Iraq's police overwhelmed by violence

More than 3,000 Iraqis were killed in June, an escalation of the country's death toll.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At her home in central Baghdad, Niran al-Sammarai frets over the fate of her husband, kidnapped Saturday with 30 of his colleagues from a conference hall in one of the most heavily patrolled parts of Baghdad.

In Rasafah district, a police captain says he and colleagues are contemplating mass resignations in frustration over mistrust from US forces and orders from Iraqi politicians to release known criminals.

In the once fashionable Mansoor shopping district, metal grates are drawn over half of the businesses. And in Karada, one of Baghdad's safest neighborhoods, many of the businesses are shuttered too. The remaining shopkeepers complain that poor security is driving customers away.

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In Baghdad and across much of the center and south of the country, the rhythms of normal life and commerce are rapidly breaking down in a sign that US and Iraqi government plans to build an effective security force are faltering. Reports of police standing aside as civilians get attacked are common, as are claims by survivors that government security forces, infiltrated by sectarian militias, took part in the killings.

The United Nations estimates 14,338 Iraqis were killed in the first six months of the year, and there are indications the rate of bloodshed is rising; more than 3,000 Iraqis were killed in June, most after the June 7 killing of Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose death US officials had hoped would diminsh violence.

"The government promised security, but the increasing number of bombs in our neighborhood proves that they're failing,'' says Ibrahim Mohammed, who runs a leather-jacket store in Karada where sales have collapsed "to almost nothing" in the past few months.

The escalating violence induced the reclusive top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to call Thursday "on those who are keen for the unity and future of this country ... to exert maximum efforts to stop the bloodletting."

Members of the Shiite endowment board, which oversees Shiite mosques, suspended their work for five days in a sign of solidarity with their Sunni counterparts after 20 members of the Sunni endowment board were kidnapped. But despite such moves to bring unity, violence has continued largely unabated.

US military officials said Thursday that violence jumped in the capital over the past five days from an average of 24 attacks a day to 34 despite a security plan unveiled last month with much fanfare.

"We have not witnessed the reduction in violence one would have hoped for in a perfect world," said US spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell at a press conference. But he said the plan is "a start." Policemen interviewed across the capital say it's too dangerous to confront insurgents and militia groups. Recently in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, men, women, and children were killed in an insurgent assault that witnesses interviewed by Iraqi journalists say local police did nothing to stop.

The kidnapping of Ms. Sammarai's husband illustrates the extent of the problem. Her husband, Ahmed al-Hajia, who heads Iraq's National Olympic Committee, was leading a committee meeting on Saturday at the Oil Culture Center in Baghdad's Bab al-Sheikh neighborhood.

The center is next to Baghdad's busiest bank, a quarter-mile from Baghdad's Major Crimes Unit, and a half-mile from Tahrir Square, where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled after US forces captured Baghdad.

The area is usually rife with Iraqi police and army checkpoints.

Nevertheless, at about 2 p.m. that day a group of more than 20 gunmen in the uniforms of police commandos roared up to the hall in about 20 white Toyota pickup trucks – the type used by Iraq's police. The men overpowered the few guards and burst inside, according to four witnesses, none of whom wished to divulge their names because they feared retribution.

The attackers were "very calm, very professional, not nervous at all," says a hall employee, pointing to four bullet holes in the ceiling from a rifle burst used to establish control over the hostages.

He and other witnesses say the gunmen spent a methodical 30 minutes separating Olympic Committee officials and journalists from waiters and other employees of the hall, cuffing them with plastic zip ties and blindfolding them. By 3 p.m. they had left with about 30 hostages, Mr. Hajia among them. Since the attack, 10 of the hostages have been released while two of the guards have been found dead.

"What this really proves is how far out of control Iraq is now,'' says an official from the Olympic Committee. "We know there are checkpoints in the area. But any group of men with uniforms, with guns, can just drive wherever they want and no one will dare stop them."

The witnesses refused to speculate on whether police were responsible or insurgents in uniform.

"Answering those kinds of questions is very dangerous,'' one man said. But some quarters seemed convinced the police were involved. Last Saturday US and Iraqi soldiers raided the Major Crimes Unit (MCU).

They arrived after dark without warning and policemen there opened up on the soldiers. A brief firefight ensued, injuring some bystanders. Eventually order was restored and US soldiers went inside saying they were looking for Mr. Hajia and others kidnapped but found nothing, according to a policeman who works there.

The MCU has been considered by US military trainers to be one of the most professional police units in Baghdad. It has managed to sidestep the sectarian loyalties that lead many Baghdad residents to view police as little more than Shiite militias. American Military Police working to improve the unit's effectiveness had gone home for the day shortly before the US raid.

"Clearly they got a bad tip, but I'm very, very angry,'' says the police officer. "We've worked closely with the Americans, we've taken a lot of risks and they couldn't have handled this in a different way?" For him, he says the raid was the last straw.

In recent months he says the unit has captured a number of men they believed were running Shiite death-squads in the city. But the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, secured the alleged killers' freedom in all cases. "There's too much interference from politicians, from the Americans, to do this job properly." He says that he and five other senior members of the unit are likely to quit soon.

Sammarai says her husband's kidnapping was political, and not financially motivated. She charges there are opponents of her husband who wanted to drag the committee into sectarian politics and were angry at his insistence that "sports and politics shouldn't be mixed."

"Our country is bleeding. All my husband wanted to do was build something – he helped get us to Athens, he was putting the past behind us. This is so unfair," says Sammarai. Another official on the committee, who didn't attend the meeting, also says he believes the attack may have been undertaken at the behest of Hajia's rivals. He points out that the hostages released so far have included Shiites, Sunnis and Christians, which implies it wasn't motivated by sectarian hatred.

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