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Culture of Corruption Haunts Iraqi Police Ranks

As the force in Nasiriyah is rebuilt, some fear a return to the old bribery-based system.

May 08, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

NASIRIYAH, Iraq — As U.S. Marines were attacking this city last month and Saddam Hussein's regime was crumbling, Iraqi police officer Alaa Reda volunteered for a final dangerous mission. He was to cross into the area of fiercest combat to guard a fellow officer who had been arrested for refusing to fight and execute him upon receiving the order from Basra.

Days earlier, the arrested police captain, Khaldoon Raheem, had told 44 subordinates to go home, and awaited his fate in a cell at the military hospital.

But Reda, 29, had no intention of carrying out the final vengeful commissions of the regime. Raheem was a family friend; rather than shoot the traitor, Reda secretly planned to rescue him.

With the military hospital under attack by Apache helicopters -- and Iraqi officials ready to shoot deserters on sight -- they escaped, only to find themselves in a neighborhood thick with regime officials.

After lying low for a couple of weeks, they emerged to discover that a new police force was being set up in Nasiriyah by the U.S. military. But to their dismay, they found that many officers from the heart of the old police force, with its culture of false arrests, bribery and corruption, were back -- and several were drafting a list of 600 potential new reserve officers for the Americans.

In the old force, Reda and others said, junior officers were expected to arrest as many people as possible and extort money in return for releasing them. They had to hand a share of the cash to their superior officers, and those who fell short on payments were moved to dangerous units as punishment.

"Now we're back to almost the same situation because the big managers who were bad police are in the same positions," Reda said.

"The people in charge of writing the list [of police reservists] are putting their friends and their families in the positions," he said. "How can the bad police who collected bribes before be our bosses? What's the difference between this and the old regime?"

At least 400 officers have been hired for a new police force. The American military officials selecting them could not be reached for comment.

The struggle to create a new police force here underscores the difficulties of trying to graft democratic ideas onto a culture with no history of freedom or accountability.

Reda said that when he failed to collect enough bribe money for his superior officer last year, he was moved to the emergency unit, where officers often were killed in shootouts with bandits.

To get a safer post, he said, he paid an officer named Majed Khalaf about 40,000 dinars, or nearly two months' pay.

Khalaf, 34, formerly the Nasiriyah police management officer and now one of five former officers who helped select the potential new reservists, admits he took "gifts" from officers for transferring them.

"Sometimes when I did a service for somebody, they gave me a present or gift, and I took it," he said.

In Iraq, he said, "we made taking money into an art form. As a general rule, all departments, all ministries, everybody took bribes because salaries were too low. In Iraq, it's normal to take bribes."

Khalaf said a good cop was someone who took bribes only to release minor offenders and a bad cop was someone who accepted money to release a killer.

He said many of the officers on the list of 600 fit his definition of "good" cops -- those who took bribes but not from serious criminals. "Otherwise, you would have to bring policemen from outside of Iraq," he said.

Abdul Bostan, the former chief of the force's financial department, who also helped identify the potential reservists, said there was no need to be selective. "We know all our people are good people," he said. "There are no bad police."

After some pressing, however, he acknowledged that corruption had indeed been a problem and that bribery was the "general situation" in the country.

"A country like this, with all the problems and misery -- what do you expect people to do?" said Bostan, 43.

Like other former police officials, Hassan Dahed, 35, who had been duty manager in Nasiriyah, did not mention corruption or bribery among the worst law enforcement problems of the Hussein era. For him, the biggest concern then was old equipment.

Under Hussein, police salaries were extremely low, with captains earning about $10 a month. The U.S. military has promised to raise senior salaries to $250 a month and ordinary officers' pay to $150.

Reda said that when he joined the force, he got into trouble for being too clean.

He said his boss used to ask: " 'Where's the money? You have nothing to give me?' He would tell me to take 1,000 dinars from each person arrested in the police cells, but I refused, saying it was against Islam."

After two months, he was sent to the emergency unit.

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