BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ About 4,000 Iraqi police have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded in the past two years, the U.S. commander in charge of police training said Friday, but he said the force's performance was improving and officials are working to weed out militiamen.
Beefing up Iraq's security forces is a cornerstone of efforts to stop the violence that has torn the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Police have been a prime target for attacks by Sunni insurgents.
Sunnis accuse the Shiite-led police of helping fuel sectarian violence that has killed thousands this year. They say the police have been infiltrated by Shiite militias and turn a blind eye to death squads who kidnap and kill Sunnis.
On Friday, a Sunni Kurdish party accused Shiite militias of killing a Kurdish lawmaker, Mohammed Ridha Mohammed, who was kidnapped in Baghdad the night before and whose body was found dumped along with that of his driver.
Members of parliament have fallen victim in the past to Sunni insurgents, who have often targeted Kurds. But Mohammed's slaying was the first blamed on Shiite militias. He was a member of a religious conservative Kurdish party, the Islamic Group, a small faction in the Kurdish coalition that is part of the Shiite-led government.
More victims were found Friday in the spiral of slayings between Shiite and Sunni groups. Nine bodies were discovered in the southern Shiite city of Kut and the nearby town of Suwayrah. Among them was that of a Suwayrah city councilman.
During Friday prayers at the Imam al-Hussein shrine in the southern city of Karbala, the representative of Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged militias to put down their arms.
``The weapons should be in the hands of the government only,'' Ahmed al-Safi told worshippers. ``No other group should be allowed to carry weapons, so that the state would be able to provide the appropriate security conditions to the Iraqi people.''
Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson said it is hard to tell how many militia members have infiltrated the police forces.
``I have no idea what the number is,'' said Peterson, speaking from Baghdad to reporters at the Pentagon. ``Certainly if we ask the question, they won't respond that they are associated with any militia. ... It's something we continue to look for. We do ask the question.''
He said that any Iraqi police who are identified with a militia or who commit crimes are arrested, and others who have affiliations that cannot be tied directly to a crime are released from duty.
Iraqi authorities on Wednesday pulled a brigade of about 700 policemen out of service in their biggest move ever to uproot troops linked to death squads. The brigade is suspected of allowing gunmen to kidnap 24 workers from a frozen food factory in a district of Baghdad where the Shiite Mahdi Army militia is known to have considerable power.
The brigade commander was relieved of his duties, and a battalion commander was arrested, Peterson said, adding that officials had identified problems with the brigade during an inspection in August. He said the brigade ``demonstrated very poor performance'' in their missions.
Still, he said he believes the matter, which included the deaths of seven workers, was ``an isolated incident.''
``We have not seen other actions of late tied to sectarianism,'' he said. He added that Iraqi officials realize there are ``individuals who joined the legitimate security forces of Iraq but yet still maintain loyalties to militias. So that is an issue.''
Peterson said there are many police who are loyal to the country and ``they've paid a great price'' _ putting the toll since September 2004 at 4,000 policemen killed and 8,000 wounded in attacks.
Altogether about 186,000 Iraqi police have been trained, and officials expect to exceed the goal of 188,000 by 10,000 by year's end, he said.
Currently there are 6,000 coalition forces embedded with the Iraqi police units as training teams, and Peterson said the Iraqis are improving.
``A year ago we had a situation where a police station was attacked and policemen would run out the back door, leaving all the equipment,'' he said. ``That does not occur anymore.''
The United States has put increasing pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take action to stop sectarian violence amid deep divisions within his Cabinet between Shiite and Sunni parties. Sunnis complain al-Maliki is hesitant to take tough action against Shiite militias because many of them are linked to parties he relies on.