Features

Semi-retirement

Iraq | How one American policeman may change the future of Iraq

Issue: "Samuel Alito," Nov. 12, 2005

When he retired after 29 years in police work, Lonnie Herman, 53, could have immersed himself in his hobby, turning vintage cars into hot rods. Instead, he signed up to spend a year dodging mortars and rockets in triple-digit heat.

Mr. Herman, who retired as assistant chief of police in tiny Whitefish, Mont., in late 2003, landed in Baghdad in March 2004, part of a 500-member team assembled by DynCorp, a firm the U.S. government hired to train Iraqi law enforcement officers. The initial plan: to monitor existing police and, through local precincts, mentor new cadets.

"But we had to start adjusting the mission-quickly," Mr. Herman said, because the existing Iraqi police were almost completely corrupt: "The citizens didn't like them and didn't trust them. [The police] were really just another of Saddam's thug arms." The few who did want to cooperate with the U.S. forces in effect painted targets on their own heads. Every time American police trainers visited a precinct, terrorists would bomb it the next day.

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Attacks on police haven't stopped. In 2005, at least 2,200 Iraqi police officers and soldiers have died, up from 1,300 last year, according to www.icasualties.org. That casualty rate peaked this summer at around 300 per month and has since declined.

Early in Mr. Herman's Iraq tour, terrorist retaliation against Iraqi police became so certain that when he and his team drove up to a precinct, an Iraqi police commander would run into the street, waving and yelling, "No! No! Go away!"

That forced a change in strategy. DynCorp set up a recruiting compound at the Baghdad International Airport (BIA) and put Mr. Herman in charge. Assisted by U.S. military and Iraqi interpreters, the DynCorp team canvassed far-flung desert villages for potential police and border patrol recruits, then bused them to BIA for initial screening. Mr. Herman and other American police veterans checked to see that new recruits could read and write, weren't connected with terrorists, and had never worked in Saddam's police force.

Mr. Herman also used recruits' time at BIA to tell them "that they were the first line of defense for their own people, that they couldn't be a part of the old system. You could see in their eyes that many truly believed they could be part of the salvation of their own country."

For two weeks each month, DynCorp airlifted the new recruits, 500 at a time, to a law enforcement academy outside Amman, Jordan. Each return trip shuttled back to Baghdad 500 academy graduates.

The rookies had a hard time at first: "We'd send these shiny new policemen out to their precincts and the old guys would beat them up, steal their uniforms, throw them out in the alley, and tell them never to come back." But as wave after wave of freshly minted officers returned to Iraq, their numbers began to eclipse those of the old police, who started to back off.

During his year in Iraq, Mr. Herman spoke with thousands of Iraqis. He said that hope is replacing fear: "The change from the time we got there until the time we left was amazing."

Recruits told stories of life under Saddam, of waking up and finding that an entire family on their street had simply disappeared. People were afraid to speak up, for those who did died young. "As Americans," Mr. Herman said, "we don't understand the concept of not being free. We don't know how to think about not being free. The Iraqi people are learning how to think like a free people."

Mr. Herman despises what he considers the mainstream media's willful blindness to American successes in Iraq: "It's a huge success in every aspect. There is an entire country trying to learn how to be free. We don't have to save them all. We just need to give them an opportunity to see the truth and they will save themselves."

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