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Tal Afar SWAT: The Iraqi Police have an elite unit in Nineveh Province, courtesy of the US Special Forces

TAL AFAR, IRAQ -- THE DAY BEGINS AT 0500, when the sun is still out of sight and the weather cool. As the pickup truck pulls up to the inside of the front gate of the Forward Operating Base (FOB), the men begin to emerge from the pre-dawn darkness, dressed in various assemblages of civilian and military clothing (“they usually wear the same thing every day,” says a U.S. Special Forces soldier) and carrying AK-47s, having just been searched by the base guards.

An American Special Forces sergeant jokes with the men--25 of them--in English, as they load their weapons in the back of the truck and walk to another checkpoint for a more exhaustive search, which must be completed before they are allowed onto the base. The drill is the same every day--the same show time, the same process, the same searches--yet the men appear good-natured about it, as though they have long since learned to compartmentalize such trivial discomforts, and have accepted that, in order to accomplish something difficult, and to join of an exclusive group, such discomforts and hassles must be tolerated with a smile.

And these men are in the process of joining quite an exclusive group within their profession. Some are already Iraqi Police, while others are simply recruits off the street; however, for those who successfully complete the training laid out for them by their Green Beret-wearing taskmasters, they will be an elite within their region’s security apparatus: members of the Tal Afar SWAT team.

The city of Tal Afar, home to an old castle and other remnants of the Ottoman Empire, sits in northwestern Iraq, near the country’s borders with Turkey and Syria. The population, primarily Shia Turkmen, is supplemented by Kurds, as well as by Sunni and Shia Arabs. One conventional military unit--the 1-9 Cavalry Squadron--is tasked to the area; other than that, security in the region is primarily the job of the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police, led by one elite unit: the Tal Afar SWAT, a highly trained (by Iraqi standards) team of police who conduct a wide variety of important missions throughout the region, both alone and backed up by an American Special Forces (SF) team, responsible for training and advising these Iraqis.

PROSPECTIVE TAL AFAR SWAT team members are put through a two-part training course by U.S. Special Forces. First is a four-day ‘smoke session,’ characterized by very little sleep and a great deal of physical activity.

“We try to test their desire,” said the Special Forces team commander. “They have to want to be here.”

This attempt to test the mettle of those joining the elite unit isn’t without difficulties, of course. “With the last group we trained,” he continued, “some of them had simply been told by their police commanders to show up at a certain place at a certain time, for ‘training.’ They had no idea what they were getting in to.” Very few quit, though, despite the uncomfortable situation (“These guys hate to run, for example,” said one SF sergeant, “so we’d take them for run after run after run”). “We’d have some folks that we want to quit,” said the team leader. “And a lot of times they wouldn’t--which I guess is a good thing.”

Though nothing is guaranteed, those who successfully complete the four-day selection--in this case, 25 out of the 30 who began--are determined to be good enough to begin formal training as candidates for positions on the SWAT team.

“DO IT AGAIN!” yells a Special Forces sergeant, standing atop the large HesCo barriers that make up the ‘walls’ of the SWAT training facility (the ‘shoot-house,’ an urban mockup that the SF team uses to train candidates on close quarters combat), as a five-man team attempts to clear a building of hostiles. “They know that English phrase really well,” he says to me, with a wry grin. Correct repetition appears to be the key to training these candidates in proper urban and close quarters combat, and the same 25 candidates, in groups of five, work their way through the ‘shoot-house,’ accompanied by a constantly-critiquing (and joking) Special Forces soldier, as well as by an Arabic and Turkmen-speaking interpreter. Mistakes are followed by do-overs until the correct actions are second nature--once training is complete, these men will join their SWAT unit in facing live bullets. Here mistakes are paid for in sweat (in this case, via pushups), so that they will not be made in the future, when the payment is in blood.

Unlike the training of conventional Iraqi and National Police, which is done in a one-size-fits-all, strictly-scheduled manner, the training of SWAT candidates is done “not to time,” but “to standard,” as a Special Forces sergeant so succinctly put it. “Once they can go through the shoot-house with live rounds, without us worrying about them killing us or each other, then they’ll be done--however long that takes.”

THE TAL AFAR SWAT have learned well from their elite American teachers. Referring to themselves as ‘Special Forces’ (an honorific doubtless derived both from their pride in being an elite within the Iraqi Police and from their respect for their U.S. instructors and partners), they have an operational tempo higher than most units, and carry out such tasks as constructing warning and operations orders, conducting operations--day and night--and performing after action reviews (AARs), often entirely unsupervised. Their missions include direct action against high value individuals (in the form of insurgent leaders), hostage rescues, and many, many others, from the highly technical to the relatively mundane.

The unit faces many challenges, though--some of which are caused by their own effectiveness. Due to their extensive training and proven capability and reliability, the men of the Tal Afar SWAT, who already conduct more missions on a daily basis than the average police or army unit possibly could, are often hand-picked to perform regular police work.

There are still more difficulties than simply these being faced by the elite police unit. They have suffered from a lack professional leadership--the Iraqis are disinclined to promote from within the ranks, preferring instead to place higher-class (though less qualified) individuals into officer positions.

A lack of recognition by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MOI), which oversees all domestic security forces, has also hurt the development, and hampered the proper use, of the SWAT unit. This is most directly felt in the areas of supply and maintenance. Due to the nature of their job, SWAT members require specialized equipment, and often need to have damaged gear repaired or replaced more frequently than conventional police do. The absence of a dedicated supply pipeline not only means that broken gear can often go unreplaced for long periods of time, but also that they have insufficient supplies to clothe and equip their ever-growing force. This problem is so great that team members rotating off of their shifts often have to take off their uniforms and hand them to their replacements, as there are only enough for about half of the unit’s personnel. Further, it is not uncommon to see SWAT members working in fatigues and penny-loafers or other out-of-place shoes, as real combat boots are difficult to come by.

This lack of supplies and of special treatment, though, does not take away from the Tal Afar unit’s performance. During their time in existence (less than two years), and under the tutelage of three successive SF teams, the unit has doubled in numbers (from 50, “20 of whom would actually show up,” says the team leader, to--when this class graduates--over 90), improved its training, and conducted myriad ‘intelligence-driven’ operations (often with information voluntarily provided by citizens), both alone and in cooperation with the Iraqi Police’s Counterterrorist Unit, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Counterterrorist Group, the Iraqi Army’s ‘Strike’ Company, and U.S. Special Forces.

Recent successes have included playing an instrumental role, along with U.S. SF, in the crushing of an active al Qaeda in Iraq cell in the area--both by killing or capturing the bulk of its former leadership, and then, almost immediately, capturing the cell leader appointed to replace those previously caught.

AS THE TRAINING DAY winds down and the temperature approaches its daily maximum, the drills are performed more deftly, and the scenarios being faced are grow more complex. “They’re doing pretty well,” says one of the instructors to me. “I think they’ll be ready to go live (use live ammunition in their AK-47s) tomorrow”--a giant step forward in their training, and in their quest to join this elite fraternity of Iraqi policemen.

With that, he calls it a day--an announcement which is met by a great deal of cheering by the Turkmen and Arabs in training, who are one day closer to their goal. The trash from breakfast (a brief mid-morning break) is picked up at the site, and all of the candidates are loaded onto a bus bound for the base entrance, to drop them off for the ride home. As the bus pulls out of the training site, the trainees burst into celebratory song--another day of training is in the books, and the entirety of the afternoon remains.

Throughout Iraq, the issue of under-trained, undermanned, and under-equipped police forces is being dealt with, both at the recruiters’ stations and in the police academies, where the majority of training is now conducted by Iraqis rather than Americans. In Tal Afar, though, higher standard has been set.

Those who aspire to do their jobs well have an example to look up to, in the form of a unit which is, by Iraqi standards, among the best in its field.

And, if looking up to those who do their job better, more frequently, and in more diverse environments isn’t enough for the average Iraqi policeman in Tal Afar, then, if he thinks he has what it takes, he can strive to join this elite group himself – provided that he can handle the rigorous training, and can make it past the green beret-wearing gatekeepers of the force.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a director of conservative weblog, is currently embedded with the US military on the front lines in Iraq. His mission is 100% funded by reader donations, and his reports can be seen at

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At 4:32 AM, Blogger Steve said...

It's hard to imagine going through all of that rough training with the temperatures in Iraq. I knew it was hot, but I can't believe the numbers I'm hearing. I wonder how much that affects their performance. How common is heat exhaustion?

I've also been reading dispatches from Michael Totten, and I've been noticing lately that a few of his dispatches have mentioned connections between Iraqi police and the Mahdi Army (particularly his chilling Aug. 14th dispatch, titled 'Balance of Terror').
I don't want to belittle the endeavors of all Iraqis by focusing on the corruption of what may very well be a minority - as the media is all too eager to do. But I'm curious to know if you've often been given notice of similar ties in the areas you've been through. Particularly with the case of these elite teams.

As always, thanks for keeping us up to date!


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