American troops are increasingly patrolling Sunni Arab areas in western Iraq that have not, for two years, seen many U.S. soldiers or marines. Thinly populated, and run by tribal leaders and the heads of criminal (usually smuggling) gangs, this region is not accustomed to obeying any government. Even Saddam stepped lightly in this part of the country. It was always the "Wild West." Since Saddam departed, it's become a little too wild, even for the normally free-wheeling Sunni Arabs. What sent things over the top was the militant Islamic terrorists and pro-Saddam nationalists. These two groups were not content to just do their outlaw thing, and leave the locals alone. No, they insisted that the Iraqis in the west become Islamic conservatives, and cheerleaders for the return of the Baath Party to power. This did not make the terrorists very popular. So the American and Iraqi troops in the west are finding local allies. They're also finding the bad guys fighting each other, a not surprising development for fanatics who customarily kill those who disagree with them. To this end, nearly two thousand U.S. troops are building a base near a crossroads, where the road from Mosul to the north, and Baghdad to the southeast, runs past the town of Rawah. Also being built are small forts along the Syrian border, which are staffed by Iraqi border police. The small forts are an ancient tradition in this part of the world. The smugglers have always been heavily armed. and not afraid to shoot at the cops. The Wild West was long the refuge for the bad guys. No more. Moreover, the terrorists are not able to stop the soldiers. They can set off bombs and stage an occasional ambush. But the terrorists generally have to run or die (or get captured), when the troops show up.
Why, all of a sudden, are there so many Iraqi troops out there, fighting alongside coalition troops, or on their own? During the first year after the fall of Saddam, much of the training of Iraqi troops and police was defective. Many of the trainers were just guys who could be spared from more serious duties. No language skills, of course. But also many had no cultural awareness and some were outright bigots. In the last year, much of this has changed, but the damage has been done. The fix consisted of using Jordanian police academies to train Iraqis, and setting up similar training programs in Iraq. The training lasts 2-3 months. Incorporated into the training has been more extensive screening. Trying to find which recruits would be corrupt, especially in the police, was a real challenge. Police corruption has, for so long, been accepted, or at least tolerated, that it was difficult to come to grips with the idea of having a non-corrupt force. The latest wrinkle is a multiple-choice test that would detect the bad cops before they got trained and turned loose on the streets. One major asset in building the new police force is the help from Jordan which, by regional standards, has a corruption-free police force. Well, not completely corruption free. But the Jordanians do seek out and punish cops who misbehave, which is not a common practice in the Middle East. The Jordanians also train their police well, and supervise them. The Iraqis find it easier to accept these alien practices when Jordanian instructors and advisors tell them how.
Trained and honest cops make a big difference. In the past, the police acted like another criminal gang, running their own scams and rackets. Some good police work was possible, if you could pay a bribe, or had a friend on the force. Iraqis are surprised to encounter the new police, who actually are there to serve the people and uphold the law. It's feared that this novel performance will not last. Only time will tell.