This week saw an important milestone for the Czech mission in Iraq: on Tuesday Czech military police serving at the Al Shaiba base near Basra, in the southern part of the country, officially handed over command of training at the police academy to Iraqi officials for the first time. Over the last three years Czech military police serving in Basra have trained thousands of Iraqi officers.
Though the presence of Czech military personnel in Iraq is a small one, officials point out it has had a marked impact, with Czech specialists training new police personnel everything from self-defence and marksmanship to customs work and border patrol. This week saw the Czechs officially hand over training at the academy to Iraqis themselves. Andrej Cirtek is the spokesman for the Defence Ministry:
"Czech military policeman worked very hard at the Al Shaiba base in Iraq for almost three years and during this time they trained more than 12,000 Iraqi policemen for their duties. It has a very high positive impact because Iraqis feel that now the moment finally came when they must bear the responsibility and no else will do it instead of them and them alone. So, now the training is their duty and their responsibility and of course they feel the urgency and they feel that now it's really up to them. And, this of course has a very positive impact on the quality of work and motivation from the Iraqi side."
Handing over responsibility to Iraqi officials is obviously important for a number of reasons, some pragmatic, but also some symbolic for Iraqis, with officials pointing out that the increase in Iraqi security forces also strengthens a sense of national identity. That doesn't necessarily mean that Czechs will be done in Iraq yet - at is stands now it's quite likely that their mission could be prolonged. A Defence Ministry proposal continuing the mission next year has already been passed by the Senate, though it will still need approval by the lower house. If it gets it, Andrej Cirtek says it, the Czechs' focus will somewhat change:
"Until the end of the year we will continue in our training mission and of course after handing over the training at the academy we will prepare for change. Next year it is proposed by the Defence Ministry that the mission continue and the difference is that the mission will move from Al Shaiba to Basra airport. It's likely that the focus would change somewhat. They could provide some methodical control for Iraqi policemen directly in the field: they could visit Iraqi police posts and could advise Iraqi officials in a more direct manner."
The lower house will have to decide but it has also been pointed out that any change in commitment by British forces will also be an important factor: Czech personnel at Al Shaiba can't operate independently and any continuation of the Czech mission will have to depend on a strong British presence.
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