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Iraq: Baghdad Dispatch -- Security Improves As Volunteer Police Guard Neighborhoods

Baghdad, 24 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad suffered days of rampant looting and disorder immediately following the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime. But now normal life is returning to the city, including a growing sense of security. Radio Farda correspondent Ahmad Raafat is in Baghdad. He told RFE/RL late yesterday that many mosques have appointed their own security forces to guard neighborhoods and stop looting while U.S. authorities slowly screen and return the city's regular police force to duty. Question: What is the security situation like in Baghdad now?

Ahmad Raafat: The [regular Iraqi] police have started to work again only in the last three or four days, and many neighborhoods still haven't seen a policeman since the government was overthrown. And some neighborhoods like Saddam City (a sprawling Shi'a-majority slum in Baghdad) have their own police -- they call it civil police -- that is composed of people from the neighborhood that have been selected by the imam of the [local] mosque. They also have a letter from an American colonel who gave them authorization to have a police.

Question: Are these mosque-appointed police armed or unarmed?

Ahmad Raafat: Only those who are protecting hospitals or mosques -- one or two of them are armed. The rest are unarmed. Because there was looting of hospitals, especially, they have put one or two people with Kalashnikovs, but the others do not carry any arms. That's why they call themselves civil police.

Question: How does the public regard these volunteer policemen. Do they fear them as vigilantes or do they respect them?

Ahmad Raafat: In Saddam City, I can speak about what I have seen. My impression is that the people respect them because they are local people from the neighborhood and the residents know them. And they have the guarantee of having been selected by the imam of the mosque, and the people, especially in Saddam City, trust the imams of their mosques and that gives an authority to these police. But anyway, they are trying to stop the looting and they have convinced a lot of the people who have looted buildings to give things back.

Question: Where do looters return their stolen goods?

Ahmad Raafat: Many mosques are full of computers, photocopying machines and other things that people have looted from different buildings, government buildings, or shopping centers, or even private buildings. They give it back and the things are still there [in the mosques]. And I asked one imam what they will do with these things -- and they even have three returned cars in one of the mosques, parked there -- and they said that when there will be a new government they will give it back to the new legal government of Iraq.

Question: What progress is there toward getting the regular police back onto the streets?

Ahmad Raafat: Now [the Americans] are interviewing all the old police and choosing them again and putting them on the street. And I was told by the American civil administration that it takes time, because they must interview each policeman to see what his role was before and whether he wants to continue to work as a policeman under the new conditions. And all that takes time, they told me.

Question: Is there anything else new about the security situation there in Baghdad?

Ahmad Raafat: From yesterday there is another new thing. There are some checkpoints to stop looting and the people who are checking the cars and trucks are from the Free Iraqi forces [U.S.-trained forces from the exile opposition group Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmed Chalabi]. I met the first checkpoint of Free Iraqi forces yesterday in a former very elegant neighborhood of Baghdad, where there are many embassies, and I saw the people from the Free Iraqi forces at the checkpoint checking the cars, speaking with people, trying to make them more calm and to somehow respect the law.