Rocky start for new Iraqi police force

Former officers reported for work Monday, looking for $20 and a little guidance.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hundreds of former Iraqi police officers milled around the police college grounds here Monday, looking for the $20 they were promised and awaiting their marching orders. But those orders never came.

In fact, no one was clear who - whether former Iraqi police officials or the US military - would be giving the orders that would get them back patrolling the streets.

"We don't have authority now, and God only knows when we will get it," says Brig. Gen. Jamal Abdullah, in charge of theft investigations for the former Baghdad police.

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Last week, Radio Iraq, the new station run by the US-led coalition, called on all former policemen to report to the college for work this week. "Put on your uniforms," they were instructed, "but leave your ranks and insignia at home. This is a new era." The promise of $20 - double or triple their usual monthly salary - added incentive.

But neither the instructions nor the money materialized, and a crucial step in returning law to Baghdad's streets and authority to the Iraqis themselves has gotten off to a rocky start.

Four weeks after the initial chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein, the lack of a functioning government continues to allow looting and intermittent gunfire. But Iraqis know who's in charge here, and won't make a move without US permission. So law enforcement sits in limbo.

Still, some police officers have returned to their patrols. In the southern city of Najaf, for example, policemen over the weekend arrested two men in connection with last month's murder of the Shiite Imam Abdul Majid al-Khoi in the Ali Mosque.

And a few thieves were arrested in Baghdad on Sunday, too - but these were soon released. "We were not sure what to do with them," admits General Abdullah. "The Americans did not have interest, so we lost ours."

The capital desperately needs traffic police as well. Cars speed down highways in the wrong direction, reverse down the sidewalks, park in the middle of intersections, and routinely clog the roundabouts. By the start of this week, a few hundred traffic cops were languidly making the "stop" and "drive" signals under the withering sun.

US officials with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA), who were nowhere to be seen at the college, have been meeting behind closed doors, and said that police retraining will begin this week.

"There is an urgent need to put the police force back on its feet - the sooner the better," says Phillip Hall, a liaison between ORHA and the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

Traffic police chief Maj. Gen. Mohammad Kais, who spent 38 years in the force, met with ORHA officials on Saturday, expressing the need for key equipment - walkie-talkies, computers, vehicles, and new uniforms - that was destroyed during coalition bombing, looted following the war, or even stolen by policemen themselves.

Meanwhile, the sudden resignation Saturday of chief of police Zuhir al-Naimi - ostensibly to make room for a younger leader - put an additional damper on spirits here. That younger leader, Hamid Othman, was expected to be officially named Monday.

"[Chief Naimi] did not want to work with the Americans, and I'm not sure I do either," says Private Saif Sabar, a car-theft inspector in bygone days.

Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, head of ORHA, reportedly raised concerns at the Pentagon last week about the lack of a functioning police in Iraq. Plans have been announced to bring three US military police battalions to Iraq in the coming weeks to assist in policing and retraining efforts (see related story).

Security was decreasing even before the Americans took over, admit senior policemen, after Saddam Hussein released criminals from jails in March.

"We arrested 187 looters even before the war began - now I just shudder to think of how many we might find," says Col. Sinan Hussein al-Qaisi, a police chief in Baghdad's Dura neighborhood who has spent the past few days at the police college waiting for his $20. He lived at the police college for three years during training, he recalls, and was top of his class. "I never thought I would be here like this, loitering around for a handout."

But he is willing to work with the Americans, he stresses. "They have said they want to reorganize us and we are ready," says Mr. Qaisi. "There is much work to be done."

When he went to round up former officers from the Dura station unit late last week, Qaisi found only 17 out of 40 men wanted to return. "They wanted to leave a long time ago, but it was forbidden. Now, they are taking the opportunity," he explains. "They don't know it can be different. I don't even know."

Salaries in the police force were notoriously low and corruption was rampant, he says - not to mention that the work was often unappealing. "The Saddam regime concentrated its force on political crimes and gave criminals an easy time," he says. "We knew that was upside down, but we did little about it."

"We are professionals, not politicians," says traffic-police chief Kais, who, like all of the other senior officers, is a card-carrying member of the Baath Party. "We worked for one regime. Now we will work for another."

After the revolutions of 1958, he recalls, the same policemen were asked to stay on duty so as to ensure law and order. "I was in high school then, and I remember we all thought it was odd," he says. "But now I am older and understand.... Regimes come and go, but traffic jams, and traffic cops, are forever."

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