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Iraq: Baghdad Police Back At Work With New Role Under U.S. Administration

  • Zamira Eshanova

The sight of traffic policemen controlling the flow of vehicles at Baghdad's major intersections has given many locals some respite from the chaos and lawlessness of their daily lives. RFE/RL reports from the city on the new role of the Iraqi police system under the U.S. civil administration.

Baghdad, 7 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This past weekend (3 May), coalition radio programs in Iraq broadcast a message from U.S. officials asking all Iraqi policemen to return to their jobs.

Major Vincent Crabb of the U.S. Army's 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion is in charge of getting Baghdad's police officers back in uniform. He said almost all of the city's officers have been allowed to return to their previous positions -- a decision he said was dictated by the need to bring security back to Iraq's streets as soon as possible.

Some observers believe that restoring Iraq's law-enforcement structure will not be an easy task, given the brutal reputation of the police forces under Saddam Hussein. Crabb said the process of returning police to work begins with a simple image overhaul: new blue uniforms. For many Iraqis, the former dark green uniforms symbolize the old regime. Other than that, Crabb said, screening former policemen is not a complicated process.

"The [ex-policemen] will go through an application process, then they will go through background checks. It's like in the United States -- if you've done any crime that's on the record, then you are out," Crabb said.

He added that if any citizen accuses a former police officer of committing a crime under the former regime, the U.S. civil administration will conduct an investigation and make a hiring decision based on the results.

So far, progress in getting the Baghdad police force back on its feet has been slow. U.S. officials have had to work hard to coax policemen back to work after law and order collapsed throughout the country in the days following the fall of the Ba'athist regime.

Some policemen who have reenlisted have done so in part because of the lure of an immediate $20 cash award, a sizeable amount for most Iraqis. But other former police officers have stayed away, perhaps out of fear for their own safety. Still others have taken advantage of the regime change to pursue other lines of work. Morale among the Saddam Hussein-era regular police force was low, as policemen watched good salaries go to intelligence officers cracking down on political offenders. Catching common criminals was a secondary priority in Hussein's Iraq.

As of late last week, U.S. officials said there were about 3,000 police back patrolling the capital of 5 million in over 100 police cars. That number is to grow steadily and U.S. officials hope that a planned international stability force for Iraq will give the local police added muscle to make difficult arrests and maintain order. The stability force, which currently looks set to be drawn from 10 mostly European nations, could act as a backup for the local Iraqi police much as a UN-mandated force does in Kabul today.

Finding top officials for the Iraqi police, however, has proved difficult. Last week, Zuhir al-Naimi -- Baghdad's first U.S.-appointed police chief -- resigned shortly after accepting the post. He gave no reasons for his change of heart, and U.S. officials said only that he had decided to clear the way for a younger man. Al-Naimi, a career policeman, had taken the position only 10 days earlier and had already been credited with recovering more than $380,000 in cash and 100 kilograms of gold from looters.

Early this week, the U.S. asked two other high-ranking police officers to lead the Baghdad police. General Hamed Othman Sabba, who was a top commander of Iraqi police forces from 1997-2001 and was dismissed by Saddam Hussein, was appointed head of the newly created Baghdad Police Department, which is supposed to serve as the core of the new Iraqi police. Another general, Qays Muhammad Naif, has been asked to resume his post as head of the Iraqi traffic police and reorganize his staff.

Major Aladdin Muhammad Hussein, a personnel specialist with the Iraqi police, said within two days of the radio broadcasts some 70 percent of the former policemen, traffic cops, and civil-defense workers in Baghdad had been reregistered and received new yellow badges identifying them as legitimate employees of the Baghdad Police Department.

Crabb said the quick response means the security situation at strategically important objects like banks and power stations is rapidly returning to normal.

But for the majority of Iraqi policemen about to return to their daily duties, the new reality seems far from normal. According to regulations introduced by the U.S. military, traffic policemen are allowed to direct traffic but can not stop or fine any driver violating the rules of the road. Patrol and civil-defense units can make arrests, but are armed with only a pistol.

It is a situation, say some returning officers -- like Aziz, a man with a 20-year career in policing -- that will render the Iraqi police force both ineffective and vulnerable under current circumstances.

"Iraqi civilians are now armed with heavy military equipment and the people of Baghdad are not used to seeing such huge quantities of arm," Aziz said. "How will a handful of lightly armed policemen fulfill their duties [in such conditions]?"

Crabb said that a review of former Iraqi law-enforcement regulations should wait until the country's transitional government is established. Until then, he says, the temporary rules introduced by the U.S. administration in Baghdad will be implemented.

But Colonel Adnan Jasem Muhammad, a spokesperson for the Iraqi traffic police -- resituated in its now looted and burned-out headquarters in Baghdad's Mal'ab Al-Sha'ab district -- disagrees with this approach. He said the current chaos in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities is a result of the abrupt termination of Iraqi laws.

"We wish that, for the time being, the old laws could have stayed in place, but be applied with leniency. Had we applied old laws from the beginning of the [coalition] occupation, then we wouldn't have gotten into this chaotic situation," Muhammad said.

Some observers believe that U.S. officials in Baghdad failed to adequately address the main security concerns of Iraqis. They say that, in turn, led to the violent lawlessness witnessed over the past several weeks, leaving the U.S. with no alternative but to promptly rehire nearly all of Saddam's police force.

"I wouldn't say that there is no choice," Crabb said. "Once again, a lot of [these policemen] are good guys and they were just under a bad boss. You know, they have got a good boss in town now and hopefully they'll be proud and come back and do a good job. And once again, I think a majority of them will. I think there's just a handful that's bad."

But will Iraq's returning police force be able to shed their old methods, which often included harassment, corruption, and violent abuse of suspects? Qasim, a young policemen, said much depends on the mandate and salaries the police will receive both under the U.S. civil administration and an eventual transitional Iraqi government. He openly admitted that if ordinary policemen are underpaid -- as was the case under Hussein -- they will likely return to their old habits.

"If we don't get enough financial support and the salaries we want, bribes and [other crimes] will return and we'll treat the public harshly," Qasim said.

For the time being, the Iraqi public is content with what the traffic police -- so far the only police units to return to the streets of Baghdad -- are doing. They hope the eventual return of other police divisions will provide them with the safety and security they have lost in recent weeks.

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