The decision was made following a series of scandals involving Iraqi interior ministry forces including the discovery, last month, of dozens of emaciated and tortured inmates during a raid on a secret prison with almost 170 prisoners. American officials, who fear the influence of militias in the police force, have since found evidence of maltreatment in two other Baghdad prisons and another in Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq.
At present about 40 American soldiers are attached to each of seven of the nine special Iraqi police brigades. Under a plan, expected to be announced in Washington in the coming weeks, all the units will get several hundred advisers each.
"What we're trying to look for is that moderation," a senior official told the Los Angeles Times, "that you can't just go and attack that neighbourhood because it's primarily a different sect or a different race or a group of foreigners ... and just arrest them because they're different and put them in secret facilities and hold them for undetermined periods of time." US troops have themselves abused prisoners, most notoriously at Abu Ghraib prison, where National Guards routinely humiliated and degraded those under their jurisdiction.
The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, dubbed 2006 "the year of the police" and he fears the behaviour of the Shia-dominated police force towards their mostly Sunni prisoners could further inflame sectarian tensions. Hundreds of corpses of Sunni men have been found in the Tigris or left in derelict areas. According to the LA Times many had been tied, blindfolded and shot after being taken away by people claiming to be Iraqi forces, according to relatives. Shias say Sunnis have responded with revenge attacks.
Earlier this week the US said it would delay the transfer of prisons it controls to the Iraqi government while stepping up the monitoring of arrests and detainees.
"They have to coordinate with us and request permission to come into our battle space," an official said.
The US military says it does not tolerate militias in the security forces, but the Iraqi constitution allows regions to have "home guards" or "regional guards."
"It is not easy to identify that some operation tonight was legitimately directed by somebody in the security organisation of the ministry of the interior or the ministry of defence," a US commander said, "or whether it was some people in ... militia ... who decided to attack someone's ... neighbourhood."
"We're going to try to wrap ourselves around them," he said referring to militia fighters. "By hugging the enemy, wrapping our arms around them, we hope to control them ... like we did with the army," the commander said.
The assertion of US control over the police indicates a growing involvement in Iraq's internal affairs even as Washington seeks to scale down troop levels elsewhere. But a spokesman for the multinational force denied this. "This is not about oversight or watching our partners," he said. "We want to be positive role models, to provide experience and assets, so Iraq can transition to civil security ...".
On November 13 US troops were searching for a missing teenage boy in Baghdad when they discovered about 170 prisoners in an interior ministry bunker. According to eyewitnesses, the inmates, who their captors say were suspected terrorists, had clearly been tortured and ill-treated. "I've never seen such a situation like this during the past two years in Baghdad. This is the worst," deputy interior minister Hussein Kamal told CNN. "I saw signs of physical abuse by brutal beating, one or two detainees were paralysed and some had their skin peeled off." All the prisoners were Sunni Muslims, the minority that held sway under Saddam Hussein. The majority of the police are Shia.