Ihsan Ghaidan, a policeman in one of Iraq’s most volatile provinces, admits he stands little chance of promotion and notes his performance is increasingly under the microscope, for one simple reason — he is overweight, and Iraq’s security leaders are not happy.
In fact, he is not just overweight — standing 177 cm (five feet nine inches) and weighing 116 kilograms (256 pounds), Ghaidan is obese, according to the US Department of Health’s online body mass index calculator.
And Ghaidan is among those whom Iraq’s security forces want to put the squeeze on. By one measure, the vast majority of soldiers and policemen in his province of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, are overweight.
“My body is not fit, and that is definitely affecting my movement while on duty,” he told AFP.
“My movement is usually slow, and especially during raids, to the extent that I sometimes have to stay and guard cars, just in case there is a chase, which I cannot do.”
Iraq’s laws regulating the military and police require that all members meet certain health and fitness requirements, and officials are increasingly demanding that the rules be strictly applied.
According to Dolir Hassan, a provincial councillor in Diyala, which still suffers near-daily violence, between 70 and 80 percent of the police and army in the province are obese.
“Most sufferers of this disease are officers, because of the lack of oversight,” he complained.
Weight problems are common among Iraqi policemen, largely as a result of lax internal health and fitness standards, little daily exercise, and unhealthy diets heavy on meat and light on greens.
Hassan said in previous decades an overweight officer risked being brought before a supervisory committee that had the power to fire the offending member of the security forces.
Now, however, such an apparatus has fallen out of use, but top officials are pushing for tough rules to be applied to the letter.
“We ordered, three months ago, to return to old promotion regulations, which require (police) to not be obese, and to be at a normal weight,” Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi told AFP.
He said that this represented the best hope of reducing weight en masse among the security forces — those who do not comply will not be promoted.
However, in a country where corruption in the security forces remains a key problem, whether the rules will be strictly applied remains an open question.
Ex-army officer Abduljabbar Abdulrahman recalled that warnings would be issued to anyone in the police and the army whose weight was ballooning, and officers up for promotion would often be forced to exercise to meet minimum fitness requirements.
At the time, before the 2003 US-led invasion, the Iraqi army still struggled with overweight soldiers, though those were primarily conscripts who were not forced to maintain a healthy weight, Abdulrahman noted.
He and others made reference to a report by Al-Arabiya satellite television, a copy of which was uploaded onto the video-sharing website YouTube in August 2011, showing Saddam-era leaders exercising on camera under the supervision of elite Republican Guard officers.
The video, which had around 150,000 views at the time of publication, has highlighted key differences in health and fitness between Saddam-era security forces and their current incarnations.
Those current officers, and their weight problems, are not just an issue in Diyala province, either.
Captain Muqdad al-Mussawi, spokesman for police forces in Najaf province, south of Baghdad, said that the interior ministry’s new rules had been sent to all precincts, while a senior cop in the northern province of Kirkuk said they wanted to force chronically overweight officers to retire.
“We have proven that being fat represents a big obstacle to building security institutions, and fighting terrorism and organised crime,” said the top officer, who declined to be identified.
He said the province had instituted guidelines whereby a policeman standing 180 centimetres tall had to weigh between 70 and 75 kilograms.
“Security officers must be very fit,” he said.