Silence enveloped Baghdad's police academy Thursday as 2,000 cadets filed into classes to take a midterm exam of multiple-choice questions. Brows crinkled over ticklish selections, such as how to respond to bombs. You should: a) run away as fast as possible; b) evacuate the citizens; c) let the multinational forces handle the situation -- it is not your job; d) all of the above are correct.
When the exam ended American soldiers carried the papers away for marking, and the cadets stood in huddles, comparing answers. Which boxes they ticked could determine more than just grades. Most of these young men and women in blue will graduate in three weeks' time and then march from their parade ground into the daunting job of policing Iraq.
Under new plans for an accelerated pullout from Iraq, London and Washington hope men like these will increasingly move into the front line to face down the insurgents, replacing coalition troops. In his State of the Union speech on Wednesday night, President Bush spoke of a new phase in which Americans would train "more capable Iraqi security forces" to pave the way for Washington's withdrawal.
Much hinges on that sample question. If the cadets' real-world response to a bomb threat is to flee, the new government could falter and the insurgency strengthen. If they show initiative and professionalism, it could signal the development of a viable Iraqi state. If they summon coalition troops, it could dash American and British hopes of gradual withdrawal.
The cadets' concerns are more immediate: staying alive. In the last three months of 2004, around 1,300 cadets and police officers were killed or seriously injured, according to police academy officials. "Every day we are being killed, slaughtered, bombed," said Kalid Eataya, 48, a senior instructor. "A checkpoint with four guys was blown up not far from here and there was nothing left of them, not a fragment."
Earlier this week Abid Asmae'el and 11 other cadets traveling to the capital from the south had a narrow escape when insurgents stopped and searched their bus. "I stuffed my insignias and I.D. into the seat pocket; others threw theirs out the window." A dozen soldiers in the north were less fortunate: They were herded off their bus and shot. In a second ambush Thursday, two more policemen were killed, 14 were wounded and 36 were missing after an attack on a convoy south of Baghdad. At least a dozen civilians were killed in other violence.
The cadets live in the academy and during visits home wear civilian clothes. "You don't want anyone knowing your job," said Shaima'a Mosa, 25, drawing a finger across her throat.
Yet the academy, a swath of gravel, prefabs, concrete barriers and barbed wire east of Baghdad, is swamped by applicants. "You and I would run a mile, but we have had absolutely no problem recruiting," said Melvin Goudie, the institution's Scottish director, a civilian chief inspector seconded from Britain's Ministry of Defense. He attributed the enthusiasm to a desire to build a new Iraq and the absence of alternative employment -- which makes the $180 monthly salary attractive.
After a disastrous 2004, when the police often seemed little more than bomb and bullet fodder and deserted en masse, there is tentative evidence of improvement. Despite 260 attempted attacks on polling day, only about 40 people died, thanks largely to saturation security. U.S. soldiers posted near Baghdad's police academy credited graduates with having plenty of nous. The coming months will test that. Islamist militants and loyalists from Saddam Hussein's deposed regime are expected to escalate the violence to try to derail the new parliament, government and constitution.
Since the March 2003 invasion the Iraqi police force has grown to 80,000, and 40,000 additional cadets, ages 20 to 35, are in the pipeline, reflecting meteoric recruitment and training at Baghdad's academy as well as at smaller regional centers, including one across the border in Jordan. In total 6,000 graduate each month.
American and Iraqi officials worry that the eight-week course -- compared with three years of training under Saddam's regime -- is sacrificing quality for speed. Academy officials conceded there is haste, but said refined screening now ensures that only literate applicants are accepted.
By graduation cadets should have learned to march, shot 200 rounds at a static target and absorbed crash courses on law and human rights. Question 24 on Thursday's test betrayed the legacy of police brutality under Saddam: "Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person is: a) torture; b) interview techniques; c) interrogation techniques; d) informative and reliable."
Sgt. Clay Laughman, a U.S. military policeman supervising the exam, admitted that the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal was a setback. "We had to explain to them that everybody has bad people." One cadet murmured that the new police force had more than its fair share of bad people. "Many of us still have Saddam inside us."
After the exam, the cadets lounged in the sun. The gunfire chattering in the distance, the black smoke swirling from another bomb across the river, they appeared not to notice.
A sample of the exam questions the Iraqi cadets face:
In a democratic free society the role of police is to protect: a) the citizens; b) the leader; c) the state; d) the military.
The police basic standard of conduct requires: a) all citizens to be treated with respect and dignity; b) information to be shared with the local community; c) special treatment for privileged persons and organizations; d) bribes to be collected for services.
External values come from: a) enemies; b) friends; c) criminals; d) dictators.
Human rights can be taken away from a person: a) never, human rights are inalienable; b) if the government says so; c) if the accused has committed a serious crime; d) in time of war.
Any act prohibited by law, for which law arranges a punishment, is: a) justice; b) civil; c) foreign policy; d) crime.
Which of the following could be a suicide bomber? a) male; b) female; c) child; d) all of the above.