Middle East

Middle East

Justice and Force in Postwar Iraq

Security in Baghdad, Iraq
Security in postwar Baghad (Photo: AFP/Getty).

The thief was tied up and in the trunk of a shop owner’s car when he was delivered to soldiers from the U.S. 307th Military Police Company at the New Baghdad Police Station. The shop owner told the soldiers that the man in the trunk had robbed him at gunpoint as he left his shop the evening before.

When the shop owner came to work that day, he saw the same man trying to rob two other people at knife-point, so he and two other friends attacked the thug, tied him up, and threw him in the trunk. Iraqi police took custody of the robber from the soldiers and brought him to the East Baghdad Jail.

Incidents such as this one have become a fact of life in postwar Iraq, particularly in the capital Baghdad, as coalition forces step up efforts to restore a semblance of law and order in the country and to rein in bandits roaming the streets.

More than two months after U.S. forces seized control of the Iraqi capital and toppled Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, security conditions, although improving, continue to represent one of the most serious impediments to development in the country.

Ordinary Iraqis are still too scared leave their homes after dark, fearing the thieves and occasional looters roaming the streets. Those brave enough to risk the thieves still risk running afoul of coalition forces enforcing an all-night curfew.

Baghdad used to be a lively city with an active nightlife supported by its countless night clubs, coffee shops, and restaurants. Not anymore. Three destructive wars and more than a decade of crushing sanctions have had a devastating impact on the life of the average Iraqi.

Precious few here miss Saddam Hussein. But most miss simple pleasures such as walking the streets at night, or driving their cars without fear of losing them to carjackers.

Five men recently surrounded a man stopped at an intersection in downtown Baghdad, not far from the Palestine Hotel, which was home to the foreign press corps during the war. The driver, who was armed, shot and killed two of the men, forcing the others to flee.

The lawlessness in Baghdad is slowing efforts to get other aspects of reconstruction underway. Rumors that school girls have been raped and abducted in broad daylight have forced parents to keep their daughters at home. Umm Tariq, an Iraqi mother of a son and three daughters, said despite reports of an improvement in the security situation, she does not believe it’s safe to allow her elder daughter, now in her final year of high school, to go to school—even with an escort.

Her two youngest daughters attend school occasionally and only when the mother does not have much to do at home. She escorts them personally and waits outside the school gates until it’s time to bring the girls home.

Others go to school accompanied by armed men.

Umm Tariq's fears are shared by many Iraqi parents, including Mohammed Qassem Mohammed, 55, a mechanic who has five daughters. He drives them to their various schools himself. “I am afraid,” Mohammed says, adding that he has heard of numerous cases of rape and abductions.

Whether these rumors are “based on reality or not, many parents are not sending their children to school,” notes Carol Bellamy, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). UNICEF figures show that more than 25 percent of Iraqi children did not attend school before the war. The numbers have since gone up.

“Security is a matter of top, top priority” for ordinary Iraqis, explains prominent Iraqi politician Adnan Pachachi, who was foreign minister in Iraq before the Baath Party seized power more than 30 years ago. His assessment is borne out by conversations on the street, but all concede that bringing the situation under control will take time.

Coalition forces are struggling to pull a ruined country from the brink of total anarchy. In the process, they must contend with a heavily armed, impoverished population and a sizeable contingent of prisoners released by Saddam Hussein in a general amnesty in October 2002—and do so without adequate preparation or resources.

A Small-Arms Nightmare
Coalition forces are making a concerted effort to strip the country of its small-arms cache, but they face a Herculean task. The country has an entrenched culture of gun ownership. “Give everything to your friend,” an old Iraqi saying runs, “except your car, your wife, and your gun.” Given the complete breakdown in law and order following the collapse of the Hussein regime, Iraqis are particularly reluctant to give up their weapons now.

“Yes, we want freedom and democracy, but we also need security,” said Abu Majid, an Iraqi trader who claimed that coalition forces are not doing enough to bring the security situation under control.

Lt. Gen. David Makiernan, commanding general of Coalition Joint Task Force Seven (CJTF-7), recently described Iraq as “one large ammo and weapons cache.” It was an apt description. There may be as many as 24 million guns in Iraq today, enough to provide every man, woman, and child in the country with a weapon. AK-47s can still be found in Sadr City, a decrepit slum on the outskirts of Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City, for as little as US$10.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)'s early attempts to rectify this situation have met with modest success. In May, Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, instituted a national order promulgating a disarmament policy that the CPA hopes will help “reduce the number of weapons in Iraq and further improve security conditions throughout Iraq.” Under the policy, Iraqis had until June 14 to turn in all heavy weapons without any penalty. They may, however, keep small arms for “self-defense” in their homes and places of business. Only authorized persons will be allowed to carry weapons in public places. Violators could face criminal prosecution.

But as of June 11, only a few days before the expiration of the amnesty period, Iraqis had turned in only 85 pistols, 72 semi-automatic rifles, 363 automatic rifles, 40 machine-guns, 120 antitank weapons, 10 antiaircraft guns, and 230 grenades and other explosives.

Criminals continue to carry more and heavier weapons than the new Iraqi police force. One police officer at the Saadoun police station in central Baghdad complained that his men did not have enough uniforms and were poorly equipped. The 64 policemen at the station have only two automatic rifles between them, he said.

Small wonder, then, that policemen are vulnerable and constantly targeted by armed assailants. In one case, three assailants believed to be arms dealers assaulted an off-duty Iraqi policeman in northern Baghdad. A patrol consisting of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi policemen was sent to the suspects’ houses and a search of the premises revealed one AK-47 assault rifle. Iraqi police apprehended one of the suspects and took him to the Al-Hurriyah police station for questioning.

“Freedom Is Untidy”
“There is a serious law-and-order issue,” Bremer conceded upon arriving in the capital in May, blaming much of the problem on the 100,000 prisoners Saddam Hussein released onto the streets of Baghdad last October. When the CPA took over, “there was no police force,” recalled Lt. Gen. McKiernan. There was nobody in prison, “courtesy of the previous regime,” Maj. Gen. William Webster, deputy commanding general of operations for the CJTF-7, dryly commented. Still, speaking on May 15, Bremer boasted that U.S. forces had put about 300 alleged criminals behind bars in the previous 48 hours.

Assuming the men behind bars are guilty, such developments can only be seen as progress. But the challenge remains: How to pacify the country and restore a semblance of law and order in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country without resorting to the oppressive methods of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen?

Bremer and top coalition commanders in the country say their forces now have “robust rules of engagement” but have denied these include orders to shoot looters on sight, as some media reports have suggested.

The war’s most senior planners appeared to have been caught off guard by the swiftness of their success, the swift collapse of the regime’s institutions, and the chaos that followed that collapse. Soldiers trained to wage war suddenly found themselves in charge of responding to burglaries, directing traffic in the blazing Baghdad summer sun, running sewage treatment systems, protecting oil wells, museums, and nuclear reactors, and the thousands of other tasks involved in running a large, modern state.

Coalition commanders recently bolstered the number of troops in the country to more than 140,000. The size of the military police has also been increased fourfold—from a modest 1,000 officers to 4,000—a figure expected to continue climbing.

The difficulty of the task they face has been compounded by the fact that Baghdad’s 60 or so police stations were stripped bare during the worst of the looting and either vandalized or burned to the ground. Of these, 18 have been rehabilitated and are up and running, according to former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, a senior advisor to the new Iraqi Interior Ministry.

Kerik has also been charged with reorganizing and training the new Iraqi police force and insuring that Baathists and individuals accused of human-rights violations and criminal activity do not join the force. He has gotten to a fast start. On May 31, U.S. forces arrested the dean of Iraq’s national police academy and 14 others as they conducted a meeting of the Baath party, now illegal under the laws of the U.S. administration in Iraq.

More than 7,000 Iraqi policemen in the capital have already been approved and are currently manning the city’s few operating police stations and conducting joint patrols with coalition soldiers and military police. The number of patrols across the country have increased considerably, with coalition forces conducting more than 2,000 patrols nationwide on any given day, including more than 200 joint patrols with Iraqi policemen.

The patrols have netted hundreds of criminals and offenders such as curfew-violators, armed bandits, common criminals, and even wanted Baathists, and have resulted in the seizure of tons of illegal weapons and considerable quantities of drugs. 

As it becomes more likely that criminal acts will have consequences, “the number of incidents is going down,” says Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commanding general of the U.S. Army’s V Corps. “The security situation is improving steadily,” agreed McKiernan, “but we are not finished.”