RAMADI, IRAQ—Col. Ahmed Hamid Sharqi was many things—businessman, smuggler, policeman for Saddam Hussein. Now, the U.S. marines stationed here consider him one of their greatest assets in keeping the streets of the capital of Anbar province—only recently some of the most dangerous in the world—safe.
Never mind that he wears a hatchet on his belt, a powerful reminder of the legend of how the commander of the North Ramadi police district attained his post—reportedly hacking to death members of Al Qaeda in Iraq in the streets.
The marines in Anbar are increasingly dependent on men like Colonel Ahmed, as he is known. The marines will be deployed in urban bases in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi for only a few more months; then this unit will be consolidated with the troops at Camp Ramadi, the sprawling site outside the city from which they will base operations.
Colonel Ahmed, with some 1,400 police officers under his command, will be the new front line in the effort to maintain law and order.
That hatchet that Colonel Ahmed wears isn't the same one that he used on the "foreign terrorist invaders," as he calls them. In fact, his fame around these incidents has grown so much so that he has many hatchets, some mounted to the wall behind his desk, which visitors lay before him in tribute to his rough justice.
After all, those who know him insist that the perception of power and strength is key to maintaining law and order in a city that long harbored the worst of the Sunni insurgency.
That means asserting control over other Iraqis as well. A few days ago, a group of city elders came to Colonel Ahmed seeking permits to carry weapons. He proudly shows the small wooden table he threw at the men as he chased them out the door. "No one is allowed to carry weapons without my authorization, and they didn't need them," he says. "Ramadi is safe."
It was only two years ago that Ramadi was so dangerous that many feared it was irretrievably lost to the insurgents. But the levels of violence have plummeted in the last year and a half, thanks in no small part to the Iraqi police.
The last major attack came in April, when a water tanker packed with explosives detonated at a checkpoint, killing two marines and four Iraqi policemen. AQI is believed to have been responsible for the strike.
These days, Colonel Ahmed's worries involve more mundane tasks, such as moving black-market fuel dealers off the city's main streets because they discourage business.
The police are still a motley crew, though they have gained remarkably in professionalism over the last year or so, U.S. combat commanders say. Many are from the Sons of Iraq, a group made up largely of former insurgents. Some 40 percent of the Sons of Iraq were integrated into the country's security forces and now sport bright blue uniforms. They refrain—at U.S. military insistence—from firing their rifles into the air to move along traffic.
But there are reports of Iraqi police units charging tolls to pass through checkpoints or otherwise extorting money from residents. They've also been known to take a synthetic drug, reportedly similar to PCP, to stay awake on post for days at a time.
Today, the police are the lead force keeping order in Ramadi, a job that might prove increasingly difficult.
The chief concern for the next few months is a stream of persons being released from the U.S. military detention facility at Camp Bucca, near Um Qasr. These former insurgents are gradually returning to the streets (some 3,000 are expected to return to Ramadi alone in the next few months) and are proving a headache for Colonel Ahmed. Some men have been rearrested for various crimes—some old—for which the police have warrants.
Other men fresh out of Bucca are being paid by Colonel Ahmed to inform on their former terrorist comrades. In one instance, he paid a man released from Bucca $2,500 to inform on an AQI cell. The man left prison, duly fell back in with his old insurgent friends, and learned that an AQI cell was moving improvised explosive devices from Syria, through Mosul (the current AQI stronghold), into Ramadi. With the informant's help, the Iraqi police nabbed members of the cell red-handed with their bombs unexploded.