Many police officers in Anbar fled when the extremist Islamic State group took over their towns, their salaries suspended as a result. Now they’re being asked to return to work. But locals are opposed.
On trial? Police officers in Anbar. (photo: Anbar police)
On his way to work at an auto repair shop in the industrial district of the city of Fallujah, Zaid al-Dulaimi, 52, must pass through a number of security checkpoints. He shows his ID and other related documentation but, he says, it is all useless. Nobody trusts the men staffing the checkpoints anyway, he notes.
Many of the security personnel were here before the extremist group known as the Islamic State took over his city, al-Dulaimi says, and now the same ones are here again. “They were armed then too and they used to frighten us,” he says. “But I also saw them in their civilian clothes, running away to the north of Iraq. They should not be allowed to work in this role again and they shouldn’t be allowed to carry guns,” he complained.
Police cars were left on the street, abandoned by the officers, along with weapons and ammunition. How am I supposed to trust any of them now?
Like many other locals in Fallujah, al-Dulaimi says he was surprised when he heard that those who used to work in local security were being re-appointed to their jobs.
Before 2014 and the arrival of the IS group, who took control of many of Anbar’s major cities, the local police forces had been around 28,000 strong. However between 2014 and 2016, around 14,000 police officers were dismissed because they failed to join their units being assembled elsewhere, or because they simply deserted. In 2017, 3,190 police officers were reappointed, thanks to a federal government decision. The officers had to pass a special training course before they were allowed back to active duty.
Now, as part of that amnesty, Anbar’s police command is planning to re-employ more than 6,000 policemen who were dismissed in 2014, after they deserted their posts when confronted with the threat of the Islamic State, or IS, group’s approach. Locals like al-Dulaimi think that this is a terrible idea.
They are being given their jobs back because of tribal and political pressure, another local man argues. “But this is at the expense of the blood of the heroes who stayed and stood up to the IS group,” the man says. There are bad feelings and these are not being taken into account, he argues. While there is clearly a need for more security in Anbar and the authorities want to solve that problem, the officers who ran away and who didn’t join other groups preparing to fight the IS group later, are not seen as the right people for the job.
The majority of the police officers working in 2014 in Anbar left the province. After all, they were threatened with death or imprisonment if they stayed. Those who did fight, even if based elsewhere, are now seen as a much stronger defence against the return of any extremist group to Anbar. Locals like al-Dulaimi argue that if the deserters return to the job, then that weakens the whole new security apparatus.
Senior police officers in Anbar.
“The IS group is always trying to update their information on members of the security forces,” says a former Iraqi army officer in Anbar who wished to be known only by the name Shawkat al-Mohammedi, “and if these officers return to work, it is an opportunity on a golden platter for them. These men didn’t pose any danger to them and they know it already.”
Any security plan is only as strong as its weakest link, he cautions.
Assad Mohammed al-Falahi, who works as a foreign exchange trader in Ramadi, says he can remember only too clearly when the IS group first entered his city.
"Police cars were left on the street, abandoned by the officers, along with weapons and ammunition. Then they were being driven all over the city by the IS fighters,” al-Falahi recalls. “The policeman who used to drive them didn’t even fire a shot. How am I supposed to trust any of them now?” he says.
Al-Falahi is not unsympathetic to the former police officers. They should have jobs, he says, just not in the police force.
Ameer al-Issawi, a 33-year-old man from Heet, a city west of Ramadi, is one of those who would benefit from the decision to re-employ the former policemen.
He thinks the decision would right an injustice that has seen former police officers left unpaid for months. Al-Issawi also believes that a lot of the men who didn’t join their units outside of IS-held areas were trapped inside them, with their families, and couldn’t do anything else.
“A small number of men, armed with only light weapons and little ammunition, could not confront militant extremists with much more powerful and sophisticated weapons than we had,” he told NIQASH. “We had no choice but to escape, to protect ourselves and our families.”
In some ways, he speculates, that was a good thing because at least there are some police officers left now.