The U.S. plans to ease pressure on its troops in Iraq by training thousands of Iraqi police at a Hungarian military base, the scene of an earlier attempt to train opposition Iraqis to be mediators after the war.
Tight security:the Hungarian military base Taszar in January this year
U.S. authorities grappling with the increasingly bloody task of enforcing law and order in volatile postwar Iraq are seeking to pass a greater share of the burden on to the Iraqis.
On Monday, U.S. officials said they were holding talks with Hungary, a NATO ally and supporter of the war against Iraq, about using the Taszar air base in the south of the country to train up to 28,000 Iraqi police officers. It’s hoped the Iraqis, seen as more credible peacekeepers than the American forces, will provide for more stability in the occupied country.
Security concerns about the situation in Iraq have heightened in recent months with casualties mounting among American and British soldiers as well as Iraqi civilians. On Monday, the death count for U.S. troops in postwar Iraq rose to 138 -- the same number that were killed in the conflict by May 1, when President Bush declared an end to combat operations.
Quick and intensive training
Bernard. B. Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner in charge of the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Baghdad, told The New York Times this week he hoped the first batch of Iraqis could begin training in four months, a further 1,500 four weeks later. "We want to turn Iraqi security over to the Iraqis," Kerik said. "This is the only way to do it quickly." Kerik added that the courses at Taszar would be short and intensive, lasting about eight weeks -- shorter than most police academies in Western countries. "We don’t have that luxury," he said.
Iraqi police officer, Baghdad
Some 37,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi police officers (photo) are already on the job in the country. Another 17,000 Iraqis have been hired to provide extra security cover at key infrastructure sites, such as power and water plants. A spokeswoman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad told Reuters U.S. officials have aim to train and deploy a total of 65,000 Iraqi police officers around the country.
Security with an "Iraqi face"
The latest U.S. plans to press the Iraqis into playing a greater role in running the country reflects growing concern among American officials about getting further entangled in sorting out Iraq’s chaotic security conditions.
As American and British forces focus on flushing out remaining Saddam loyalists and restoring public order and the civilian infrastructure, work has been hampered by rampant robberies, looting, kidnappings and shootings.
Recent reports of an increasing number of foreign fighters slipping into Iraq to wage a "jihad" against the occupying forces have exacerbated the fears. President Bush also faces intense domestic pressure in the face of rising casualties and costs of keeping troops in Iraq.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in Texas this week Iraqis had to shoulder a larger share of the load. "If you had a choice between foreign presence for security and Iraqi presence for security, with an Iraqi face on it, clearly the latter is preferable."
Taszar tainted with controversy
But the Americans’ choice of location for training prospective Iraqi officers isn’t free of controversy.
Main entrance, Taszar
The United States, which first took over the Taszar base (photo) from the Hungarian military in 1995 as a logistical staging post for international peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, used it earlier this year to train dissident and exile Iraqis in the eventuality of a war against Iraq.
Or at least that was the official version.
In reality, the entire operation was shrouded in secrecy, leading to jittery local residents and protests by the right-wing nationalist opposition in the Hungarian parliament, demanding to know what exactly the Americans were doing in Taszar.
"We only know they are from Iraqi opposition groups and that they are being trained here. We don’t know what kind of training, who they are or where they are from," Taszar Mayor Tibor Mercz told Deutsche Welle in an interview in February this year. Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy even had to undergo a public hearing on whether he knew what the U.S. was up to in Taszar.
Iraqi Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji is seen in this Feb. 26, 2002 photo in Denmark
Media reports also alleged that former Iraqi Chief of Staff and high-profile defector General Nizar al-Khazraji (photo), who mysteriously vanished in March this year while under house arrest in Denmark, had been ferried to Taszar to confer with the Americans about how he could help them free Iraq from Saddam’s rule. The general had sought asylum in Denmark after being sacked by the Iraqi dictator.
Failed U.S. precedent at Taszar
But the American program of training opposition and exile Iraqis as translators and administrators equipped with self-defense skills (the Hungarians stipulated that the visiting Iraqis not be trained for combat) at Taszar proved to be unsuccessful. The trainees were meant to act as mediators of a transitional administration between the U.S. army and local residents once the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
Though thousands of exile Iraqis signed up for the training program in Taszar, sweetened with a bounty of $300, most just took the money and never showed up in Taszar. Only around 300 Iraqis finally finished the program, which led the Americans to eventually shelve it.
This time round though, the American operation in Taszar is expected to be markedly different. Hungary said on Monday it still hadn’t received a formal request from Washington but signaled it was willing to help. "Hungary is ready to examine potential ways of cooperation, including how to put the Taszar base into use," Hungarian foreign ministry spokesman Tamas Toth told Reuters.