As businessman Saleh Maadi Khafaji left his Palestine Street home for work three days ago, he noticed some men on the corner who appeared to be fixing a broken-down ambulance.
As Khafaji wheeled his car onto the street, the ambulance suddenly lurched and cut him off. Two men fired into the air, pointed their guns at him and shoved him in the back of the vehicle.
The abduction happened in broad daylight on a busy street. But when Khafaji’s family reported it to U.S. military authorities, the Americans said it was a matter for the Iraqi police.
Asked the family: What police?
Although American officials say that 8,000 Iraqi cops have been called back to work and that cooperation with the U.S. military handling police patrols is on the rise, the perception among many Iraqis is that the bad guys rule the streets.
They point to murders, kidnappings, car thefts, illegal squatters in buildings and religious sect intimidation as some of the transgressions taking place under the noses of the Americans.
Why are criminals running rampant and law-abiding people still afraid to go out at night or stray far from their homes during the day? A visit to the Mesbah Police Station in southern Baghdad is instructive.
On a recent afternoon, most of the station’s 77-member force was loitering around the two-story station house, doing nothing.
Though now at least swept out, a short time ago the station itself was a shell -- burned and looted in the first days after the war. The policemen’s attire gave no hint that they carried badges, and the few of them who were armed had small U.S.-issued 7.65-millimeter Beretta pistols that looked like toy water guns. “The criminals laugh at it,” one cop said.
“We are trying to restore the station through our own personal efforts,” said Col. Muaman Salman, the station chief. But, he said, “we need so many things. Those committing crimes have weapons and good cars. Most of them were released from prison by the old regime. Compared to us, they have everything.”
So far, only 12 pistols and one automatic rifle have been issued to the station, and there is only one patrol car, Salman said, in a city of 5 million where even the night watchmen pack Kalashnikov automatic rifles and many criminals carry rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The complaints are echoed at police stations around Baghdad. Policemen have started to return to their jobs at the behest of U.S. occupation authorities, but in most cases they appear paralyzed by their lack of weaponry and the absence of a government to tell them what to do.
At the moment, the only leadership is coming from U.S. Military Police, who are working with the Iraqi police command and have begun to fan out across the city, posting themselves at the larger police stations. The MPs have also begun to distribute weapons -- the Beretta pistols and a few Kalashnikovs too -- to the local cops.
“We try to help them handle complaints. When they go out, we go with them,” said 2nd Lt. Mark Daley, heading an MP squad stationed at the New Baghdad Station.
It was his first day there, he said, and he did not really have a feel for the area yet. Hearing reports of men with guns at a house, he sent out a convoy of Humvees.
When they arrived, the guys with the guns out-sprinted the MPs -- who were left the task of escorting two madams and a prostitute away from neighbors outraged by the display of immoral behavior.
On the Iraqi side, there appeared to be confusion about what the Americans expected.
“They are not giving us proper orders or jobs,” complained police Pvt. Majid Hamid, 32, as he was about to go out in a different convoy. A $20 emergency stipend offered by the Americans is not enough, he said.
“I think it will be a year or two to restore order,” he said glumly.
Except for small pockets of resistance, Baghdad fell to U.S. troops April 9, but the removal of Saddam Hussein’s government ignited a wave of looting and destruction that was slow to ebb. During the first week or two of the occupation, most police stations were abandoned to the pillagers, who stripped them of everything of value, including weapons and locks on the holding cells.
In the absence of law enforcement, a low-grade anarchy was unleashed. Acts of murder, armed robbery, auto theft and kidnapping all took place brazenly. Vigilantes felt free to threaten members of the old regime. Militant Islamists harassed liquor stores and cinemas -- and sometimes women for not covering their heads. Anyone who was not a criminal, it seems, felt vulnerable.
Salman, the colonel at the Mesbah station, said it was all to be expected.
“Don’t forget that Iraqis got used to brutality, savagery and harsh treatment by the old regime. I don’t mean today that the Americans are too soft, but after 35 years Iraqis will not follow the rules unless you are forceful with them,” he said.
The urgency of getting the crime situation under control was widely seen as one reason retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner was removed as the top civilian administrator for the U.S. occupation. After his replacement by L. Paul Bremer III, a former career diplomat, American authorities demanded that all heavy or automatic weapons be turned in by June 14.
Bremer also brought in Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, to help him get Baghdad’s police operations working.
At a news conference Monday, held in the same hall where the Iraqi parliament used to slavishly praise Hussein, Kerik pledged that the security situation would improve, “but it will take time.”
He outlined plans to revamp police training in the city and to vet the returning police officers to weed out Baath Party activists and those who took part in criminal acts or human rights violations. What will be important, he said, is to change the mind-set of the Iraqi police into one that is focused on stopping crime, not enforcing political loyalty.
Under Hussein, cops waited in their station houses for citizens to come in and report crimes, Kerik noted, instead of aggressively patrolling the streets. The U.S. plans to introduce a Western-style police force, with greater public visibility and divorced from the Iraqi military.
“The new weapons policy will have a substantial impact. Embracing of patrol efforts will have a substantial impact,” Kerik said. “As crime and violence come down, the Iraqi people will start to feel more confident.”
But a thorny issue remains: how to rid the police of its Baathist influence. Under Hussein, party membership was a prerequisite for anyone with ambition on the force.
Bremer has said he is serious about de-Baathification in Iraq, and in line with that he ordered the firing Monday of a top-ranking police official, Abdul Razak Abbassi, although he had been instrumental in persuading Iraqi policemen to return to work and had won the confidence of his U.S. counterparts.
Lt. Col. Richard Vanderlinden, commander of the 709th U.S. MP Brigade that had worked with Abbassi, praised him as “very competent.”
Police Col. Salman said membership should not be seen as a sign of fealty to Hussein; even people who cleaned the stations, he said, had to be Baathists.
“Now there is no problem because the party is dissolved,” he said. “We will do whatever [U.S. civil authorities] want. If they want to send us all the way to Chicago, then we go.”
Salman welcomes the fact that he no longer receives calls from the intelligence service, the mukhabarat, telling him whom to arrest. Nor does he have to kowtow to bigwigs like Hussein’s relatives, some of whom lived in the station’s district.
“We were ruled by Haji Badra, the aunt of the president,” Salman said, as other officers chuckled in agreement.
But while life may be better for the police, the citizenry still lives in fear.
Khafaji, the businessman who was kidnapped by the men with the ambulance, said his captors threatened to kill him and his family if they did not pay a $500,000 ransom. When Khafaji protested his family did not have that kind of money, the demand was lowered to $100,000 and he was released with a warning to produce the money, or else.
On Monday, Khafaji had gone into hiding -- deciding there was no law that could protect him.