stations. Outside Al Quibla station, there's a battered blue-striped Iraqi police cruiser. It has seen too many anarchic rush hours and attacks by kids throwing rocks. But it still runs, and for the Al Quibla cops that's enough. The cruiser's encouraging evidence that someone at Al Quibla's been working.

In the chief's well-appointed office, uniformed Iraqis are in an animated meeting with British soldiers from another unit. Another good sign.

Outside, some junior cops are keeping an eye on traffic. Abass Ali Mahdi, 21, a cop since 2001, describes his typical workweek at Al Quibla as three or four 24-hour shifts guarding the station, manning checkpoints and serving warrants issued by local judges. He says the community is supportive.

Asked if he'd been to Jordan, Mahdi says no: The only formal training he's received is locally, on firearms. Despite what he claims is a shortage of pistols and batons at the station, he feels he's well equipped -- and, he adds, he's always paid on time. The bottom line, he says, is that "when the British leave, we can maintain peace here."

But at a station near Basra's sprawling "Five Mile" market, attitudes are different. Sergeant Glen Goldthorpe of the British Army's Coldstream Guards Regiment drops in on a September afternoon intending to organize a patrol with Five Mile cops. Approaching the seemingly deserted station building, Goldthorpe grumbles his suspicion that everyone inside is asleep. He's wrong. Only half are asleep. The chief is awake but refuses to see anyone. He says he's too busy.

With focused fury, Goldthorpe rouses a handful of sleepy-eyed Iraqi cops and bullies them into donning their armor vests, grabbing their rifles and joining the Coldstream Guards outside. The idea is to walk through the market -- a presence patrol, it's called, the basis of Western-style "community policing" -- but the Iraqi cops don't feel like walking and pile into a truck instead.

Goldthorpe is livid. Between getting rebuffed by the chief, waking the cops and motivating them to walk, he's invested an hour for what turns out to be a 10-minute patrol. He wonders aloud if there isn't more than laziness behind the cops' heel-dragging. "We probably interrupted [the chief] doing 'other business,'" he says, meaning there might have been money changing hands.

As disappointed as he is, Goldthorpe isn't surprised by the cops' poor performance, saying, "That's how it always is here."

Whether Basra cops are assassins is uncertain. But one thing is certain: Many are not good cops. In this economic and cultural fulcrum of southern Iraq, a city that has seen a spike in bombings and (as Vincent noted in his blog) steadily increasing religious tension -- not to mention violence against Westerners -- good cops are more important than ever. And they're hard to find.

This article first appeared in The Village Voice. Watch for part two of this series on Iraqi police next week.

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