Iraq to guard historic sites with police commandos
By QASSIM ABDULZAHRA,Associated Press Writer AP - Monday, December 8
BAGHDAD - Iraq will dispatch police commandos to safeguard its archaeological heritage, the government said Sunday, announcing plans to protect sites such as the ancient city of Babylon that were left vulnerable to looting after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The announcement comes as Iraqi forces lay out plans to take over their own security under a recently approved pact with the United States that sets a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, the commander of Iraq's National Police force, said a new agency will be created to secure archaeological sites, which are only beginning to recover from the widespread looting in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion.
He said a similar directorate has already 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."
The National Police also 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, al-Awadi said.
The Green Zone 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 security pact 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 ancient ruins that will fall under the new protection will include Babylon, one of the world's first cities, where Nebuchadnezzar II is believed to have built one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens.
Also included will be Ctesiphon, capital of the pre-Islamic Persian empire, on the Tigris river southeast of Baghdad, he said. During the 1991 Gulf War, shock waves from bombing triggered cracks at the ruins, which contain the world's widest single-span arch of unreinforced brickwork.
The National Police chief also outlined protection plans for other key facilities, including the Central Bank in Baghdad, which will get a battalion of about 500 to 600 officers.
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.
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. Under the deal, American forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 and from the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012.
Labid Abbawi, the Foreign Ministry undersecretary, said British and Iraqi negotiators are in talks about a similar agreement to govern British military operations in Iraq. He said he hopes the British agreement, to replace the U.N. mandate now governing their presence, will be signed by the end of the year.
Abbawi said the British pact might simply be a memorandum of understanding and not subject to parliamentary approval as was the U.S. deal, which also replaced the U.N. mandate that expires on Dec. 31.
Britain has about 4,000 troops in southern Iraq, compared with about 150,000 U.S. troops.
Attacks have continued despite stepped-up security measures and a sharp decline in violence over the past year, raising concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to provide security.
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.
A gunmen also killed two liquor store owners who were members of the Yazidi minority religious sect in the volatile northern city of Mosul on Sunday, Iraqi police and hospital officials said.
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.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.
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