Being a police officer in post-Saddam Iraq is an incredibly dangerous career choice. Since the invasion of Iraq toppled the dictator in March 2003, at least 14,000 Iraqi police officers have lost their lives in the line of duty. And things are not getting much safer. In the first four months of 2021, 23 policemen have been killed – most recently in the Diyala province, eastern Iraq, in an attack by Islamic State.
On April 22 a police patrol was attacked while responding to an IED attack on an army vehicle in the Al-Waqf region, northwest of Baqubah, which had killed one soldier and wounded three others. The police were hit by gunfire and another IED. Six policemen, including an officer, were killed, and two others, one of them a captain, were wounded.
Iraq Body Count, a project for which I am a senior researcher, reveals that Iraqi policemen die as a result of shootings, car bombs, suicide bombers and executions by terrorist groups. They are killed as they monitor checkpoints, patrol streets, protect towns and villages from attacks, dismantle bombs, enter booby-trapped homes and engage in clashes with terrorists and insurgents.
Or they are killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time: 40 policemen were confronted by Islamic State and killed for not swearing allegiance to the terrorist group on January 10 2015 at Ad Dawr, a small town in Tikrit province, north of Baghdad.
In Iraq, police officers are the biggest, most vulnerable and most targeted non-miltary victim group. Largely recruited after the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s police officers tend to be drawn from the communities they serve and the police service is generally reflective of the demographic makeup of its neighbourhoods. In 2018 a road map was drawn up by Iraq’s interior ministry in consultation with the United Nations Development Programme. The road map outlines the core policing functions in Iraq: to prioritise security and protection, crime management, traffic enforcement and community policing.
Partly as a result of their security function, police officers come under attack on a daily basis, mainly by irregular fighters: terrorists, guerrilla forces and insurgents – groups who target centres of power such as government officials, politicians or those who serve them in positions of legitimate authority.
Warfare in Iraq is irregular, waged mainly for political purposes, used by insurgents to demonstrate the ineptitude and powerlessness of the ruling authorities and to intimidate and coerce populations. Violence is used by ethnic or religious groups to achieve power, control and legitimacy, through unorthodox or unconventional approaches.
Enemies on all sides
As agents of the state, the police are attacked by enemies on all sides whether Shia or Sunni, Ba’athists (supporters of Saddam Hussein’s administration), Salafi and Wahhabi “jihadists”, or Shi’a (Iran-backed) militias. Iraq remains a very dangerous place.
In addition, Iraqi police enjoy little public confidence, receive inadequate training to be able to handle the country’s enormous security challenges and have struggled to assert their authority. Iraq may be a democracy since its first parliamentary elections in 2005, but it remains a state with domestic vulnerabilities and internal threats to its leadership. The regime lacks legitimacy, because the majority of citizens don’t identify with the state, but with their ethnic, religious or tribal groups. It is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and home to an array of armed militias with different allegiances.
Lack of public confidence and lack of trust in state leaders and institutions means lack of confidence and trust in the agents of the state: the police.
Islamic State is responsible for the killing of more Iraqi police officers than any other single group. IS is best known in the west for its attempts to establish a caliphate in and around Mosul, for videos of beheadings and for the Yazidi massacres in northern Iraq. IS members have participated in the mass killings and rapes of women and the enslavement of children. With so many horrific crimes committed against the civilian population of Iraq since 2014, it is easy to forget that policemen and security forces were its main targets from the start.
Policemen like Yousef al-Namrawi, killed as he entered a booby-trapped house in Kubaisa, on March 28 2016. Or police majors Abdul Rahman al-Jubouri and Ahmed Khalid al-Abbasi, abducted and executed by Islamic State in September 2015. Colonel Khaled Fadel Muhammad, the director of administration with the Diyala police, who was blown up by a magnetic bomb stuck to his vehicle in Baquba on February 21 2016. Or Lieutenant-Colonel Basim al-Hadeethi, Captain Saeed al-Obeidi and Major Mashkoor al-Hadeethi, who were killed in al-Baghdadi district, west of Anbar, on January 27 2016 by suicide bombers.
These were people’s parents and children. There have now been 14,000 of them, leaving grieving, often angry families. Tasked with making Iraq a safe place for its citizens, they are among the most threatened. They deserve to have their stories told and their names recorded.