By Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisandro Diaz, USN
Special to American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Jan. 18, 2007 - Keeping the Tigris River free from criminal activity is the mission of a unique group of Iraqi policemen.
The policemen belong to the Baghdad River Patrol Station, located along the eastern banks of the Tigris River. From there, police conduct surveillance and establish a presence on fast patrol boats, said Iraqi Police Col. Alaa, the station's commander.
"Our primary mission is of a humanitarian nature," Alaa said.
To combat the transport of weapons and illegal contraband, the policemen take certain measures in their daily patrols. One critical tactic used by the river police to deter crime on the river is to secure and protect boat docks from infiltration by insurgents and criminals.
Just as boat docks play a critical function for the police, they have also benefited criminal elements, Alaa explained. Insurgents and criminals have used the docks as staging areas to commit crimes and then use them as escape routes to evade capture after the crime, he said.
"We have seen evidence of terrorists that have used the boat docks to launch mortar and rocket attacks. We have found many spent casings," Alaa said.
The docks also have helped the Iraqi army during joint operations with the Iraqi police, Alaa said. The army recently cordoned off and searched a Baghdad area, looking for insurgents. During the mission, the army secured an area to the east of the river and searched in the river's direction. The Iraqi river patrol provided security of the docks and denied access to the river, Alaa said. He also said the docks have been used to unload soldiers for joint exercises between the army and the police.
The police unit is training eight Iraqi army personnel to navigate riverboats in Mosul and Habbaniyah as part of their joint efforts with the army, Alaa said.
Alaa explained that the security of the Tigris depends greatly on the continuous monitoring that his trained and experienced men provide. The policemen monitor the river from their 10 checkpoints along the riverbanks and by boat teams traveling up and down the 100-kilometer section of their jurisdiction. He also gives credit to the local citizens who help his policemen.
"Many residents call us to report people doing bad things," he said.
The police have come a long way in the last two years, Alaa said. One of the station's successes has been the size of its police force. After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the police station personnel disbanded. "I was the very first to show up for duty, and then others started to come back to where we now have 267 policemen," he said.
Alaa said there is a constant police force of 80 men at the station during each of the station's three shifts. In addition to strong personnel numbers, equipment and training also have improved. Coalition forces have provided boats and training that have enabled policemen to expand their skills and capabilities, he said.
Alaa said the most important benefit of the training is the men's increased self-confidence.
On a fundamental level, he explained, the rule of law and respect for human rights are the guiding principles that underlie the manner in which the police force interacts with the community it serves.
"Three years ago, anyone could be picked up by the police at any time without just cause. Now there is rule of law, and citizens have rights that the police respect," Alaa said.
Another improvement that has made operations more efficient is the communication system the police use. They share the same communications system with the land-based police stations, allowing real-time coordination of activities in the surrounding jurisdictions.
"We can hear the same messages that other stations get and can respond quickly because of this. When people call the police, their call gets routed to the police station nearest to them," Alaa said. This integrated communications system ensures the police in all jurisdictions are "providing faster response times and the prevention of duplicate actions from other police stations while keeping them informed should they be needed," he said.
Alaa said the security and safety of the river is his men's responsibility and privilege.
"They have sworn an oath to make the river safe, ensuring a future of peace for their families and Iraq," he said.
-Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisandro Diaz is assigned to Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq Public Affairs. He wrote the article and took the pictures.