Pat-Down on the Way to Prayer

Times Staff Writer

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.

Wearing the floor-length coat typical of conservative Muslim women and a scarf over her head, she hardly looks the part of intrepid investigator. But with eyes as keen as a jeweler's and fingers as deft as a blind person's, Mohammed daily pores over parcels and scans people's clothes and vehicles, often snaring lethal objects.

Every bulging pocket may hold a pistol. A brown bag that the bearer claims contains lunch could hide a grenade. A tape recorder or a phone could mask a detonator for a remote-controlled bomb -- a common danger in Iraq. Mohammed, 44, works side by side with armed U.S. soldiers prepared to open fire in the event of attack. At her request, they call her "Mama."

She guards the entry to the Convention Center and its surrounding compound, where thousands of Iraqis and Americans work for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

When a woman approaches, Mohammed -- who speaks just half a dozen words of English -- thumps the heel of her hand on the table to indicate that the woman should deposit her handbag there.

Polite but insistent, she nods at the bag's clasp or tie. Women obediently open their bags, and Mohammed delves in.

At Musa Al Kadhim and Baghdad's other major Shiite mosques, small armies of volunteers have become searchers. These days, adherents live in constant fear of assassination attempts -- a terror tactic that has claimed the lives of several high-ranking clerics.

A couple of months ago, a woman entering the Al Kadhim mosque was found with a grenade hidden behind her baby's back, according to Sahib, the volunteer security chief. After searchers turned her over to the U.S. military, the woman confessed that she had been told to smuggle in the weapon by male relatives who had instructed her on how to use it, Sahib said.

But many searches are poorly thought out. Some searchers -- both paid and volunteer -- are simply lackadaisical, apparently bored by the repetition of the job.

Two people recently entering Baghdad University had their car vigorously shaken -- a strategy that seemed more likely to detonate any bomb than to discover it.

At the Finance Ministry, guards stopped people to ask for identification, but then let them stream in without laying a hand on them, although it is well known that the interim government ministers, like the members of the Iraqi Governing Council, are prime targets.

Most of the thousands working for the Facilities Protection Service receive just two days of training, although most said they had been promised a week when they signed up for the job. Now the Pentagon is pushing to further reduce training to get more searchers on the streets to quell increasing attacks on U.S. soldiers.

Most posts share a couple of AK-47 rifles, hardly adequate to face down a well-armed intruder. Many admit that out of fear, they bring their personal guns to work, tucking them under their shirts since most lack the required permits to carry weapons outside their homes -- just like the people they are searching.

The danger is real. Not only are searchers and security guards often the first to be killed if a bomb explodes, but they are targets of those who want to frighten people into refusing to work for the Americans.

Mahdi Washid, 41, a soft-spoken former shopkeeper, was so appalled by the looting and disorder after the war that he signed up with the Facilities Protection Service when he heard the Americans were hiring. Now the chief of some 30 guards at Kadisia Hospital, he worries increasingly about his own safety.

A recent morning found him waiting impatiently for the end of his shift so he could join the mourning ritual for an FPS captain who had been gunned down as he stood near his own front door.

"As long as someone has 'Captain' in front of his name, he is a target," said Washid, a father of four who said he could not afford to give up the job. "Because we were trained by the Americans, we are seen as traitors."

Even though the job is the main support for Uma Mohammed's family -- she earns $150 a month, a six-fold increase over her job at the Baghdad airport -- her fears loom large, on the job and elsewhere. She refused to allow her full name to be used in this article.

"The neighbors ... " she broke off and then, speaking softly, said: "They do not know who I work for. I could not tell them."

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