Though still not well-equipped, the Iraqi police force is getting stronger every day. Policemen are setting checkpoints, searching cars for weapons and explosives, and running after criminals. Usually, the police force is the first to arrive if something happens, while U.S. troops are acting more as backup in routine situations. RFE/RL's correspondent went on a patrol with police officers in Baghdad and filed this report.
Baghdad, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is nine in the evening. It is drizzling and foggy, unusual weather for Baghdad. Several Iraqi police cars from the Al-Kharkh police station in central Baghdad are heading to the Iranian Embassy. A few minutes ago, the embassy was fired on by unknown assailants.
The embassy is behind a high wall, located in front of a small park, which is in complete darkness. The embassy guards say the assailants used the protection of the park to fire Kalashnikovs at the building. It is the sixth incident of this kind in several weeks.
A guard says he was wounded in the hand a couple of days ago during a similar attack. He says he's in a lot of pain but has to remain on duty. On this night, nobody is injured.
A senior officer, Ali, says police searched the park and arrested a suspect. "Four cartridges of nine [millimeters were found in the pockets of the suspect]. Now, we have captured him. They were searching the area. The policemen, who were on duty in this area [of the capital], were informed that shots were fired. We have caught two suspects. We searched the first suspect. He did not have anything, and we released him. But the second man is a suspect because he had four cartridges in his pocket," Ali said.
The suspect, a young man in his 20s, is put into a police car. He is dressed in dirty clothes. His hands and face look as if he has not washed for several months. He appears relaxed. He smokes a cigarette and smiles.
A commander from the Al-Kharkh police station, Katham Abbas Hamza, begins to question him. The conversation is surreal.
Suspect: "Here is my aunt's house. I work with aluminum."
Hamza: "Why are you carrying four cartridges in your pocket?"
Suspect: "I am selling them."
Hamza: "What? You're selling cartridges?"
Suspect: "Yes. What should I do with them?"
Hamza: "You are selling cartridges?"
Suspect: "Isn't everybody selling them?"
Hamza: "Those 9-millimeter cartridges?"
Suspect: "What should I do with them if not sell them?"
The conversation ends when Hamza slaps the suspect in the face. Hamza says the young man does not show the slightest respect for the police.
Several minutes later, he checks the man's documents and orders him to be released. He says the guy is too big a fool to organize or implement attacks on the Iranian Embassy.
The attackers have managed to escape yet again. Hamza is concerned about the security of the Iranian Embassy and says he will have to take some additional precautionary measures. "This is a dark area, and it is near the river," he said. "Honestly, infiltrators can hide in this area, and we will continue our surveillance."
A checkpoint is set up near the embassy, and police officers start stopping cars. The passengers smile, wave. No one is arrested.
The same night, unknown assailants also target the Italian Embassy, but that building is outside the control area of the Al-Kharkh police station.
The police set up another temporary checkpoint some 2 kilometers from the Iranian Embassy. Policemen -- some wearing uniforms, some just young guys in plain clothes with Kalashnikovs -- stop cars at random. They check documents. Some drivers and passengers are searched. Asked how they know which cars should be stopped, the officers said they just "feel it."
The police stop a gray BMW. The driver is searched. He is carrying a handgun, but he is released because he has papers issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority that allow him to carry it. Another armed driver is also stopped, but he, too, has permission to carry a gun.
The police stop a shabby-looking Toyota. The car has no windows. The problem is not the car, however, but the driver. He has no driver's license, no passport, no documents for the car. After a long lecture, the man is released. The officers say they "felt" he was not a criminal.
This gut instinct has been developed over many years. Many of the officers say they have been working on the police force for 15 or 20 years. They look with contempt at the "young kids who were taken from the street, had a crash training course and were sent by the Americans to work at the police stations." The young recruits make up some 30 percent of the Al-Kharkh force.
These "youngsters" say they are proud of their jobs, however. Showing no fear, they jump with their Kalashnikovs into the middle of the street and order cars to stop. Their movements show pride, confidence, and courage.
Hamza says police officers need courage to step into the middle of a Baghdad street without a flak jacket and order cars to stop. The majority of Baghdad residents are armed, and not everyone appreciates the new Iraqi police force. "The day before yesterday, in Khadamyiah [a district of Baghdad], unknown people were throwing explosive devices at police officers," he said. "It was a patrol car. Shooting at the police continues. During the incident, there were no casualties among the police officers, but six civilians were injured."
Hamza says police officers don't have proper equipment and that even Kalashnikovs are not enough to deal with the city's better-armed criminals. He says the Iraqi police also lack authority. Hamza says he has no doubt that, if given more power by coalition authorities, the Iraqi police would be able to clean up the city's crime a lot more quickly.