BAGHDAD, (AFP) — Neil is a somewhat excitable, dark-haired 18-month-old German Shepherd dog but it has a healthy wet nose which crucially for the people of Iraq has been trained to sniff out explosives.
During a demonstration at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Neil scurried around a car, smelling its front and back seats, boot and bonnet, before a handler patted its head approvingly and told a temporarily inconvenienced driver he could go.
“We only check the cars we are suspicious of,” said an Iraqi police officer, who admits single male drivers are the group most likely to be stopped because they are seen as potential suicide bombers.
A recent scandal over a hand-held bomb-detection device which the Iraqi security forces use at checkpoints, but which US and British tests have shown is incapable of detecting explosives, has forced them to look at other options.
The use of more sniffer dogs is a direct response.
“We have 47 bomb dogs,” said Brigadier General Mohammad Mossheb, commander of the K-9 unit at Baghdad Police College, and the officer tasked with building up the war-torn nation’s canine capability.
The German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds (Malinois), and Labradors being used in Iraq are typically around one year old. They cost between 8,000 and 9,000 dollars and arrive from the United States or the Netherlands fully trained ahead of an expected 10-year working life.
The price is a fraction of the estimated 16,500 to 60,000 dollar cost of the ADE651, the hand-held gadget known locally as the “Magic wand,” which despite being banned from export by Britain, where it was bought, is still used throughout Iraq and around 20 other countries.
However, the task facing Mossheb, 48, who trained for five years at Baghdad Veterinary College before joining the police dog unit in 1986, is immense.
“We would need 1,000 dogs to cover the entire country,” said the officer, whose uniform bears the badge of a German Shepherd with its long red tongue hanging out. “We have a plan in place but it will take time.”
The next steps are to have six dogs at each of 18 checkpoints surrounding the capital by the end of 2011, a further 20 at police stations on the east and west sides of the city, and several in each of Iraq’s 17 other provinces.
Security concerns are particularly heightened in the run-up to the country’s March 7 general election, amid fears of politically motivated violence.
The government is also under severe pressure from opponents who say a series of coordinated suicide attacks that killed more than 400 people in Baghdad in the past six months prove it has failed to secure the capital.
Mossheb is acutely aware of allegations that the ADE651, more than 1,000 of which were bought by the government, failed to detect bombs that have caused hundreds, possibly thousands, of deaths since it came into use in 2008.
“This machine has caused many problems,” he said. “But it is a matter for the government to resolve.”
With bombers using increasingly sophisticated techniques, including hiding explosives in car frames or engines so they cannot be detected by the naked eye, sniffer dogs are considered very reliable.
While the dogs arrive in Baghdad fully trained, a team is needed to look after them. Veterinarians, veterinary technicians and handlers are taking separate nine-week training courses at the K-9 unit’s headquarters.
Trainee handler Ammar Ali Najim, 31, from the northern city of Kirkuk, has spent one week at the police college and is acutely aware of the job’s dangers.
“Even if there is a bomb and it explodes, maybe my dog and I will die, but we might save the lives of 12 or 15 other people,” he said.
Cultural concerns over the use of bomb-sniffing dogs, however, have been a worry, given that many Muslims consider them dirty animals.
While US soldiers and foreign private security firms have used dogs for years, Iraqis have been reluctant to, because soldiers did not like using them and the local population disliked being searched by them.
US military officers, who were the first to question the effectiveness of the ADE651, believe dogs and more expensive hi-tech X-ray vans, which can screen an entire vehicle’s contents, offer the best defence.
The sheer difficulty of stopping car bombs, however, is apparent on the congested streets of the capital where traffic jams are constant.
On Abu Nawas Street in Baghdad, through which an explosives-laden bus passed before the driver detonated its payload outside the Sheraton Hotel last month, killing several people, it was obvious that the police face a stark dilemma.
In the two-and-a-half minutes it took Neil to check one car, around 70 vehicles, including several lorries and small buses, were waved through without delay.
“You can’t use a dog in so much traffic as this,” handler Hussein Ismail explained, as cars roared past. “Plus some people at checkpoints are just not working hard enough.”