Q&A: Mike Heidingsfield, 

Iraqi Security Force commission member

Most days, Mike Heidingsfield studies local crime-fighting strategies from the safety of his downtown office. But in 2005, the president of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission helped train police forces in Iraq. That experience recently led him to another dangerous task.

In July, Heidingsfield spent two weeks in Iraq as part of a commission studying that country's security forces, which include the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. He, along with 20 other commission members, testified before Congress earlier this month. The commission found that the Iraqi army had improved and in the next 12 to 18 months should have the ability to operate independently of coalition forces.

But the commision also found that the Iraqi Police Services and the Iraqi National Police, which Heidingsfield spent his time studying, are undertrained, underequipped, and infiltrated by insurgents. — Bianca Phillips

How did you study the Iraqi Police?

We went to their training centers. We sat through their classes. We watched them operate in the field. We interviewed them. We did everything possible to immerse ourselves in what they were doing. It was of no value to stay in the Green Zone and simply be briefed because you couldn't get a sense of what's really happening.

Were you scared?

Yes, you're always afraid. You're afraid because if you're out in the Red Zone, you never know who the enemy is, because they look just like the next person. You never know where the next explosive device is going to be hidden. And you never know when you're going to be targeted.

You sleep in catnaps. You're always listening. I slept with my body armor and my machine gun.

What were your accommodations in the Green Zone?

You stay in a specially constructed shelter that's covered in sandbags to protect against mortar and rocket attacks. It's normally two small bedrooms with an adjoining restroom. It's not luxury living.

Does the Green Zone feel safe?

No, it doesn't, oddly enough. It used to feel safer. When I was there the first time, every so often the Green Zone would get rocketed or hit by a mortar.

This time, we got rocketed and mortared every day in the Green Zone. There were five deaths within the span of four days. In fact, the first death of an Army nurse in combat since Vietnam occurred while we were there. She was going to the gymnasium to work out and was hit by a mortar.

What did you eat?

They have Pizza Hut and Burger King in the Green Zone. And they have great dining halls with terrific cafeteria-style food.

You can't just go to a restaurant [in the Red Zone] because they'll kill you. People ask me if I went shopping, and I say no. Did you go get a beer? No. Did you sit in a coffee shop? No. You can't do those things because they will kill you.

There's controversy right now over whether the U.S. should pull out of the war. Based on what you've seen with the Iraqi Police, what do you think?

I think we ought to redeploy our forces to bases in Turkey, Kuwait, and Jordan. We'd be strategically positioned around Iraq. ... I think we should secure the borders of Iraq, so that Syrians and Iranians are denied the ability to go in and influence events.

I think we should secure the infrastructure, like the electrical grids, the oil fields, and if we do that, we should leave the internal political decisions to the Iraqis. They have to sort through how they're going to come at political reconciliation.

Do you think the recent troop surge made a difference?

I think it made a difference in the interim. Whenever you impose 30,000 additional troops in a relatively confined area, it's going to displace the violence and reduce the level of violence.

The question is whether the Iraqis have the ability to sustain that after we no longer have the surge in place. I think the original premise of the surge was to give the Iraqis the opportunity to make political decisions. And they have not done that.


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