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Police trainer in Iraq copes with 'gut-wrenching fear'
Scripps Howard News Service


June 05, 2005

Baghdad, Iraq - Getting blown up on the job is constantly on Michael Heidingsfield's mind. As the man in charge of Iraqi police training, he has already had a near miss.

In March, insurgents in a stolen garbage truck killed two guards at the gate of the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry before rolling up and detonating an estimated 3,000 pounds of explosives at the perimeter wall of the Al Sadeer Hotel. On the videotape the insurgents circulated to news organizations, the exchange of gunfire with the hotel's guards is heard before the screen goes white with the flash of the explosion. Then someone in the car filming the carnage shouts, "Allahu Akbar." God is great.

Heidingsfield can't watch it. "It frightens the hell out of me," he says. He was blown out of bed by the blast. Forty-eight people were wounded.

He has a "gut-wrenching fear" of being kidnapped, worsened recently when his armored SUV came under fire on a Baghdad street. Constantly exhausted because he can't sleep, he has dropped 25 pounds in six months on a diet of Frosted Flakes. When gunfire erupts, he curses.

Heidingsfield, who runs the Texas-based DynCorp program under a State Department contract, is on a year's leave from the presidency of the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission. So far, the March 9 bombing, which collapsed ceilings and blew out every window and door in the 278-room hotel, has been the most dramatic event in his tenure running the American effort to train an Iraqi police force. In the past year, six DynCorp employees have been killed and nearly a hundred security personnel have suffered line-of-duty casualties.

"That's a lot of loss of life, a lot of trauma, and a lot of tragedy for people to absorb," he says.

Heidingsfield is a complicated guy _ academic and articulate but practical and worldly. As a policeman in Arlington, Texas, he once had his own gun held to his head. He later went on to become police chief in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Now he has one of the most dangerous civilian jobs in war-torn Iraq: He spends much of his time on the streets, assessing the training and organization of the police forces that are the constant target of insurgents. More than 650 police and police recruits have been killed so far this year.

Despite mounting concern from Washington about the quality and effectiveness of the police training, and growing recognition that many who are trained quickly go AWOL and refuse to serve, it is clear Heidingsfield does not view failure as an option.

"My greatest concern is that Iraq, if it is not stabilized, will never get beyond where we are today," he said in his ground floor apartment in the now-repaired Sadeer. "And if the level of insurgency were to continue, it will be a daunting challenge to reshape the Iraqi police into an organization that understands that they're critical to the future of the country. That's what worries me."

Heidingsfield acknowledged that the overall situation is "discouraging." Why? "The insurgents are extremely alive and well and it upsets me when I hear otherwise ... No one can say that we've prevailed."

Days later, he went still further: "My concern is that it could go on like this forever."

In his report to the State Department six hours after the Sadeer attack, Heidingsfield e-mailed Washington that many had been wounded, and some were being evacuated to Germany. But the successful breaching of the hotel's security walls was not followed up by a ground assault, as had been anticipated. "Had such an assault been mounted," he wrote, "a very significant battle would have been fought to retain control of the facility."

Even before the bombing, the hotel and DynCorps headquarters in the nearby Baghdad Hotel had been on a heightened threat level. Both hotels are well outside the heavily guarded Green Zone, where American diplomats live and work. Since the bombing they have been retrofitted with 15-foot concrete walls backed by barriers filled with tons of dirt. Eighty DynCorp security employees oversee 1,400 Iraqi guards armed with Kalashnikovs.

It's evident the Sadeer was once a charming place. Two blocks from Firdous Square, where the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down as Baghdad fell in April 2003, the hotel complex is regularly washed over with the amplified call to prayer from muezzins at the nearby 14th of Ramadan Mosque.

Despite his constant anxiety, Heidingsfield expects to complete his yearlong obligation, but won't dawdle beyond that. In six days last month, his public diplomacy found him drinking sugared tea with Iraqi police chiefs, inspecting a forward operating base in Ba'qubah northeast of Baghdad, questioning detainees in a Baghdad jail, and talking shop with police officials at the Tigris River patrol station that was blown up four days later.

He travels the chaotic streets in a convoy of armored Chevy Suburbans bristling with machine guns that makes him a high-profile potential target of suicide bombers. Frank Matthews, 37, his South African bodyguard, is never far away.

Because the threat is both constant and completely random, there's never really a time when he isn't on alert, Heidingsfield says.

"Basically, the premise I go on is the risk is everywhere," he says.

Part of his job is pure personnel management _ handholding and bolstering a staff of muscled tough guys.

A DynCorp employee was one of the wounded in the Al Sadeer Hotel bombing. He lost an eye and "he wept because he knew he wouldn't be able to come back to the mission," Heidingsfield said. "He didn't want to call his family and tell them what had happened." Heidingsfield gave him his cell phone and left the room.

Heidingsfield chokes up when he recalls walking beside the hospital gurney of a Chilean member of a security detail wounded in the hotel attack. "I clasped his hand and he turned to me and he said, 'I will not die in Iraq. When it is my time, I will die in Chile,' which I thought was a remarkable statement."

Two thunderous bombs went off within blocks of the Sadeer compound one Saturday morning, shaking the ground. The second was what the Americans call a VBIED, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device traveling Al Sa'adoon Street, a main boulevard Heidingsfield takes daily. It killed two American contractors in an SUV and dozens of civilians nearby. Intelligence suggested the bomber raced into the convoy from behind.

A week earlier, Heidingsfield's convoy had been attacked from behind by a white Passat immobilized when the convoy's rear machine-gunner shot up its engine block. At the same time, the convoy came under small-arms fire but was able to punch out of the kill zone.

Returning from Ba'qubah, a blue van breached the security cordon coming at Heidingsfield's Suburban the wrong way in traffic. Cooler heads in his largely South African security detail elected not to fire on it because they could see several people aboard _ a fairly good indication it was just another crazy Baghdad driver, not one intent on killing a high-profile American.

He says his "biggest, gut-wrenching fear" is getting kidnapped. "There's no way I could be taken hostage. Whatever it takes. No way."

Heidingsfield has a close and friendly relationship with his security detail, particularly his personal protection officer, Matthews.

Matthews keeps things light during tense moments. One morning, as the convoy inched along in heavy traffic past acre after acre of above ground tombs on the edge of the capital, Matthews pointed to a woman draped in black approaching the convoy, then passing between the SUVs. "That would be an LBIED," he joked. "A lady-borne improvised explosive device."

Heidingsfield groaned. The joke bombed. The lady didn't.

Heidingsfield specializes in a dry wit and sarcastic asides. When his convoy passes an Iraqi police checkpoint outside Baghdad, he says: "One thing I can tell you is they're not checking for driver's licenses or car insurance." Asked how he'll know he's reached Ba'qubah, he says to just watch for the Kiwanis Club signs.

Heidingsfield's executive officer, lawyer and former Alabama state trooper Patrick Mahaney, 53, who shares his office in the Baghdad Hotel, employed a kind of gallows humor when asked about evacuation plans in case of an attack.

"There's no evacuation," Mahaney said. "This is the Alamo. We fight or die here."


E-mail Bartholomew Sullivan at SullivanB(at)

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