BAGHDAD Iraq's Interior Ministry said on Thursday it would not disband the national police despite a report by an independent U.S. panel that will recommend scrapping and reorganizing the force.
But police interviewed by Reuters on the streets of Baghdad spoke despairingly of a force they saw as harboring criminal elements, too weak to tackle militias and with many police loyal to their sect rather than the state.
"The national police have proven operationally ineffective," said the panel headed by retired General James Jones, the former top U.S. military commander in Europe.
"Sectarianism in its units undermines its ability to provide security; the force is not viable in its current form," the report said. "The national police should be disbanded and reorganized."
The report's conclusions and recommendations were obtained by Reuters in Washington on Wednesday. The full report is due to be released on Thursday.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said the report represented only one point of view and that while sectarianism was an issue it was being dealt with, and in any case was not widespread.
"We respect that point of view but we disagree with it," ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf said.
"We admit there were some problems before due to sectarian loyalties but this involved just a few people. It was not widespread ... it does not reach the level of disbanding the police," Khalaf said.
"We have taken many steps to end these violations," he said.
The mostly Shi'ite force is widely believed to be infiltrated by Shi'ite militias and its members are often accused of colluding in sectarian violence against minority Sunni Arabs and roadside bomb attacks on U.S. forces.
The U.S. military's Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTCI), responsible for training Iraqi soldiers and policemen, said it would study the report but was unlikely to agree to a recommendation that called for "the wholesale scrapping of the police".
"We need to take a look at the report and see where we can make adjustments to the training. It's good news in that we know now where can make some improvements," MNSTCI's public affairs officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dan Williams, told Reuters.
He noted, however, that there had already been what he called sweeping changes to the leadership of the police force, with all nine brigade commanders and 17 battalion commanders dismissed and replaced because of "illegal behavior".
"Our assessment is that some good progress has been made. There is still a long way to go. Over time we are going to see much more improvement," he said.
Standing at a checkpoint in the baking afternoon summer heat in eastern Baghdad, Lieutenant Ahmed Nasser said he believed many of his fellow Shi'ites in the police put loyalty to their sect first.
"Shi'ites listen to what the clerics say. Consequently their loyalty will be to the clergy not to the state. They need to rehabilitate them," he said.
First Lieutenant Khaled Mahmoud said the poor state of the police was the fault of the Americans.
"After the fall of Saddam Hussein they opened the doors to anybody to be in the police. Many people who are bad quickly became police officers," he said at a checkpoint in southeast Baghdad.
Several policemen bemoaned a lack of professionalism, saying that under Saddam it took up to two years to become an officer, while now it was possible to be promoted within weeks.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad and Susan Cornwell in Washington)