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Iraq: Police Fight Crime -- And Public Mistrust -- On Streets Of Baghdad

Iraqi police are an increasingly visible presence on the streets of Baghdad, as forces from the U.S.-led coalition keep a lower profile. But the postwar police force is largely manned by officers who served under the former regime. Some Baghdadis say they do not trust this new-old force, while others say they are proud of their police officers and happy to see fewer U.S. soldiers patrolling the streets.

Baghdad, 13 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Some people call them collaborators, others say they are corrupt. But many people are happy with the newly retrained Iraqi police officers patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

The postwar police officers wear the same uniforms they did during Saddam Hussein's time. The only difference is the badge they wear on their left arms identifying them as "Iraqi police." Their white Daewoo cars are the same ones they drove under the former regime. The majority of today's police officers also come from the former police force, an arm of Saddam's repressive security apparatus.

Lieutenant Issa Salah is an officer on duty in Al-Khar police station in central Baghdad. He told RFE/RL that more than 50 percent of policemen served under the former regime. But he said that they alone have experience of fighting the crime that plagues the city. "New policemen make up less than 50 percent of the police force. The majority are veterans; they know the laws. Concerning fighting crime, the new police officers have less experience but they take it from the veterans," he said.

Much work has already been done to rebuild the police force. The U.S.-led coalition brought in Bernard Kerik, a former New York City Police commissioner, to help with the task. Over several months, tens of thousands of officers have been retrained, and several thousand officers with particularly corrupt or brutal reputations have been barred.

Initially, the postwar force worked on joint patrols with U.S. troops, but policing has been largely returned to the Iraqi officers.

Salah said the tasks are daunting for the approximately 10,000 policemen in Baghdad. He said before the war Saddam Hussein emptied all the prisons "and getting those guys back is not an easy job."

For a start, he said the police are not as well armed as the criminal gangs. "The criminals are technically better and better-organized. Some of the gangs are well-organized. We lack only technical means to deal with them, nothing more," he said.

Then there's the lack of computers and other equipment. Salah's Al-Khar police station, one of the biggest in Baghdad, does not have a single computer and the majority of files on criminals were burned or disappeared during the war.

The police also have to deal with the public's lack of trust or respect -- or worse, as this week's deadly suicide bombing of a Baghdad police station shows.

One middle-aged man who declined to give his name said the police cannot be trusted as they are "collaborating with the American occupiers."

A student of Baghdad University, Salam Qusay, said he does not respect the new policemen -- not because of political reasons, but because they have no power and no authority. "Even if a driver violates a traffic law they are not able to fine him. They just stare at him and do nothing," he said. "I don't think they are able to deal with criminals when they are powerless in such situations."

Qusay said the well-known corruption and misbehavior of Hussein's police force is casting a shadow on the present police force. "They were disgusting and their former behavior is casting a shadow on this new police force. When this new police force appeared people did not start to respect them because of their past. They don't have any support [from the people]," he said.

Qusay also said he is not sure if the policemen on the streets are more decent then Hussein's police force. "People often say they are corrupt and accept bribes," he added.

Self-employed Kadum Marzuk disagrees. He said Saddam's rule made many people, not only policemen, corrupt. He said he is proud of the new police force. "During Saddam's regime the police as a whole used to take bribes, because he [Hussein] was a dictator [and corrupt]. Now, I think the Iraqi police are honest," he said.

And tea seller Amar said the present police force is much better than the one before. He said the security situation in the city improved after Iraqi policemen started patrolling the streets.

Police officer Salah said he knows that many people do not respect the new law-enforcement force. He also said the bombings help create an impression that the police are helpless. But he is hopeful. "Every day," he said, "the police are getting stronger."