Iraqi capital suffers in postwar crime wave
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Baghdad is at the height of a summer that is long, hot -- and violent. As police return to the war-shattered streets to try to restore order, they are finding themselves in the middle of an unprecedented crime wave.
While the state-sponsored violence of Saddam Hussein's regime is gone, so is the iron fist of the police state it used to keep Iraqis in check. Police have no crime statistics yet, but Baghdad's morgue handled 47 times as many gunshot deaths in July as in the same month a year ago.
Officials attribute the violence to a variety of causes: looting and robbery; the settling of scores from the Saddam era; the release of many criminals just before the war; and gunfire by American soldiers, who many Iraqis accuse of opening fire randomly when they feel threatened.
"We had some criminals before the war, but after the war everything changed," Baghdad's acting police chief, Maj. Gen. Hassan Ali al-Obeidi, told The Associated Press. "The reasons are social, psychological and economic. Even the weather makes people nervous."
Crime was much worse in the days immediately after the war when there were no police on the streets. Looters stripped government offices -- including police stations -- then set them ablaze. Enemies took advantage of the lawlessness to kill one another. Robbery, kidnapping and rape were common.
But at that time, residents who could stay off the streets did, treating their city like the war zone it was. Now, people are returning to work as U.S. and Iraqi authorities strive to restore a normal life.
Some 5,000 police officers are back on the streets of Baghdad, says Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner overseeing the rebuilding of the police force. He says Iraqi officers are handling 80 percent of cases, with Americans taking care of the rest.
"There are many more patrols than 10 weeks ago, and many more arrests," he said this week. "People are now more confident to leave their houses."
But police officers complain about their equipment. Although the Americans have given them radios and a few bulletproof vests, there aren't enough pistols and ammunition is scarce. At one station responsible for an area with a population of 700,000, officers have one working vehicle -- a bus.
Neither Kerik nor al-Obeidi had crime statistics. Perhaps the best gauge lies in the courtyard of Baghdad's central morgue, where families arrive with foul-smelling wooden boxes, presenting bodies of loved ones for autopsies and death certificates.
The morgue, which handles all violent or suspicious deaths, recorded 10 gunfire deaths in July 2002. This July it handled 470, said the director, Dr. Fa'aq Amin Bakr.
In normal times, Bakr said, gunshots account for less than 10 percent of Baghdad's unnatural deaths, with the bulk coming from traffic accidents, drownings, burns and asphyxia. In July, more than half of the 702 bodies brought in had died from bullets, he said.
Bakr refused to grant access to the morgue's records, saying they were off limits under Saddam and nobody has told him to change that policy.
Doctors who examine the bodies say some of the deaths appear to be caused by U.S. weapons.
"We get three or four bodies every day whose families say they were shot by the Americans," said Dr. Qeis Hassan. "If the bullet is still in the body we can tell. The bullet's shape is different" from the Kalashnikovs typically used by Iraqis.
Outside the morgue, men unloading coffins into the hot, fetid courtyard vowed revenge.
"This is my wife and my sister," said Jamil Sultan Hachim al-Tamimi, a 45-year-old chicken farmer with two boxes. "We were driving and a car's tire blew out. The Americans thought it was a grenade and started firing randomly."
'Will demand retribution'
He said he would bury the bodies, then turn his thoughts to vengeance.
"We have to avenge these women," agreed Mohammed Hamid, a 38-year-old driver who said his brother was shot by a U.S. soldier. "As a tribe we will demand retribution from the Americans. According to the Quran, if someone is killed, the tribe must kill the killer."
Al-Obeidi blames much of the crime surge on Iraqi criminals who Saddam ordered freed from prisons by the thousands in October. But he acknowledged crime didn't take off until after the war -- five months later.
He agreed some deaths are caused by American soldiers "who make mistakes," but he said more of the killings can be attributed to the settling of scores, some against members of the former regime.
"People loyal to the regime used to hurt citizens," al-Obeidi said. "Now, it's a chance for the citizens to take revenge."
A car bombing outside the Jordanian Embassy that killed at least 19 people and injured more than 50 on Thursday suggested terrorism may be a new worry for police. U.S. commanders said it was up to the Iraqi police to protect "soft targets" like diplomatic missions.
Some violence is directed at U.S. soldiers, although in those cases the victims don't end up at the Baghdad morgue. Since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat over, at least 55 American soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq.
Al-Obeidi said police investigators are beginning to have some successes against crime, breaking up a counterfeiting ring, impounding stolen cars and raiding the safehouse of a kidnapping ring, rescuing a man and a woman who police say had been tortured.
"With the will of God, we will capture all the criminals and everything will be normal again," he said. "In a few months it will be better. I wish it could be tomorrow, but I can't say it will be."