Iraqi police make their first arrest in lawless Baghdad

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A group of Iraqi policemen drove through this lawless city with sirens blaring Tuesday and immediately collared their first crook.

Though tiny, unpaid and poorly armed, the embryonic patrols are crucial to the success or failure of the U.S.-led war here, because the American occupying force has been unwilling or unable to effectively police the cities it is capturing.

Baghdadis cheered the three white patrol cars as they drove through the central al-Shorja market, following a U.S. Marine Humvee and trailed by a red bus filled with Iraqi police officers in black berets and crisp uniforms in assorted shades of green.

The convoy sped along the Tigris River, kicking up a cloud of dust, and into the city's biggest hospital complex, Saddam Medical City. There, Marines looked on from tanks as the officers lined up in ragged formation and received orders to set up checkpoints and patrol the hospitals.

"It's sad and gloomy. But whatever it is, it's better than the Americans," said Dr. Saieb Agailani, a surgeon eyeing the new recruits.

Anger at Americans has been rising in Baghdad. U.S. forces have yet to restore electricity, water, phone service or order since Iraq's government broke down in advance of their invasion from the south.

The medical center, which includes different varieties of hospitals and teaching facilities, has been partially looted. Thieves made off with tables and sofas even as the police officers arrived.

Marines set up checkpoints outside the complex last week, but don't go inside unless there is shooting. They have not sealed the perimeter, allowing looters to ransack the hospital.

Appeal to officers

U.S. forces have appealed to Iraqi police officers to contact them and get back to work as the city remains in chaos. Looting and gun battles are common, and black smoke from fires set by looters coats the sky.

A few joint patrols of U.S. Marines and Iraqi police officers have begun and are expected to gather momentum in coming days.

Soudad Fadel, 28, a six-year veteran of the Baghdad police force, said some 2,000 officers have signed up and that thousands more would be joining in coming days.

"Yesterday I joined the Marines" on a patrol, he said. "Today we got our first job."

Elsewhere in Baghdad, retired Iraqi Army Col. Imad al Azawey met Tuesday at a former Baath party headquarters with Lt. Col. Michael Belcher of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, to discuss efforts to rebuild the police force in northeastern Baghdad.

"We just want life to go back to normal," al Azawey said.

Al Azawey said former soldiers and police were forming a new force that might one day number nearly 100 people in neighborhoods under their control near the Tigris River. They are also trying to recruit locals.

"I will put my Marines out on patrol with you," Belcher said. "We will show them teamwork."

Marines gave the police a list of ground rules: support and protect the people; treat Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Christians as equals; wear uniforms and keep their pistols in the open, but don't carry rifles. They also were told not to harass Iraqis or demand bribes.

For the Tigris convoy, Marines escorted the policemen in a show of force. Drivers honked horns, and people on the sidewalks raised their arms triumphantly and cheered.

"It's important to try and bring them back into public view," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Fountain, 32, of Plattsburgh, N.Y.

The officers lined up in an unpracticed formation outside the hospital complex and received their orders as doctors looked on. The commanders told them where to set up checkpoints and which buildings to sweep for looters.

"You come too late," complained Mohsen Jafar, a 42-year-old hospital accountant. "All this uprising and unrest. Why only now?"

Within minutes, the policemen nabbed their first suspect: a man they said was robbing the hospital bank. Policemen took turns slapping him in the face as others led him into a patrol car, his hands bound with electrical wire.

"It's our first arrest," Fadel said. "We arrest him and take him to jail."

Fadel said 50 officers were patrolling the hospital grounds. He, like other officers, said the Marines would soon be leaving to let them control the hospital.

The Marines told a different story.

"We don't have complete confidence in the police," said a Marine who identified himself only as J. Reid. "We will maintain a presence here until the Red Cross or the U.N. arrive."

Most of the Iraqi policemen were unarmed. A few carried pistols and one carried a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Several said Marines had promised to give them weapons.

None knew how much they would get paid -- or even if they would. Iraq has no government and U.S. forces have shied away from policing duties.

But the officers said they would work anyway and worry about details like salaries later.

"This is for my country. This is for my people," said Hussein Ali, 33. "I have to keep them safe."


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Niko Price is correspondent at large for The Associated Press. AP correspondent Ravi Nessman, with the 7th Marines in Baghdad, contributed to this report.

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