In lawless Baghdad, police are powerless

A man is comforted by a friend after a fight in the Kampsara neighborhood of Baghdad. U.S soldiers have filled the vacuum left by an impotent police force (Noah Addis)

BAGHDAD — The men burst into the house before dawn, stabbing some people as they slept, shooting others who tried to run.

In less than five minutes last Tuesday, Karim Salih’s family was slaughtered. Five brothers, his father and a sister were killed. Salih and a 9-year-old sister survived the attack by hiding in a bathroom, cowering in a shower stall as the men rooted through drawers and cabinets, stealing what few possessions the family owned.

“I want to know who did this,” Salih, 28, said to a group of officers at Baghdad police headquarters late last week. “Why did they kill them? They could have taken what they wanted and gone. What is happening with the world when people cannot sleep safely in their beds? We live in the jungle here. No one is safe.”

Iraqi police Lt. Rani Habib nodded in sympathy. “It is a terrible situation,” Habib told the man. “The criminals are running Baghdad now. But I can do nothing.”

There would be no investigation, not for Salih and not for the dozens of other people who arrive at police headquarters each day, begging for the arrest of killers and for the return of security to a city that has been in the grip of lawlessness since Saddam Hussein’s regime fell April 7.

Baghdad’s fledgling police force, little more than two weeks old and hardly up to full strength, is in no position to restore order. Officers lack weapons, two-way radios, vehicles, uniforms and the authority to carry out investigations and make arrests. While some Iraqi officers conduct joint patrols with U.S. troops, they’re not yet permitted to do so alone.

Nor do they want to, saying they’re hopelessly outgunned by street thugs and gangs toting AK-47 assault rifles.

“When the coalition is with us, things are fine,” said Baghdad police Lt. Muhammed Rahif, one of five Iraqi officers on a patrol with American soldiers on Friday. “People see the coalition coming with their tanks and rifles and they drop their weapons and give up. When they see us alone, they have no fear. They would kill us without thinking about it.”

Many police officers have been relegated to directing traffic. Even then they are often ignored. Motorists routinely charge through intersections and drive into oncoming traffic to escape the capital’s frequent bottlenecks.

“This is not justice,” said Lt. Alaa Hashimi Muhammed Rustin, who was among a group of police officials who complained last week to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the American-led agency now administering Iraq. “We have good officers, but we’re not being given the chance to do our jobs.”

Karim Salih, in head scarf, told police at Baghdad police headquarters that his five brothers, a sister and his father were slaughtered in their Sadr City home. Police said they could do nothing about it because they did not have adequate weapons. (Noah Addis)


Lt. Col. Anthony Healy, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s civil affairs team in Baghdad, acknowledged that progress is slow, but he said a deliberate pace is necessary to ensure that the reconstituted police force is free of both corruption and Saddam loyalists.

“I’m sure the majority of police officers are good, but there were some bad cops under the last regime,” Healy said. “We’ve got to filter them out. We’re going to put the police back to work, but it will take time. We’re still at the crawl stage, not at the walk stage.”

Across Iraq, about 10,000 police officers have expressed a willingness to return to duty, lured by the promise of $20 monthly salaries, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, a U.S. Army commander, told reporters at a security briefing Thursday. About 3,200 of those officers are in Baghdad, a city of 4.5 million.

But few of the officers are actively policing. At police stations across the capital, Iraqi commanders say most street cops won’t return to work until the pay materializes and until they have the equipment to safely do their jobs.

What’s more, those who report for duty have little to do but wait for orders from the Americans in charge. Most days, those orders never arrive, reflecting a lack of communication between the two groups.

“We’re not allowed to do anything without permission from the coalition,” said Officer Nasir Ibrahim, a 22-year veteran of the Baghdad police force. “My people are killing each other in the streets, and I can’t do anything about it.”

Disorder in Baghdad has abated somewhat since the chaotic days that followed the regime’s fall, when looters ransacked and burned government buildings, banks and stores.

But cases of murder, arson, rape and robbery remain far more prevalent than they did before the war, police and residents say.

Fear of crime pervades every facet of life. Many parents still won’t send their children to schools. Taxi drivers avoid entire neighborhoods. And many store owners say they won’t reopen their shops until the streets are safer. Those who have opened for business usually shut down at dusk.

“The shooting goes on all night,” said Hannah Peter, 43, whose family owns a small grocery store in Baghdad’s Kampsara section. “Staying open a few hours longer is not worth our lives.”

Exacerbating the situation is the lack of regular electricity, with large swaths of the city in inky darkness each night.

Affrah Ibrahim, a 26-year-old teacher, pleaded with police to give her protection after her brother, a member of a militia loyal to Saddam Hussein, threatened to kill her family. The police said they could not help her, citing a lack of guns and ammunition. (Noah Addis)


Perhaps the biggest problem, police say, stems from one of Saddam’s final acts. Seeking to galvanize support for his regime as the United States and Great Britain prepared to invade, the Iraqi dictator emptied most of the country’s prisons in March.

“The same people we put in prison for murder and rape are out there doing it all over again,” Ibrahim said. “There are thousands of them we have to catch.”

Further complicating efforts to restore order is the easy availability of guns. Iraq, which once boasted the fourth-largest army in the world, is a nation of soldiers and former soldiers, many of whom kept personal weapons. In addition, Baghdad’s defenders during the war scattered arms caches in schools, hospitals and homes throughout the city.

American troops now seize weapons wherever they find them, but a thriving black market remains. In New Baghdad, a teeming, destitute neighborhood on the capital’s eastern edge, AK-47s sell for as little as $50. On the busy main boulevards, children sell bullets from cardboard boxes, shouting for customers alongside vegetable stands.

All of these worries spill out at Baghdad police headquarters, a sprawling, walled compound that once served as the capital’s police academy.

All day, every day, residents arrive from across the city with accounts of mayhem and pleas for help.

Khather Lilu Jedda came in a battered Toyota pickup truck. The body of his cousin lay in the back. Hussein Mahmud Khan, 25, was a taxi driver in Sadr City, the capital’s most poverty-stricken neighborhood.

On Tuesday night, Khan never made it home. Wednesday morning, Jedda and other relatives found Khan’s body in the street. He had been shot twice in the chest, his Kia minibus stolen.

Affrah Ibrahim, a 26-year-old teacher, arrived at police headquarters with her parents. Her brother, she told officers, had been a member of the Fedayeen Saddam, the Iraqi paramilitary group accused of atrocities against civilians during the war.

After the fighting ended, Ibrahim said, her brother turned to robbing people and raping women. Confronted by his family, he threatened to kill them all.

“He will do it,” the sobbing woman said. “Every day he is out hurting people. We’re afraid to go home.”

Rustin, the Iraqi officer who complained to the American leadership, tried to comfort the woman, saying he would later drive by her house. But the prospect terrified him.

“I’m taking my life in my hands,” he said. “What if he has a machine gun? I don’t even have a pistol.”

U.S. soldiers detain men caught looting in Baghdad. (Noah Addis)


Since the police came back to work, two Baghdad officers have been killed in shootouts with thieves, Rustin said. Wednesday morning, an off-duty police officer was shot to death in the street. Hours later, his widow committed suicide, said Rustin, who signed both death certificates.

Even the police headquarters itself is not entirely secure. Wednesday evening, looters were seen stripping a building at the rear of the compound. The Iraqi police called in a contingent of U.S. military police, stationed across the street. The soldiers caught five of the men.

The next day, as the Iraqi police began transferring the prisoners from a holding cell inside the compound to a makeshift prison at Baghdad International Airport, a crowd outside police headquarters stopped the bus and smashed its windows. The prisoners — and those who set them free — escaped.

Still, there are glimmers of hope.

U.S. troops have increased the number and duration of patrols, giving some sense of security, however fleeting, to weary residents.

On Wednesday, Lt. Wayne Sok of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 369th Armored Battalion stood atop a tank, looking on as his soldiers subdued 14 men caught looting. A crowd that had gathered around cheered wildly at the arrest, the battalion’s first.

“The residents here keep telling us to leave so they can kill them,” Sok said. “They’re a little edgy, I think.”

A day later, two Baghdad courthouses opened for the first time since the war began. Inside, judges held investigative hearings, similar to preliminary hearings in the United States, for 16 people accused of murder, robbery and looting.

The courts remained open for only a few hours, and with thousands of people left to process — most of them looters detained by the U.S. military — the opening was more a symbol than a substantive step.

“We have started something today, but we need to do more,” said Judge Hedayet Abdul-Kadr Sourami, who heard one of the cases. “Everyone feels the lack of security. We need to give the police weapons that are equal to those carried by the criminals, and we need to give them the authority to perform their jobs. Right now, they’re afraid of the criminals. If I were them, I would be, too.”

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