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In Baghdad, police chief explains why it's tough to enforce the rule of law

Abu Abbas oversees one of Baghdad's overstretched police stations whose employees have increasingly been targeted by insurgents. He says Iraqi rule of law has been neglected.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / September 3, 2010

An Iraqi police officer stands at a checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Aug. 31.

Karim Kadim/AP

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Baghdad

At a police outpost in the middle of Baghdad, the latest theft they’re investigating is someone in the neighborhood stealing electricity – from the police station.

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In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor crime, but one symptomatic of a city where almost no one plays by the rules. Though the security vacuum and the looting of the 2003 invasion have been replaced with a largely functioning Iraqi Army and police force, basic services are woefully unreliable as the country lurches along without a new government half a year after elections.

Overall violence has dropped dramatically from its height in 2006-07. But militants are now targeting police as they increasingly take responsibility for security in cities such as Baghdad.

Dozens of police officers have been killed since the beginning of August by gunmen with silencers, roadside bombs, and suicide bombs. The major attacks have been claimed by groups affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq.

“Ninety percent of our work is about sacrifice – we are being targeted all the time,” says police chief Abu Abbas, who first joined the police in Saddam Hussein's time.

Why Iraqi law is so hard to enforce

In a city where assassinations are a leading cause of death for government officials as well as security forces, the streets are crammed with convoys carrying even junior government officials, who speed through checkpoints without being stopped.

When suspects are arrested, about 75 percent of them are let go when they’re brought to a judge, according to the US military. In addition to a lack of evidence, corruption and intimidation are still prevalent in the justice system.

"My biggest strength doesn’t come from the pistol or rifle, it comes from the law,” says Abu Abbas, echoing the frustration of other security leaders on the front lines. "I can’t enforce a law that for seven years has been neglected – it’s bigger than me.”

The police chief declined to give his full name under stepped-up enforcement of an Interior Ministry ban on speaking to the media without written approval, prompted by a recent wave of attacks.

Little protection for police station

Abu Abbas oversees one of the overstretched police stations in central Baghdad where officers battle drug and prostitution rings as well as bombings and assassinations.

The neighborhood, which could not be named for security reasons, is home to 4,000 people, many of them living in crumbling apartments.

In a city where there's only five or six hours of electricity on a good day, and only an hour at a time, the police station relies on a large generator a few blocks away. Someone is tapping into the line.

The police building, its light blue paint baking in the heat, is surrounded by barbed wire and 3-ft.-high concrete barriers designed to slow down car bombers. The single concrete wall beyond that offers little protection from anyone intent on attacking it.

On the other side of the city, layer upon layer of security protects the sprawling Interior Ministry, one of the biggest targets of insurgents. Police with Russian-made PKC machine guns are posted along blast walls painted with yellow and pink daisies.

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