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Daily life in Iraq with a police trainer
Scripps Howard News Service


June 05, 2005

Baghdad, Iraq - A red Passat with a suspected suicide bomber handcuffed to its steering wheel is waiting outside the hotel headquarters of America's police training mission in Iraq. As soon as it's spotted, it disappears. It's 6:55 a.m.

The heavily armed security detail taking Contingent Commander Michael J. Heidingsfield to appointments with American police trainers and Iraqi police in Ba'qubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, decides to delay its 7 a.m. start. Twenty minutes pass, then a half hour.

Finally, convoy team leader Lance Jacobs, 31, from South Africa, gathers the drivers, bodyguards, translators, gunners and scouts in the parking lot of the Al Sadeer Hotel. There are a lot of red Passats in Baghdad, he tells them. Don't get jumpy and shoot just any one that comes near. But if one violates the security "vacuum" around Heidingsfield's armored Chevy Suburban, "that's a different story," he says. Shoot its tires, then its engine block.

Then he gives the order: "We're moving."

Suited up in a flak vest and carrying his M-4 machine gun, Heidingsfield, 54, on leave from the presidency of the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission in Tennessee, is probably the most-traveled police official in Iraq. If his one-year mission goes according to plan, his 500 police training officers, all employed by DynCorp International, will provide field training to thousands of Iraqi police and contribute to an eventual withdrawal of American forces.

From a ground floor office he shares with his executive officer, he oversees the State Department's mission to create and train what may eventually become a 135,000-member national police force in Iraq. Besides the 500 American police trainers, there is a supporting staff of 100, another 100 protective services personnel, and 80 supervisory guards overseeing 1,400 Iraqi security guards. Discussions are under way that could soon double the number of trainers.

In a job to assess progress and suggest improvements, Heidingsfield works with U.S. embassy and military officials, as well as with Iraqi police.

In early May, Heidingsfield made an inspection of the sprawling Jordanian International Police Training Center outside Amman, where 3,000 raw Iraqi recruits are being trained in overlapping eight-week courses. The next day, he took seat 1A, business class, for the Royal Jordanian flights return to Baghdad. Then it was out onto the streets for visits to police stations like those routinely targeted by insurgents.

Heidingsfield is the eyes and ears of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, sitting down for tea with police chiefs to assess needs, questioning detainees about their treatment and getting feedback from the hands-on DynCorp police trainers living apart from the troops at Forward Operating Bases run by the American military.

It's a nerve-wracking job, but Heidingsfield believes that being seen actively working with the blue-shirted police emboldens them to take back their country. To send that message to one neighborhood, he visited a West Baghdad police station that had been overrun by insurgents. Before the attack, the insurgents called the station and gave the cops five minutes to evacuate. The 19 who chose to stand and fight were killed. When Heidingsfield went there, blood and brain matter still stained the walls where they were massacred.


Heading out for Ba'qubah along a crowded, divided highway littered with bombed-out cars and Humvees, Jacobs keeps up a running commentary via two-way radio to the other vehicles: Be on the lookout for potential hazards, including parked cars that could contain improvised explosive devices that are often wired to detonators set off by garage-door openers or cell phones.

Snipers are another constant threat. But the main fear is suicide bombers laying in wait for a convoy of conspicuously American SUVs, like Heidingsfield's.

Revealing details of the convoys' tactics is sensitive, but basically the job of the other vehicles is to shield Heidingsfield's SUV using offensive-driving techniques that block off merging traffic to create a zone of safety both in front and behind him. The last vehicle in the convoy has a sign warning motorists to Stay Back! in Arabic and English, as well as a 7.62 mm machine gun on a tripod. All but Heidingsfield's SUV have machine guns pointing menacingly out their windows.

Once, when a driver got too close, the rear gunner fired into the ground, and Heidingsfield cursed. A week before the Iraqi national elections in January, a DynCorp security detail killed a driver on a highway bridge. On April 25, Heidingsfield's detail immobilized a car approaching too close from behind by firing into its engine block. Its driver escaped.


Heidingsfield's field training officers will eventually see many of the 32,000 Iraqis scheduled to be turned out by the Jordanian training base this year.

More than 650 police or police recruits have been killed since Jan. 1 this year. As a result, an essential and time-consuming part of their training has become instilling basic survival skills.

On 450 fenced acres of windy desert outside Amman, 3,000 Iraqis with shaved heads live in barracks and receive intensive training that includes an immersion in the basics of democratic self-governance, humane police practices, the use of machine guns, pistols and collapsible batons, and defensive driving. They range in age from early 20s to late 30s. Some were cops under Saddam Hussein; most were not.

After listening to instructor Dick Hanna, a British cop, lecture new recruits on legal concepts like human rights, fair trials, and what's wrong with obtaining confessions by coercing a suspect's family, Heidingsfield is impressed. The recruits raise their hands and respond enthusiastically. But he says one element is missing.

"If you infuse them with concepts here, there has to be something (in Iraq) to sustain it," he says. It's entirely dependent on the personality of the station commander whether the newfangled approach will work. There's a big problem with trained police selling their new Glock pistols and going AWOL once they return to Iraq.

It's so dangerous being an Iraqi cop that many wear balaclavas to hide their faces. Most come and go from their assigned police stations out of uniform. Many are motivated only by the need for a job. Others seem hopeful that a new day really has dawned.

One trainer - Jim Hammond, a retired chief deputy sheriff from Chattanooga, Tenn. - said many signed up to make sure Iraq doesn't descend into anarchy.

"As a police officer and as an American citizen, I'd rather be teaching them here than fighting terrorists in Chattanooga," he said.


Escaping the potentially lethal Baghdad traffic circles, the convoy heading for Ba'qubah passes roadside stalls selling black market gasoline in plastic jugs, shepherds tending flocks of goats and sheep, an outdoor meat slaughterhouse and several police checkpoints.

Explaining the morning's cause for concern, Heidingsfield says security experts suspect that a suicide bomber handcuffed to a steering wheel is most likely an unwilling killer whose explosive charge would be detonated by remote control by an insurgent in another car. The handcuffed driver can either comply and move close to a good target, or is blown up anyway.

As Heidingsfield puts it: "Either way, he's toast."

The good news is that a handcuffed driver may indicate insurgents are running out of volunteer zealots, he says.

The convoy eventually makes it to the U.S. Army base outside Ba'qubah called Warhorse, where the DynCorp police trainers live, work and deploy to the police stations of western Diyala Province. Tank tracks are used as speed bumps on the approach. The convoy's blue Peugeot scout car, containing Iraqi nationals, has to stay outside.

One of the trainers, Wes McCord, 34, of El Paso, Texas, tells Heidingsfield that the police where he's working are beginning to show some initiative. Carjackings and kidnappings are fairly common crimes, he says; but when the victims' families pay, they get their loved ones back, and no one is charged with a crime. Raymond Lofton, 40, of Cold Springs, Texas, said it was initially difficult to get the locals motivated and he was getting discouraged. But after nine months, he decided to extend his DynCorp contract another year.

Starting salaries for DynCorp's police training officers with a minimum of five years' experience are advertised at $120,632 a year, much of it exempt from federal income taxes.


Ba'qubah, a city of 552,620 that is 99 percent Sunni, had 53 separate attacks on Election Day and saw several bombings the day before Heidingsfield's visit, according to U.S. Army Maj. Ed House, 37, of Charleston, S.C. He gave Heidingsfield a briefing from a high-tech operations center with real-time video feeds from a remote-controlled drone aircraft. Three Iraqi police and two little girls had been killed by a suicide bomber six days earlier, House reported.

After lunch at the base, Heidingsfield leaves the Suburban behind and takes a Humvee with a stand-up machine gunner escort to the main Diyala Province police station in downtown Ba'qubah, There he meets with Col. Hamad Mohammad, 54, who has overseen the local jail for 25 years.

Heidingsfield looks at the well-organized files on the 424 detainees. He asks to see that the jail's two women prisoners are housed away from the men. Across a courtyard, male prisoners alternately stand and kneel, loudly praying.

After his inspection, it's time for Heidingsfield's public diplomacy. Pulling a heavy United States Police Mission medal from his pocket, he presents it to Mohammad and thanks him for his service.


The next day, Heidingsfield's convoy heads briefly for the Green Zone - the heavily guarded area of closed-off streets in central Baghdad where US occupation authorities live and work - to pick up State Department human rights lawyer Karen Hanrahan, 35, at the American Embassy. The convoy then heads for a forward operating base in the outskirts of Baghdad called Camp Cuervo, named for Pfc. Ray D. Cuervo of Laguna, Texas, killed while guarding a Baghdad gas station in December 2003.

Police trainers Bradley Cliett, 35, of Douglas, Ga., an Army veteran of Desert Storm, and Neal Smith, 58, of Mantica, Calif., are to show Heidingsfield the River Patrol Police Station and the Al Sa'adoon Station near the city center.

Smith tells Heidingsfield: "The impression at home is that we're going to hell in a hand-basket, but the truth is we're making slow but steady progress."

Adds Cliett: "Any progress will be made in baby steps."

On the way to the river patrol station, Hanrahan mentions that she was close friends with Marla Ruzicka, a 28-year-old Northern Californian who worked to record civilian deaths and who was killed by a car bomb just days earlier.

Across town at the Al Sa'adoon station, Heidingsfield and Hanrahan sit for tea with Capt. Malek Kadhim, an investigator and lawyer who is in charge of the station on Fridays.

Kadhim acknowledges some problems finding contractors willing to deliver food to a jail perceived as an insurgent target. Heidingsfield asks to see the prisoners - 62 men packed into a single room smelling powerfully of Right Guard deodorant. His personal protection officer, former South African paratrooper Frank Matthews, 37, tells an interpreter to have the inmates sit on the floor. "Tell them if they stand up, I will shoot," he says.

Heidingsfield asks about a Sudanese prisoner with a wicked leg wound who will soon be deported. He asks about the food. Hanrahan asks how long it's been since they've seen a magistrate. It's an exercise in accountability.

A few minutes later, walking the rooftop of the station surrounded by high-rise apartments perfect for snipers, Heidingsfield stops to shake hands with Ahmad Hameed, 24, the corner pillbox gunner.

"He's destined to be a hero of his country," Heidingsfield tells the interpreter. "Tell him the United States appreciates what he's doing."


E-mail Bartholomew Sullivan at SullivanB(at)

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