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Iraq: Baghdad Residents Complain Of Crime As New Police Force Finds Its Legs

  • Valentinas Mite

Iraqis complain that crime is on the rise in the country. They say it has become more and more unsafe, even in the middle-class districts of the capital, Baghdad. People are robbed or abducted by armed gangs in the middle of the day. Cars are stolen. Women and children are too frightened to leave their homes. The new Iraqi police force does not seem to be effective yet in combating such activity. In the meantime, many ordinary Iraqis blame the U.S.-led occupation for all the evils.

Prague, 2 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Crime appears to be on the rise in Baghdad.

People complain they do not feel safe even in middle-class districts that were considered relatively stable just a few months ago. There are no official statistics to support such claims, but the events speak for themselves.

Today, a car bomb exploded near a police station in Baghdad. Several people were injured, one seriously. The attackers and their motives are still under investigation, but the incident is yet another indication that criminals appear to be able to strike at will.

Bassem Saddoun works as an interpreter and translator for International Medical Corps, a U.S. nongovernmental organization in Baghdad. He told RFE/RL that American soldiers are less visible on the streets of the capital and have handed over many security tasks to Iraqi police.

Saddoun believes that, gradually, Iraqi police are becoming more effective: "There was a clash between the police and some gangsters on the streets. You know, the police tried to stop them, and there was shooting between the police and the gangsters. Two police guys were killed, and two of the gangsters were shot, and the other one [took] a police car, and he ran away with a police car."

But he says he believes many of the new Iraqi police officers are easily bribed. At present, he says, there are no U.S. military checkpoints in the city. He says all checkpoints are now manned by Iraqi police officers.

"So, if you have a gun or you have a stolen car, maybe you can get through with giving them some amount of money. This is the problem," Saddoun says.

Saddoun says this might be one of the reasons why heavily armed criminal gangs appear to move freely through the capital. He says he does not feel safe either riding in a car or walking and notes that one of his friends was killed in an accidental shooting in a Baghdad restaurant last week.

"I always need to look behind my back," he says.

Saddoun says women in the capital do not dare venture into the streets without being accompanied by at least three men. He says kidnappings for huge ransoms are a fact of life in the city.

He says crimes are committed in the middle of the day -- many in areas which were considered safe just two months ago: "Most of the crimes are happening in the daytime. Not at night, not in the evening, because we think these people, you know the gangs, they have something else to do at night. You know, like drinking, having a good time with girls, prostitutes, etc. But in midday, they go and steal, and at night they celebrate."

Saddoun says the majority of Iraqis are convinced the U.S.-led occupation is to blame for the rising crime. Like many Iraqis, he believes the U.S. has enough modern technology to introduce law and order if it desired.

Mouwafak al-Rubaie is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. He told RFE/RL that he cannot definitively say that crime is on the rise in Baghdad. But he says coalition forces alone cannot be blamed for crime in the city, where most residents possess weapons of some sort, if only to protect themselves.

Al-Rubaie says deposed President Saddam Hussein's decision to empty all the prisons before and during the war gave a boost to criminality.

"There is a very well-known fact that Saddam has released tens of thousands of hard-core criminals: gangsters, murderers, robbers, armed robbers. And these people, a lot of them were waiting, if you like, [for] execution. They are mass murderers, some of them. They were released," al-Rubaie says.

It is easy for criminals to acquire weapons in Iraq. As U.S. Army Lieutenant Phil Thompson told the Reuters news agency, "This whole country is an arms and ammo dump. They're sticking out of the desert everywhere."

Thompson -- whose unit is based near Hussein's hometown of Tikrit -- says his unit is guarding a massive 26 square kilometer zone of underground weapons and ammunition storage bunkers north of Tikrit, and that there are many such bunkers all over the country.

Thompson says looters, criminals, and terrorists try to get hold of the weapons.

Al-Rubaie is optimistic, however. He admits the new Iraqi police force is not perfect, but he says officers are growing more confident each day and are becoming better armed and better trained.

"So, I'm confident that in the next few months, the rate of crime in Baghdad will go down drastically," he says.

He notes the country is living in a different time and that criminals are not dealt with the same way they were under Hussein's brutal rule.

"[Crime] is more obvious, and it's more recordable now. And people can speak about it, because during the old regime, they used to use very, very heavy tactics like an iron fist policy against the criminals. For a very simple crime, people got executed or people got mutilated physically," he says.

That is not the case now. And Saddoun says U.S. troops are too liberal in their treatment of suspected criminals. Baghdad residents say American troops keep suspects in custody only long enough to determine if they have any connections to pro-Hussein loyalist groups or other political entities fighting coalition forces.

Baghdad is not the only area in Iraq to suffer from high crime.

The British-based private security company Centurion Risk Assessment Services has advisers in Iraq who help nongovernmental organizations and media outlets cope with security situations. It notes that the road between the Jordanian border and Baghdad is especially dangerous. On this highway, armed hijackings are reported daily. In one case last month, up to 18 vehicles were stopped and robbed.

In another incident, a large convoy of 20 cars was robbed of valuables 30 kilometers from the Jordanian border. Two vehicles containing armed attackers blocked the road and stopped the convoy. No injuries were reported.

Neither U.S. forces, nor the Iraqi police, have yet managed to secure this road.