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Iraqi Police Chief Paid for Friendship With U.S.

Official's death typifies a trend as insurgents turn firepower away from American troops and target those who are seen as collaborators.

November 26, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LATIFIYAH, Iraq — Ali Karim Abbas was eager for a new Iraq.

Despite being in frail health, the veteran police officer worked with U.S. soldiers to improve security in this rural zone south of Baghdad and was named chief of police this month. "He always wanted to do the right thing," said 1st Sgt. Terry Schneider of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Instead, Abbas, a 52-year-old father of eight, became at least the fifth police chief assassinated in cities across Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. A team of killers with a heavy, Russian-made machine gun opened fire on his vehicle Saturday, U.S. authorities said, taking his life and wounding two of his officers.

On the Eid holiday, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and is normally a time for joyous family get-togethers, relatives and friends gathered Tuesday to memorialize Abbas. Hours earlier in Baghdad, U.S. officials said insurgents were shifting their targets to Iraqis as foreign troops become harder to hit.

"In the past, attacks against coalition forces were predominant," said L. Paul Bremer III, the chief U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq. "Now terrorist attacks against Iraqis are occurring regularly."

Abbas' death was followed about an hour later by the slaying of a well-known Iraqi contractor who had also worked with U.S. forces in the Latifiyah area. Among the contractor's projects: hiring a local artist to paint murals on the ubiquitous concrete billboards that once displayed Hussein's image.

"The attacks against coalition forces have definitely gone down," Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday in Baghdad. Assaults on U.S. troops have plummeted by half in the past two weeks, from almost 40 a day, the general said. "Our attacks against the enemy have gone up," Abizaid said. "Attacks against civilians over time [have also] gone up."

Abbas, a Shiite Muslim, was a native of Mahmudiyah, a large town just north of here. He was one of nine brothers and sisters born to a working-class family that made its living in the town's sprawling market.

Abbas served as a police officer for 35 years, rising to lieutenant colonel and serving in Baghdad and throughout the country. But, relatives say, he refused to join Hussein's Baath Party until he was forced to and stayed a low-level, nominal member.

"He remained a clean man, never defiled by the dirt of the old regime," said his brother-in-law, Saad Abdul Amir, 38, a headmaster who gathered with other male relatives and friends at the condolence ceremony in a public hall next to a mosque. Abbas' widow and other women and children assembled at the family home, as is the custom.

This year, Abbas was transferred from Mahmudiyah to Latifiyah, a farming town where lush fields of wheat, corn, date palms and vegetable patches rise from the adjoining valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

A survivor of two heart attacks, Abbas directed his energy to fixing the 45-man department's many shortcomings after his promotion to chief.

"We have many deficiencies here -- no vehicles, little ammunition, bad communications," said 1st Lt. Hamid Khalaf, sitting Tuesday in Abbas' office with an autumn chill in the air and a steady rain outside.

Abbas worked closely with the 82nd Airborne, which occupies this zone on the southern fringe of the so-called Sunni Triangle, a district active with anti-coalition cells. Quickly, Abbas and Schneider, a native of Florida, became close comrades.

"We'd sit in a room together, just him and me, and he'd tell me what he needed," Schneider recalled, noting that Abbas spoke passable English. "Once he got everything he needed, he wanted to go out and get the bad guys. He wanted to do joint operations with us."

The department soon received six new AK-47 rifles, ammunition and shoulder brassards for their identification patches. U.S. forces were working to fix what is now the department's sole vehicle, a Nissan pickup truck pockmarked with bullet holes from a carjacking that claimed two officers' lives. Police have been calling cabs when they dare to leave their walled compound along the main drag.

"Chief Ali had a lot of good ideas," Schneider said. "He wanted to accomplish things. He wanted to get things rolling."

Several other American officers also said they worked closely with Abbas and trusted him. But being a policeman in today's Iraq is a perilous enterprise.

Some threats arrive at the station here by telephone; others are written and tossed over the compound walls.

"Anyone who works with the Americans is called a collaborator and risks his life," said a cousin of Abbas, Shakur Salman, a retired military officer. "Everyone knows this."

U.S. forces recently arranged for reinforced concrete barriers to be installed in front of the police station to protect against bombings like those that have devastated police facilities in Baghdad and elsewhere.

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