Staff Sgt. Nolan Berg stepped off a plane in October 2018, and the daytime high was 35 degrees Celsius. Whisked through numerous checkpoints with signs entirely in Arabic, he arrived at a camp inhabited by Italians, Swedes, Fins, Czech and Slovakians.
All of them volunteered for Police Task Force – Iraq, an effort led by the Italian Carabinieri designed as a “train-the-trainer” course for police officers belonging to the Middle East nation.
“We’re at the very initial stage of trying to change the model of policing in Iraq from that militaristic style to a blue-uniform, community-responsive, community-focused style of policing,” Berg told Global News on Thursday.
Canadians, in particular, provided “nuanced instruction” in areas like human rights and intelligence gathering. More basic topics included safe firearms handling, arrest procedures and how to clear properties of suspects.
Berg, a 19-year member of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS), returned from the year-long stint in Iraq last month. He resumed working at police headquarters last week. Two SPS officers remain in Iraq, Berg said.
Armed conflict in Iraq goes back decades, occurring in wars with Iran, the United States (twice) and most recently, ISIS fighters. Berg said the military is looking to secure and rebuild the country, and the police training mission is a part of that effort.
Still, security protocols were tight and trainers “were essentially locked down in fortified encampments” on the outskirts of Baghdad.
The only time Berg saw the capital city proper was by a ground vehicle or helicopter.
Near the end of Berg’s deployment, social upheaval erupted in Baghdad. Protesters took to the streets over high unemployment and what they perceived as government corruption.
Hundreds have died in clashes with Iraqi security forces. Amnesty International has called the government crackdown a “bloodbath.”
Berg said it’s easy to let such confrontations shake a person’s faith, but he said he’s confident the officers he trained are those who provide stabilization after violence subsides.
“Our efforts there in Iraq are not in vain,” he said.
The long-term prospects of the program remain positive, he said, as long as the international community continues sending “the right people with the right content.”
Earlier this year, Sgt. Erin Coates returned to Saskatoon from Iraq. She was the first female Canadian police officer to be sent to the country.