Iraq

MEAN STREETS

The attacks confirm what police already know—Baghdad is a dangerous place

ARAM ROSTON November 10 2003
Iraq

MEAN STREETS

The attacks confirm what police already know—Baghdad is a dangerous place

ARAM ROSTON November 10 2003

MEAN STREETS

Iraq

The attacks confirm what police already know—Baghdad is a dangerous place

ARAM ROSTON

When U.S. troops rolled into Iraq last March, it was with the hope that a newly freed people would rejoice and all opposition be quickly crushed. Those hopes were sadly misplaced. Last week, in the worst sustained outbreak of violence yet, suicide car bombers devastated the Red Cross headquarters and four police stations in the city in 45 minutes of seemingly coordinated attacks, killing more than 30 people and wounding more than 200.

Those attacks occurred at the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Just the day before, a deputy mayor of Baghdad was assassinated and rockets slammed into theAl-Rashid Hotel. Although one narrowly missed the U.S. deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, a major architect of the war, most of the attacks were directed at Iraqi targets. Possibly signalling a new phase in opposition to the U.S. occupation, they seemed designed to punish those co-operating with the Americans. Speaking at the White House, President George W. Bush said the bombs and rockets would not force the U.S., which has seen more than 230 of its soldiers killed in action since the fighting began, to change its strategy. He called them a sign of desperation on the part of an enemy that is losing the battle for control of the country. While the new wave of bombings may not chase the U.S. out, it has dealt a harsh blow to American efforts to rebuild the country’s police forces, considered the core of U.S. plans to restore security. Police in Baghdad complain that they are outgunned by criminals and terrorists, and they resent the fact that the U.S. has yet to properly arm them. Maclean’s correspondent Aram Roston recently went on patrol with police in the capital, experiencing the problems they face and witnessing their confused state. His report:

THE WORD “sadness” is tattooed in Arabic on the back of Obeid’s right hand. “They kidnapped my son Sejad,” he says, with pleading eyes and a pistol tucked behind his belt. “Two-and-a-half years old.” The officer doesn’t want his superiors to know he is talking to a journalist, so he sits in the back of my car parked 800 m from his Baghdad police station. “Before the gang kidnapped my son,” he says, “they’d kidnapped another boy whose father was rich. They asked for US$25,000 and settled for $20,000.” But when Obeid appealed to his superiors for help he was turned down flat. “They told me to be political and go to my tribe for help,” he explains, widening his eyes and raising his hand upward in a supplicating gesture. “The tribes are making the decision because the police are scared.”

In post-war Baghdad, kidnapping, murders, arms sales, drug dealing and prostitution are the staples of the new economy. Iraq’s American administrators are still counting on police to restore law and order— but the streets are becoming more dangerous by the day. At Obeid’s police station, a coil of razor wire rings the building; a contingent of U.S. military police lounges inside. The Americans won’t venture out without body armour, and then usually in thunderous shows of force in military vehicles. The Iraqi police force, however, is ill-equipped to maintain order, often lacking guns, bullets, handcuffs, radios or even cars. Still, Iraq’s overseers have anointed this force, reconstituted but barely changed from its days under Saddam, as its primary weapon in the battle to stabilize the country.

Perhaps nowhere is evidence of the criminal anarchy engulfing Baghdad, a city of five million, more depressing than at the Forensic Institute, located near the Ministry of Health. It has a special room that looks like a gynecologist’s office, with a black, padded table and stirrups. This is where they test female kidnap victims who have been ransomed and released to see if they have lost their virginity. “Virginity is very important in Iraq,” says Dr. Qais Hassan Salman, who oversees the unit. Some days, he says, as many as five girls are trundled in. Most, the doctor says, were raped in captivity. And some will subsequently die in “honour killings” at the hands of relatives who accuse them of bringing shame to the family.

And more women will be raped, remarks Iraqi police Maj. Hussein Mutalib at his station, because the 70 officers there, who share 24 guns and 30 radios, can barely keep up with the criminal gangs. The situation has left him cynical. “My favourite movie is Death Wish 3 with Charles Bronson,” says Mutalib, sitting behind his empty desk in an empty office. In the movie, a New York police detective joins forces with Bronson’s character, a vigilante, to mow down muggers, rapists and killers. “Baghdad,” he says, “is like Brooklyn in that movie.”

Even under constant threat, police in Baghdad seem to operate the way they do the world over by developing a network of underworld contacts. And Mutalib says the newly thriving prostitution trade in the city is providing valuable information. “If thieves do a robbery, afterward they go to the whorehouse to spend the money,” he says. “If we want to find someone, we go there.” I find one of the brothels in a narrow alley lined with two-storey houses made of unpainted brick the colour of desert dirt. As I arrive, a fat woman out front puts her hands on her thighs and hoists herself to her feet with a sigh. Her name is Salina Sabah, and when she smiles she reveals uneven teeth, stained red.

Under Saddam, prostitution could bring the death penalty. Sabah, whose establishment has a storefront, mats for customers in the back, and decorative prints of birds on the grimy walls, says a lot of girls were executed. That forced the world’s oldest profession underground, but now it has crawled back into the open. “The police protect us,” she says as one of her “girls,” a fat woman with a black flowered dress, eats a piece of fruit next to her. “They come by to see that we’re all right.” She fails to mention that a week earlier, another madam allegedly killed one of her prostitutes with an AK-47, although the motive is unclear. In another case, a madam hired gangsters to kidnap and kill a competitor, but they bungled the hit and killed the wrong woman.

ON MAY 1, Bush declared an end to “major combat,” but in that month, according to the city’s medical examiner, 320 civilians died by gunfire, up from 49 in April. Since then the toll has risen steadily, reaching almost 600 in August. But those are just the bodies that make it to the morgue—many more simply disappear. Police say they could do more to stop the killing, if only they were properly equipped. “I have no arms,” said one officer. “We went on a patrol to catch some gangsters two days ago, but we opted to return to the station. We were in one car with only three rifles and no spare magazines.” Police still use traditional tactics: rousting the usual suspects and setting up sporadic checkpoints. Some, like Col. Hussein Jadooa, believe checkpoints have put a dent in the chaos. He has a crisply ironed blue uniform, a paunch and a brand new Motorola radio, over which he barks out orders. One evening, with a thin film of intangible grime floating in the Baghdad heat, I join Jadooa as he leads a disorderly convoy of Iraqi police, sirens wailing, into the streets.

Within minutes an urgent call for help comes over the radio. “We need a patrol unit now at the Al-Karhk stadium. Please.” The colonel, sitting erect in his patrol car, turns down the request. “Don’t confuse us,” he barks. “Everyone has his own orders.” His mission: man a series of weapons checkpoints in Khadamiya, one of the city’s toughest areas. Police cars and pickups, some with officers toting Kalashnikovs, sweep in. Within minutes gunfire rips into the air about 800 m away. “E-15,” the colonel says into his radio, “check out the source of the gunfire.”

The lieutenant, E-15, races to his car and four other police officers pile in. It screeches off, then stops to ask an Iraqi where the shots came from. He points one way. Another witness points in the opposite direction. But the “crime” was quickly solved: Thursday is a day for weddings in Iraq, and firing Kalashnikovs into the sky is the Iraqi version of throwing rice. Pulling over a grey minivan, the police find a Kalashnikov and a .45-calibre pistol under the seat. The owner, a fat man with a yellow shirt, would normally be arrested. It’s illegal, by decree of Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, to travel with unlicensed weapons. The passengers want to keep their guns, but the colonel gives the seized weapons to his own police officers, who are unarmed. The fat man, a Kurd, is angry. “I’ll have to buy another gun,” he says. “It will cost about $75. It’s completely illegal, but going without is completely unthinkable.”

Later the police confront a group of street kids, barefoot and scrawny, living on the banks of the Tigris River. Americans call the area “glue alley,” in reference to a paint thinner the teenagers sniff. Many are also addicted to prescription medicine, including Artane, an anti-Parkinson’s drug. The cops drag the street kids one by one from the lush greenery to their squad cars. Lieut. Achmed Mohammed, a middle-aged officer who benignly watches the proceedings, explains that the boys live off money they steal. An officer who looks 60 slaps and kicks one youth, almost losing his balance in the effort. Then they shove two boys into the trunk of their squad car. “Why are you beating me?” pleads one of the boys as he is jammed in. “Why did you knock my teeth out?”

The police lower the lid, making the noise and the begging seem even more pathetic, and the lieutenant explains with a straight face that the kids have been locked in the trunk for questioning. Shortly afterward, though, the boys are let out and, still in a kind of paralyzed fear, they’re put in the back seat where they sit, wide-eyed and scared, as they’re driven off.

With police badly outgunned by criminals and terrorists, many people like Obeid, the officer whose son was kidnapped, are turning to tribal leaders for help. There are more than 2,000 tribes or ancient clans in Iraq, some numbering more than 100,000 people. Their leaders, suppressed or bought off by Saddam, have re-emerged to fill the power vacuum that followed Saddam’s ouster. The tribes are often well armed and can settle scores on the street when the police cannot. Obeid got the help he needed from his tribe. After paying $300 through an intermediary and waiting 12 days, he got his son back. He won’t press charges against the kidnappers. Even though he’s a police officer, that would invite revenge on Baghdad’s dangerous streets.