North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

Killed in the line of duty: the catastrophic deaths of 14,000 Iraqi officers

How and why are so many police officers being killed in Iraq?

Lily Hamourtziadou
26 May 2021, 12.01am
Iraqi police officers march during a parade in their honour in the city of Nasiriyah, 2010
Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

On 2 May 2021, 12.8 million British viewers prepared to watch the season finale of ‘Line of Duty’, a popular BBC drama about bent coppers, detectives and edge-of-your-seat police action, excitedly waiting to see who ‘H’ was. Just two days earlier in Iraq, three policemen had lost their lives at a checkpoint, in the line of duty when ISIS militants attacked their patrol in Daquq. Five others were wounded.

These were the latest casualties in a war that has claimed around 14,000 Iraqi police officers’ lives since the March 2003 US-led invasion. In just four months this year, 23 policemen have been killed and they remain the biggest and most targeted civilian victim group in the country.

Research by Iraq Body Count reveals that Iraqi police officers die as a result of shootings, car bombs, suicide bombers and executions by terrorist groups. They are killed as they monitor checkpoints, patrol streets, protect towns and villages from attacks, dismantle bombs, enter booby-trapped homes and engage in clashes with terrorists and insurgents.

On 10 January 2015, 40 policemen in Ad Dor, southeast of the city of Tikrit, were killed for not swearing allegiance to the Islamic State. A week later, 12 policemen were killed by snipers in the city of Baiji, while a few days after that, on 23 January, 13 police officers were among 56 civilians executed by the Islamic State in Sinjar.

On 2 February the same year, 50 policemen were among 137 people executed by the Islamic State in Fallujah.

Police officers in Iraq come under attack on a daily basis, largely by irregular fighters: terrorists, guerrilla forces and insurgents, those groups whose common feature is an opposition to existing centres of power as openDemocracy’s international security adviser Paul Rogers argues in his book ‘Irregular War; the new threat from the margins’.

Irregular warfare

Irregular warfare is defined as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. It favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence and will.”

In irregular warfare, as in all forms of war, violence plays a role for political purposes: to demonstrate the ineptitude of the ruling government and to intimidate and coerce populations. Violence is used by sub-state actors to achieve power, control and legitimacy, through unorthodox or unconventional approaches.

As agents of the state that the irregular fighters want to destabilise, weaken or destroy, police officers have been attacked by Shi’a and Sunni groups alike

As agents of the state that the irregular fighters want to destabilise, weaken or destroy, police officers have been attacked by Shi’a and Sunni groups alike: Ba'athists, supporters of Saddam Hussein's administration, Iraqi nationalists, Sunni Islamists, Salafi/Wahhabi “jihadists”, Shi'a militias, including the Iran-linked Badr Organisation and the Mahdi Army, and foreign Islamist volunteers, including those linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, largely driven by the Salafi/Wahhabi doctrine.

The Islamic State is perhaps best known in the West for the Yazidi massacres in northern Iraq, the mass killings and rapes of women, human rights violations and the enslavement of children ‘for the caliphate’.

With so many horrific crimes committed against the civilian population of Iraq since 2014, it is perhaps easy to forget that police and security forces were the Islamic State’s main targets from the start. As Islamic State forces started to advance and occupy Iraqi territory, they killed up to 1,935 unarmed cadets from Camp Speicher on 12 June 2014, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.

The cadets were executed and their bodies were thrown in ditches, and photographed where they fell. Those photos were soon distributed around the world, to publicise the killers’ superiority over the frail state, to intimidate populations and to warn of the terror that was to follow.

They are not numbers

Thousands more police and security personnel have died in Iraq since the Speicher massacre.

Police officers such as Yousef al-Namrawi, killed as he entered a booby-trapped house in Kubaisa on 28 March 2016, or police majors Abdul Rahman al-Jubouri and Ahmed Khalid al-Abbasi, who were abducted and executed by Islamic State in September 2015.

Related story

BBC’s documentary 'Once upon a Time in Iraq' ignores the decimation of the Christian and Yazidi communities.

There is also Colonel Khaled Fadel Muhammad, director of administration at the command of the Diyala police, who was blown up by a magnetic bomb stuck to his vehicle in Baquba on 21 February 2016.

Lieutenant Colonel Basim al-Hadeethi, Captain Saeed al-Obeidi and Major Mashkoor al-Hadeethi, were killed in al-Baghdadi district, west of Anbar, on 27 January 2016 by car bombs. Whose children were they? Whose parents? How many people miss them? What kind of people were these men who fell in the line of duty? What remains of who they were?

As police officers continue to be attacked, it becomes increasingly important to document those killings, to record the names of the dead and to honour the lives of those put in charge of protecting the unarmed population.

A catastrophic legacy

Eighteen years after the invasion, Iraq is still in a state of war. It is the catastrophic legacy of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ that the country is kept in a perpetual war that has so far taken the lives of over 208,700 civilian men, women and children.

Each year more are added: civilians and combatants, dead and injured, as people continue to live under the threat of bombs raining on their heads, suicide bombers mixing with shoppers in markets, snipers targeting checkpoints, police and militia opening fire on protesters.

There is no end in sight to the toll of death and injury, of Iraq's mounting loss and grief. In 2021 we continue to witness a violent struggle among state and non-state actors, for legitimacy and influence. Since the start of the year, 235 civilians have been killed.

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