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Iraq's 'FBI' on shoestring budget

The Criminal Identification Division in Basra has 53 pistols and 73 flak jackets for its 101 officers.

By Steven VincentContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 2005



BASRA, IRAQ

With a sense of pride that his counterparts around the world would recognize, an Iraqi police officer shows off a discovery his men made that morning: one Russian-made rocket and more than a dozen mortar shells.

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But one detail tempers the lieutenant's satisfaction: The still-lethal weaponry lies exposed on the station house floor. "I am sorry for this," remarks Lieutenant B., a seven-year police veteran, who like other members of Basra's Criminal Identification Division (CID) asked that his name not be used for security reasons. "But we have no place to put these things, no store room or vault."

While this is a city whose residents view the police with suspicion, Basrans do take some pride in the CID, the police forensics unit. "They do good work," says Saafir, a driver for a Western nongovernmental organization. "They are like America's FBI."

But unlike America's G-men, these crime specialists not only fight a low-level insurgency but a debilitating shortage of resources, training, and funding that would stymie even Sherlock Holmes. They're not alone: The lack of know-how and equipment at investigative units in Basra, Baghdad, Hilla, Kirkuk, and Mosul hamper the ability of Iraqi police to stem the bombings and street crime that plagues this country.

It is dangerous work: Roadside explosives in this southern Iraqi port city have killed five officers over the last two years, while one bomb-disposal expert died in the line of duty. Increasing the danger is the threat of assassination by terrorists targeting security forces.

These hazards have not deterred Basrans from flocking to recruiting stations, however. Unlike Baghdad, Basra is relatively free of suicide bombers who wreak havoc in the north. The province boasts 13,000 policemen, 7,000 of whom serve in Basra alone. And though most of these cops are new recruits, the men at Basra CID - who are paid $200 a month for their work - received their training and experience under the old regime.

CID headquarters is crammed within a single floor of a former Baath Party headquarters in the Al Jemayat district of northeast Basra. Here, officers work amid filthy tiles, scuffed walls, inert ceiling fans, and wires dangling from electrical sockets. "The British promised a new building this September, but we are not expecting it soon," says Lieutenant B.

The British, who oversee the security of Southern Iraq, admit the CID - as well as most of Iraq's constabulary force - is under-equipped, although they privately accuse the Iraqis of having a case of the "gimmes" - as in "gimme this, gimme that," explains one officer charged with training Iraqi cadets.

As for the Basran CID, "We've given them lots of equipment," says London policeman Robert Lamburne, who works with the unit. "For example, they just received a delivery of 39 new cars."

Still, the division possesses one computer, which is used for fingerprint and voice identification, forcing the men to write all reports and records in longhand. The forgery "department" consists of forms and manuals stuffed inside a metal locker; forensics teams, meanwhile, lack chemicals for detecting fingerprints or bloodstains. Worse, the only equipment the division has to defuse bombs is a pair of wire cutters. "Snip the wrong wire and boom!" says Lieutenant K., the station's explosives expert.

The Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the police, claims it lacks the funds to support processes still seen as exotic by some who are more accustomed to police beating confessions out of suspects than trapping them in a web of forensic evidence. "Our authorities in Baghdad don't understand what we do and have little idea what we are worth," Lieutenant B. says.

The captain of the division outlines a few of the shortages: for 101 men, he has 53 pistols, 25 assault rifles, and 73 flak jackets. "We have 14 microscopes, but lack equipment to use them properly," he says. "This means we can't analyze chemicals, or weapons and shell casings."

British police officer Lamburne says that if the forensics specialists feel neglected, that is partly their own doing. Last March, a gun battle broke out among officers in the CID over accusations that some were ex-Baathists.

"No one was hurt," Lamburne says, "but we're not keen on going back to a station where a firefight might break out." And at least one criminal suspect has died recently in CID custody, a case that "authorities are investigating," Lamburne says.

Meanwhile, cases keep pouring in. "I have 10 right now where we have gathered all the evidence, but lack the means to analyze it - we don't even have ink to print photographs!" says Lieutenant B.

According to Captain Q., the CID receives 100 cases a month from Basra proper and another 40 from outlying areas. "Out of that, we can't complete at least 40 percent because of shortages in resources," he says.

"I joined the police to serve my country and capture criminals," adds Captain Q. Now he spends his time requesting aid from the British. While he admits that that CID Basra "is getting more assistance than before," he says it's still not enough. "Everyone always says tomorrow things will get better. But what about now? Crime does not wait. We can't either."

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