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Pat-Down on the Way to Prayer

In Iraq, physical contact is governed by strict cultural mores. Yet body searches are now a daily fact amid the postwar insecurity.

November 25, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The faithful wending their way to the Musa Al Kadhim mosque were stopped nearly a mile from the holy site by a team of searchers who patted their stomachs, probed their backs and ran prying hands down their limbs.

After the search, the throngs of believers advanced about 50 feet toward the mosaic-covered mosque, only to be confronted by a new team of searchers, who repeated the pat-down.

This is one of Baghdad's holiest shrines, so the searchers weren't taking chances. The believers had been through half a dozen body searches and still had one final search to go before they could enter.

"We check everything that comes in here," said Jaffir Sahib, 50, the mosque's volunteer chief of security. "Even the coffins."

In a country where physical contact between adults -- particularly between men and women -- is governed by strict social mores, body searches have become a constant of daily life.

Ordinary residents now may have their bodies patted down, pockets turned inside-out, and the contents of purses, briefcases and grocery bags scrutinized several times a day. A trip to the hospital, attendance at a university class, entrance to a government office or a stop to pray at a major mosque involve highly physical encounters with total strangers.

Although women are searched by women and men by men -- the concept of the body search is alien to this deeply conservative country. That the usually private Iraqis tolerate such intrusions and even complain that the searches are not thorough enough is testament to the fear that has engulfed this capital.

During Saddam Hussein's authoritarian rule, few Iraqis dared do anything that would raise the slightest suspicion. Today, carrying guns, grenades and small explosives is alarmingly common.

With searches becoming key to stabilizing the country, dozens of foreign security firms have set up shop, employing Iraqis to ferret out weapons that could be used against soldiers with the U.S.-led coalition or other Iraqis.

U.S. officials have established the Facilities Protection Service, a security force of up to 35,000 Iraqis at the front lines at sites such as electricity plants and hospitals where U.S. soldiers had become easy targets. The new agency also provides security at thousands of schools and government installations too numerous for U.S. soldiers to guard. The presence of the FPS guards, who are typically paid between $150 and $180 a month, has allowed U.S. soldiers to withdraw in part or completely from most public sites.

Although the jobs carry high risks, the promise of a salary has Iraqis rushing to become searchers, a line of work that barely existed under Hussein.

Many searches are perfunctory -- perhaps because of a reluctance by Iraqis to be intrusive. And even when searchers do the most rudimentary pat-down, they come face to face with fellow Iraqis who confess to a dilemma: They are grateful that the searchers are trying to improve security, yet are uncomfortable with being frisked.

Women, especially those who hew to strict Iraqi traditions, say it's hard to get used to the constant intrusions.

Shema Talib, a 16-year-old newlywed who sat in the outer courtyard of the Musa Al Kadhim mosque with her husband, ran one hand over her shoulders and down her arm, wincing as she mimicked a typical search.

"I am not used to people putting their hands on me," she said.

Women like Talib are used to carrying bags and enjoying a zone of privacy created by their flowing black robes known as abayas. They feel embarrassed and confused by the demand that they open their clothes, belongings and lives to strangers.

Across the courtyard, Majida Khaleel, a 40-year-old Arabic-language teacher, sat with a friend watching the mosque's brightly illuminated spires, enjoying the Ramadan tradition of picnicking in the evening with friends and family in the mosque's compound.

"In the beginning when the searches started, we were embarrassed, it was hard for us to be searched in the middle of our own country," said Khaleel, who said her Shiite Muslim family felt oppressed under Hussein's rule. "It's hard not to be trusted. It is as if somebody searched you in your own house."

Many women who want to avoid the embarrassment of having the contents of their bags emptied in front of a line of strangers have learned to pare the items they carry.

"At first it was hard to have so many people look at me and my things, but now I don't even carry a purse, just this," said Fatima Suhri, 42, holding up a clear plastic bag with a package of cookies and a container of orange juice, as she went through a search at the Iraqi Convention Center, where many American officials live and work.

Suhri had just been frisked by Uma Mohammed, a short, square woman who embodies one of the Americans' best hopes for reducing security threats to themselves and Iraqis.

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