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Iraqi Police Struggle to Hold Back a Crime Wave

The newly revamped and retrained force still lacks manpower and gear, but not resolution.

October 28, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Bloodied and short of men and equipment, Iraq's revamped civilian police force is struggling to contain a postwar crime wave and do its part to quell a virulent resistance movement.

It's been an uphill fight.

Ali Khalaf Khadam, a brigadier general of the Baghdad police, says crime is down 70% since late April but acknowledges that he can't keep track of how many of his men have died in achieving that figure.

"I don't keep statistics on that," he said in an interview last week.

Whatever the toll, it jumped by eight Monday with the suicide car bomb attacks on three police stations in the capital that also left 65 officers wounded. An assault on a fourth station failed.

The success of Iraq's men in blue is crucial to the U.S.-led occupation. Improved police effectiveness would help reduce the security risks that have frightened off investors and kept many aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations away. It would also ease pressure on the U.S. military police -- a group that has already taken many casualties since President Bush declared major combat over in May.

Above all, U.S. officials believe that if Iraqi police cannot maintain law and order on their own, a pullout by U.S.-led forces will be virtually impossible.

At a news conference last week in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the process of shifting the burden of maintaining civil order to the Iraqis "is already happening at a pace exceeding by far any recent past experience."

For some Iraqis, the shift is coming too fast.

All too often, however, members of Khadam's force -- and police officers throughout the country -- find themselves outgunned, outmatched and short of essential equipment such as protective vests when they take on criminal gangs emboldened by Iraq's lawlessness. Such run-ins, coupled with the armed attacks mounted by those resisting the occupation, have cost many lives.

Monday's bloodshed was the worst daily casualty count suffered by police so far, but it was far from isolated.

In just six incidents over the past 3 1/2 months in or around Baghdad, news reports indicate, 26 police officers have been killed -- including eight last month near the town of Fallouja when U.S. troops mistook them for crooks and opened fire on them.

Col. Thamir Sadoon Ali, commander of the Baghdad police's 4,500-member emergency response force, said his unit has suffered 20 dead and 83 injured since spring.

Such figures have clearly unnerved some officers and left families of police officers wringing their hands with worry.

The contrast between well-equipped U.S. soldiers and their sparsely equipped counterparts in the Iraqi Police angers some local political figures.

Iraqi police officers "should go into dangerous situations well equipped, but this is not the case," said Samir Shakir Mahmoud, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "The faster we relieve the Americans in the job of maintaining law and order, the faster the Americans can leave. But this isn't happening -- or it isn't happening quickly enough."

He blamed bureaucratic delays within the occupation's ruling Coalition Provisional Authority for failing to get police officers protective vests, adequate weapons and other equipment more quickly.

Even though senior police officials insist this hasn't dented morale, interviews with uniformed officers at four police stations in Baghdad and two outside the city indicated otherwise. Several said they were under pressure from their families to leave the force despite the fact that they had meager prospects elsewhere.

"Every day, my wife cries when I leave the house," an officer said last week at the police substation in the upscale Al Mansour district of Baghdad, where both criminals and resistance fighters have been active. "Yes, I've thought of quitting." The officer declined to be identified.

While attacks such as those carried out Monday are certain to increase such worries among police family members, the initial reaction among officers themselves was anger and resolve. Interviews with five officers at two stations in the city indicated a mood of defiance.

"Nothing is going to intimidate us and keep us from doing our job," Col. Ali Ahmed Abdul-Razzaq said. As he spoke a local resident screamed at him for locating the station in a residential neighborhood beside a mosque.

"We are doing our job, serving them and look what they are saying to us," Abdul-Razzaq said.

Another officer, 35-year-old Lt. Umran Issa, serving in the department's emergency response unit, viewed himself and his fellow officers as Iraqi patriots fighting outsiders wanting to destabilize the country.

"We know the attackers are not Iraqis," he said. "We are Iraq police, we are patriotic police. We are here to serve our people and nothing else. We will not be intimidated by such attacks."

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