BAGHDAD, Iraq — The olive-green Peugeot sedan sat beneath the noon sun in a dirt lot by the police station. Small and mottled with rust, it looked as threatening as a rotten avocado. But it had been resting unattended for five hours, which was about four hours too long for police officers worried about car bombs.
Capt. Fouad Hadi barked orders. Several officers pushed the car across the lot. "It's all up to our God," the captain said, a walkie-talkie crackling in one hand. "Our spirits are still high. The attacks on us give us more motivation to fight the thugs and outlaws."
In the end, it proved to be just a parked jalopy, and the police went on to worrying about what form the next real threat might take - like the 35 or so suicide car bombs that exploded in September, many aimed at the nascent Iraqi security forces and would-be recruits lined up outside police stations and national guard centers.
Senior American commanders here all say the outcome of this increasingly grim war - and the ability of Americans to leave eventually - depends on standing up Iraqi security forces that can take over many of the policing duties now handled with questionable effectiveness by the 140,000 American soldiers here. The police force will be the largest component.
But these days, the Iraqi police spend as much time protecting themselves as guarding the public. The police are key targets in the insurgents' campaign to cripple the interim Iraqi government, and hospital wards are filling with dazed men lying in blood-drenched blue uniforms.
To listen to Iraq's new police officers is to hear the voices of under-equipped and under-trained men, often unnerved by the danger but determined to work. They hope that if they can feed their families and calm their country, their lives may get better. They say they are committed to building a new Iraq, but many are skeptical about the Americans who insist they were sent here to do the same thing. Some even say they are willing to turn their guns on the soldiers.
At least 750 police officers were killed between the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 and June this year, according to Interior Ministry statistics, and scores more have been slain since then. In addition, hundreds of potential recruits were killed in bombings.
In the southern city of Basra, some policemen have begun wearing black ski masks to hide their identities, giving them more than a passing resemblance to the shadowy jihadists they are supposed to be fighting.
But like Captain Hadi, many police officers and potential recruits say the violence does not shake their resolve to serve. For sure, it does not shake their need to bring home a paycheck. Iraq's unemployment rate is 50 percent, and police officers earn a relatively high average salary, equivalent to $228 a month. So the number of people applying for jobs has not dropped, Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said.
Ayad Hussein, 24, a recruit recovering in Karama Hospital from shrapnel wounds suffered in a car bombing, said he was not deterred. "There are no other jobs, no opportunities offered," he said.
If a police officer is killed on duty, the family gets a payment equivalent to $690 and continues getting the officer's salary indefinitely, Colonel Abdul-Rahman said.
But some officers complain that they have yet to see promised raises.
"They said there would be a bonus last month for fighting the Mahdi Army," said Sgt. Rafid Rashid, 34, referring to the Shiite militia that rose in rebellion in August. "But we got nothing."
Many officers also express frustration that they are issued assault rifles and pistols, while insurgents often have rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Many also complain of a shortage of good body armor.
The elaborate defenses surrounding stationhouses are testaments to the hazards. At the headquarters of the Organized Crime Unit in western Baghdad, where Captain Hadi's men were spooked by the parked car, a labyrinth of sand-filled barriers and metal-spiked speed bumps lies between the parking lot and the front door. Insurgents have attacked the building using mortars and cars packed with explosives. Black funeral banners proclaiming the martyrdom of comrades drape some barriers.
"We always keep in mind the worst thing that can happen," Gen. Abdul Razzaq al-Samarrai, chief of police in Baghdad, said at a recent news conference. "Right now, we think these attacks will continue until January." That is when elections are scheduled.
The force has 39,000 trained officers now, and the American military hopes to have more than 60,000 on hand for the elections, Capt. Steven Alvarez, a United States military spokesman, said. The ultimate goal is 140,000. But Reuters recently cited Pentagon documents saying that only 8,169 have had the full eight-week academy training.
Even if one takes the military's numbers at face value, there is no way to measure the loyalty and morale of the officers.
Sergeant Rashid said he had to use his own money to fill the gas tank of his squad car and to buy decent blue shirts for his uniform. "Even very ordinary tasks are dangerous these days," he said. "We're afraid, but we do our job. It's kind of a national motivation. Who will protect our country if I quit and others quit?"
Many policemen said the occupation forces had botched Iraq's security, and it was now up to Iraqis to fix it. At the site of a roadside bomb explosion in Baghdad that killed three Iraqi security guards, the police arrived an hour before American soldiers showed up, and struggled to keep a growing crowd away from the bloody wreck.
"All of our families, they don't like this job, they want us to quit," said Sgt. Ahmed Abdul Ilaa, 25. "But if I did that and the next person did that, what will become of our country?" Next to him stood Sgt. Husham Abdul Zahara . "If we depend on the Americans,'' he said, "we'll never have security or stability."
Earlier that morning, at dawn, a half-dozen policemen were sitting around at a cafe in the same neighborhood eating eggs and bread. They smoked and drank tea and read in a newspaper of how three policemen had been killed by a suicide car bomb in the capital the previous day. A 32-year-old chief sergeant who declined to give his name made a distinction between killing policemen and killing Americans.
"The mujahedeen," he said, referring to Iraqi Islamist fighters, "are my brothers, but when policemen are killed, it is not the mujahedeen; those people are Wahhabis and terrorists like Zarqawi and Osama." Now he was referring to the branch of fundamentalist Islam associated with Saudi Arabia and followed by Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian.
"I like the mujahedeen," he said, "because they fight the Americans."