Behind the lines, Iraqis learn a dangerous craft

Posted in Iraq | 23-May-07 | Author: Janine Zacharia| Source: International Herald Tribune

MUWAQQAR, Jordan: Dwaine Childs, a stocky former U.S. Marine from West Virginia, peers through sunglasses at a row of Iraqi men wielding AK-47 assault weapons and orders them to fire.

It is the first time most of the Iraqis, among about 3,000 being rushed through prison-guard training at a U.S.-funded academy in Jordan, have pulled a trigger. Some hit their practice targets. Those who don't are sent off to a classroom for remedial gun handling.

"We try to give them the survival skills they need," says Childs as he stands on a platform to call out instructions in the 40-degree Celsius (104 degree Fahrenheit) desert heat.

The surge in U.S. troops in Iraq has created a surge in prisoners, and American officials say detention facilities have become so overwhelmed there are not enough Iraqi guards. The recruits - among them farmers, shopkeepers and restaurant workers - are spending six weeks here learning how to run tent cities that the U.S. and Iraq are erecting in the Baghdad area for detainees.

Childs, 40, and the other contractors at the Jordan International Police Training Center are eager to ease the shortage of guards. Given the deplorable history of prisons in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, followed by the abuses at Abu Ghraib during the American occupation, getting detainee management right is a priority.

The 225-hectare, or 560-acre, campus is set on a barren strip a 50-minute drive east of Amman, the Jordanian capital. The facility trained 50,000 Iraqi police officers before shifting its focus to guards.

It features a Hollywood-like maze of streets outfitted with a gas station and shop fronts to mimic a Baghdad neighborhood, a mock police station and a simulated improvised-explosive-device field where fake blasts replicate the experience of a bombing. The only thing the site lacks, says Bill Flink, the facility's director, is a speedway to practice car chases.

The United States has spent more than $400 million to build and maintain the Jordan facility and train Iraqis in the past three years. Still, the center may be shut once the current group of guards graduates in August; the Iraqi Interior Ministry now insists on instructing future recruits back home.

Because of this decision, the United States did not budget any money for the Jordan facility beyond the $97 million allocated for the current financial year.

This dismays the American trainers, who are employed by two Virginia-based security-training companies: Civilian Police International and MPRI, a unit of New York-based L-3 Communications Holdings.

"It's no secret that they can't train in Iraq," says Cal Chilton, a 58-year-old retired police instructor from Phoenix.

With the center's extensive practice areas and freedom from mortar shelling, "we can train just about anyone they need trained."

How the candidates for guard jobs are chosen is a bit of a mystery. When the United States was running recruitment, it set guidelines that guards and police officers must be at least 20 years old, have no prior felony arrests and no history of "immoral" or "unethical" activity. During the past year, the U.S. military in Baghdad handed over recruitment to the Iraqis, who set their own rules.

Hussein, 26, sold clothes in Baghdad before coming here, and says nobody asked him about his background when he applied for the course.

His cousin, who works at a prison, told him how to sign up.

Many of the Iraqis - a predominantly Shiite group, training officials say - have never before left Iraq. While the trainees say landing a steady job is an attraction, none of the men who were interviewed could say how much they would be paid.

The recruits - some featherweights, others with bulging bellies - are kept busy from 5 in the morning until 9 in the evening, hustled through classes and physical training aimed at teaching them how to avoid harming prisoners or injuring themselves. One lesson stresses talking to inmates rather than beating them.

The United Nations criticized Baghdad roundups as arbitrary in an April report, highlighting warrantless arrests and an "apparent lack of judicial guarantees in the handling of suspects."

Recruits like Ahmed, a 28-year-old barber from Baghdad, say the plight of Iraq is what draws them to prison work. "I wanted to make my country better," he says during a break in a class on how to search a cell without mistreating its occupants.

The authorities at the training center asked that the family names of recruits be withheld to protect people back home. "They're going to be pretty much dealing with the worst of the group that they round up," Chilton says as he supervises Jordanian trainers in Adidas track suits who are teaching new cadets how to immobilize prisoners with a choke hold.

Chilton watched all 50,000 police recruits graduate from this facility during the past three years. "A third of every class that we train end up dead or injured," he says. "That's hard to deal with."

For Childs, who served in Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war, the training is the quickest route to the ultimate goal. "I'm doing my part to bring our people back as soon as possible," he says.