| A US soldier holds a cigarette for a hooded detainee in Falluja. (Reuters)
Mosul, Nov. 19 (Reuters): Iraq is hoping to hold national elections in just over two months' time, but events in Mosul last week, where the police force all but collapsed, have underlined just how challenging that plan could prove.
In the space of 48 hours, around 3,200 of Mosul's 4,000 police officers dropped their weapons and ran off, intimidated into submission by groups of armed insurgents. At least seven police stations were overrun and looted of their weapons, radios, uniforms and vehicles, before being set ablaze or, in at least one case, destroyed by dynamite.
It was a sorry concession by a force set up by US authorities last year and promoted as a symbol of the new Iraq. The police were supposed to be the backbone of Iraq's new security forces, reinforced by the national guard and the army.
Instead, it is now the national guard ' a paramilitary force structured like an army ' that is policing many streets, and will likely bear the brunt of security responsibilities when it comes to January's elections, at least in Mosul.
That poses its own problems in Mosul, where Arabs are uneasy at the appearance on their streets of Kurdish national guard units, prompting fears of ethnic strife in the mixed city.
'We are in a various, precarious security environment,' Lieutenant Colonel Michael Gibler, commander of the 3-21 Infantry Battalion, based in Mosul, said yesterday after recounting how police in his area had fled their posts.
'We need to re-establish our presence in the neighbourhoods ... But I'm not naive enough to believe that's going to take a day or a week or a year ' it's going to take time. We're almost starting over.'
Clearly the level of intimidation Iraqi forces face is huge: Gibler said troops found headless and dismembered bodies near one police station; and the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi made an unconfirmed claim that it beheaded two national guard officers in public in Mosul yesterday.
But as well as the issue of desertion, there are concerns about how deeply the police force has been infiltrated, and questions about how US and Iraqi authorities should now go about recruiting officers.
The police chief on duty when the mass desertion occurred on November 10-11 has been fired and a new chief drafted in.
He's now carrying out an audit of the remaining 800 or so police to assess who's really loyal and who's a potential deserter.