BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s national police chief outlined plans Sunday for protecting key areas, including the Central Bank and historical sites, as the Iraqis take over more responsibilities under a recently approved security pact with the United States.
Attacks have continued despite stepped-up security measures and a sharp decline in violence over the past year. That has raised concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to provide security as the Americans prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011.
A bomb hidden in an abandoned store exploded as the mayor of Baqouba was leading a tour through the city center. The blast wounded the mayor, Abdullah al-Hiali, and 34 other people, including two TV cameramen, policemen and civilians, according to the provincial security headquarters.
The U.S. military has warned it expects attacks to rise ahead of Jan. 31 provincial elections, which are expected to redistribute the balance of power among Iraq’s fractured ethnic and sectarian groups.
Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, the National Police commander, said a battalion of about 500 to 600 officers will be assigned to guard the Central Bank in Baghdad.
The police commando force also will create a new agency to provide security for archaeological sites and antiquities, which faced widespread looting in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and have not entirely recovered. He said a similar directorate has been established to protect embassies and diplomatic missions, which will eventually include the U.S. Embassy.
“We are discussing this matter with them,” he said. “In the near future protection of (the American Embassy) will be the responsibility of the Iraqi National Police and the movement of political missions will be under the Iraqi protection of the national police forces.” He also said the National Police will work with the Interior Ministry to create a protection force for the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad that houses the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters.
Iraq has signed off on a security pact with the United States that takes effect on Jan. 1 and will allow American forces to stay in the country for three more years with stricter oversight from the Iraqi side.
It is currently guarded by the U.S. military and considered the safest area in Baghdad despite the danger of security breaches and rocket and mortar attacks. But while the agreement gives Iraq’s government full responsibility for the Green Zone, the Iraqis have the option of asking for help from the U.S. military, which is expected to continue guarding the area in the short term.
Al-Awadi said the new plans are part of Iraq’s efforts to take over its own security under a new pact with the United States. The recently approved security deal lays out a three-year timeframe for the complete withdrawal of American troops.
A National Police brigade will be stationed in each of Iraq’s 15 provinces that are outside the northern semiautonomous Kurdish region, al-Awadi said.
The National Police force is one of the three main pillars of the official Iraqi security forces, along with the local police and the army. It was considered highly sectarian after its formation in 2004 and was infiltrated by Shiite militiamen but has undergone a series of reforms over the past year with the help of U.S. military transition teams.
Al-Awadi said many of his officers have undergone operational and site-protection training in the United States.
While the U.S.-trained National Police and the Iraqi army have made great strides, the local Iraqi police forces have been slower to develop. The goal is to have them ready to take over responsibility for their areas from the National Police in 2010, al-Awadi said.