BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A “dirty dozen” bomb-sniffing dogs whose canine nature makes them taboo in the Arab world is helping to win over Iraqis to the idea dogs are man’s best friend — especially when the animal saves your life.
At Baghdad’s police training college, some of the 12 Alsatians and other breeds now deployed as bomb sniffers in the capital speak to the cultural aversion that has likely cost lives in the fight against a still potent insurgency.
The names of the dogs — Tom, Pieter, Benny and Shirley, all four donated from Europe — are often a mouthful for their Iraqi handlers, but they haven’t been changed.
If they had been altered, “I might get offended if a dog has the same name as me,” laughed a veterinary official at the college, adding: “English names are good.”
Dogs are viewed as unclean by many Muslims because of Islamic teachings that say they put their snouts everywhere.
Guard dogs, kept outside of houses, are permissible but many Iraqis shudder at the thought of a dog nosing through personal items in their bags or in their cars.
U.S. forces were not averse, at times, to exploiting the Iraqis’ dislike of dogs, as they notoriously did at Abu Ghraib prison when wardens used them to torment prisoners while they were also being sexually humiliated.
More recently, though, the anti-canine culture has hampered U.S. efforts to persuade Iraqis to use more bomb-sniffing dogs in the battle against bombs, which kill dozens each month even as the sectarian war that raged after the 2003 invasion recedes.
The U.S. military handed over security in the cities to Iraqi forces a year ago and plans to end combat operations in August, placing the burden of battling al Qaeda’s offshoots entirely on the shoulders of Iraq’s 650,000 police and soldiers.
Dealing with bomb detection became urgent last year after revelations that a hand-held device heavily relied on at checkpoints in Baghdad, and for which Iraq forked out tens of millions of dollars, was little more than a divining rod that had no real working parts.
The British government banned the export of the ADE651 device marketed by a British company and the owner of the firm was arrested on suspicion of fraud.
Yet Iraqi officials continued to insist the bomb detection devices worked — partly, some conceded, because they had no alternative and feared that if they admitted the wands did nothing it would leave checkpoints at the mercy of insurgents.
Dogs are not foolproof. They often fail, for example, to detect explosives planted above the level of their snouts.
Counterterrorism experts say the only vigorous defense against bombings is to employ a variety of detection methods.
Dogs, X-ray devices, physical searches and mirrors for checking under vehicles should be used together and police and soldiers need to be trained to detect suspicious behavior.
In Iraq, training dogs and handlers is an important first step, U.S. officials say. The timing also is critical because an inconclusive election in March, which produced no outright winner and as yet no new government, has raised tensions.
General Mohammed Mosab al-Hajir, the head of dog training for the Iraqi forces, said only 12 bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed in Baghdad but another 24 were in training.
In the entire country there are 78, eight of which are used to detect narcotics.
“MOI (the Ministry of Interior) was scared of working with dogs, but now it’s a success,” Hajir said.
“When the public became aware that this device (the wand) doesn’t work, the public asked for K9 (dog units). They don’t trust the ADE651. They are insisting we increase the number of dogs.”
U.S. Major General Richard Rowe, who oversees U.S.-led efforts to train Iraqi police, said the plan was to eventually deploy 1,500 or more bomb-sniffing dogs in Iraq.
“There was resistance, but not now,” he said.
Iraqis questioned about the increasing use of dogs at checkpoints seemed to agree — up to a point.
“If a dog searches my car, it is normal, but if it touches humans, no,” said civil servant Jaffar Mohammed, 48.
“That is filthy and we are a Muslim population. That is not acceptable.”
Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Rania El Gamal and Michael Roddy