The announcement Wednesday of a new national security law is the most dramatic in a string of recent moves by Iraqi officials, both local and national, to get tough on crime and insurgents. It illustrates the new interim government's priorities - and underscores the use of hard-line practices often avoided by US soldiers and the now-defunct US-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
In Baghdad, for example, the police and interior ministry are now conducting large-scale sweeps throughout the city to capture alleged criminals; in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, local officials have imposed a 7 p.m. evening curfew to deal with insurgents; local judges have reinstated the death penalty that the US occupation had suspended; and the Interior Ministry says it will soon begin removing tens of thousands of squatters from government buildings.
Iraqi public opinion is broadly supportive of almost any measure that could bring the situation in Iraq under control. "The US never did anything to stop the gangs,'' says Mohammed Hassan, a fruit vendor in Baghdad's tough Bettawain neighborhood, where Iraqi forces arrested over 150 alleged criminals last week. "I'll support [Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi if he keeps it up."
Dealing with crime, or socially sensitive issues like squatters, was largely avoided by the US occupation, a practice dating back to the failure to control looting in the wake of the invasion. The declaration of an emergency under the new security law would allow Prime Minister Allawi to temporarily set aside many of the protections in an Iraqi Bill of Rights that CPA head Paul Bremer touted as one of the major achievements of his tenure.
"I don't distinguish between insurgents and criminals - their targets are the same, the Iraqi people," says Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Nagib, who is in charge of Iraq's domestic policing and intelligence operations. "A priority for the Iraqi people is dealing with organized crime."
At the street level, the new government is starting to use tough tactics against criminals rarely seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. But most Iraqis are delighted that Allawi has vowed to reinstate the death penalty, and say the US was too soft on alleged criminals.
"Maybe people were reluctant to provide information to non-Iraqis,'' says Col. Adnan Aziz, an interior ministry spokesman. "Now we're rebuilding our security systems, which were dissolved after the invasion, and people respect us. They're helping us to make them more secure."
On June 28, the first major act of the new government was the encirclement of Bettawain and the mass arrests made there, led by Major General Hussein Ali Kamal, a Kurd who helped lead the effort against the Ansar al-Islam - an Al-Qaeda-linked terror group - in the Kurdish north before the US invasion.
General Kamal assembled a team two months before the handover to pay informants and gather intelligence on kidnap gangs and thieves in Bettawain, central Baghdad, which is populated by many immigrants from the Sudan and seen by Baghdadis as a hotbed of criminal activity.
Interviewed in his office amid the ringing of four cell phones and "Tom & Jerry" fighting it out on TV in the background, Kamal says he used satellite photos from the US to identify criminal hideouts and escape routes, and was ready to move when sovereignty was handed over.
He said he targeted criminals because their activities, more than the suicide attacks and roadside bombs that plague US and Iraqi forces, are what most Iraqi people fear. About 165 men were arrested, with 100 of them later released. He says that the 65 still in detention have confessed to crimes ranging from theft to kidnapping, rape, and murder.
"We had some coalition backup, but this was a fully Iraqi operation,'' says Kamal. "This is just the first of many steps. Our reports are that crime is already going down. We've got a program and we're going to stick with it."
That raid, however, was not without problems, with witnesses in the neighborhood saying some of the arrested men were beaten severely with sticks and rubber hoses. An interior ministry official turned down a Monitor request to go on the next similar raid. "We've only been in power a few days. There are still some violations and corrupt officers. Give us time and we'll clean it up."
Shortly after the arrests were made, teams of US soldiers surrounded the Interior Ministry and demanded the captured men be released into their custody, prompting a tense standoff. Iraqi officials contacted senior US officers, who told the soldiers to stand down. The Interior Ministry official says that "low-level" US officers were involved, and were seeking to protect some of the rounded-up Iraqis who had served as US informants in the area.
Ali Adnan Daud, a calm 17-year old from Iraq's Shiite south, was rousted out of bed by police who stormed the flophouse where he was staying. He was kicked to the ground and taken away with his four brothers and released after three days.
"They had pictures of the men they wanted. When they figured out we were clean, they let us go,'' says Ali, who works at a construction site in the Green Zone. "I'm not too upset. I think it's good they're being so tough with the criminals."
Less sanguine was Ibrahim Idris Mehdi, an imposing native of Sudan who immigrated to Iraq 32 years ago. He says he was mistreated, and displays marks on his wrists from what he says were three days of having his hands tied. "They just dragged me off the street, stole 60,000 dinars ($40) from my pocket, and locked me up for three days,'' he says. "If they want to go after criminals, fine. But some of those cops are thieves."
The interim government is also moving to take back control of the government sites and Baathist buildings that have been occupied for more than a year by squatters. Some dwellings are bomb-scarred ruins with just a little shelter from the rain, while others are intact government buildings in some of the most expensive parts of the city.
"We know this is sensitive, but this is also a priority for us,'' says Minister Hassan. "We will try to distinguish between the ones who are really homeless and the others who have simply rented out their homes and gone to live somewhere else for free." Rents were strictly controlled by Hussein - with some apartments going for as little as $5 a month - and after the war landlords increased rents, causing many Iraqis to seek free shelter.
At the ornate Television and Radio complex - painted tiles of Sumerian scenes adorn its trash-strewn courtyard - in Baghdad, squatters complain they face increasingly heavyhanded police efforts to dislodge them. "They come here and fire weapons at night, they're really increasing the pressure,'' says Mohammed Abid Zain, an unemployed man who's lived here for a year.
His teenage wife, Lemia, nine months pregnant, sits quietly next to him in their room, while he explains they have few options. "They've offered us $100 to get out of here, but we need a place to live,'' he says. "Last week they cut off the water and electricity. But we're not going. They can tear this place down around us."
Across town at the former Iraqi Air Force Officers Club, Rania Jassim's four children scamper around her as she looks out from her home in a former changing room beside what was once the swimming pool. "We've heard they want us out, but unless they give me a place to live, we're in big trouble," she says. Ms. Jassim's husband, was a taxi driver killed in a carjacking shortly after Baghdad fell. She says she bought her home from earlier squatters for $200, who had put in a new wall for privacy. She says an American officer recently visited the complex and said that it was going to be converted into a US base. "We've been told that we'll get houses somewhere else, but I don't trust them," she says.
The announcement of the security law came after days of rewrites and delays because of US and some Iraqi concerns that human rights could be trampled on in the event an emergency was declared. There were also worries the appointed Allawi's powers would be so broad that he could suspend elections scheduled for January and effectively remain in power indefinitely. Emergency laws have been used by Arab strongmen to avoid elections.
Iraqi Human Rights Minister Bhaktiar Amin told reporters that he understood concerns about limitations on individual rights, but emphasized there are limits and protections in the new law that should prevent abuses. "The lives of the Iraqi people are in danger," he said.
Minister Hassan said: "We realize that this law might restrict some liberties but there are a number of guarantees in this law that ensure the rights of the people."
The six-page emergency law has provisions that, in theory, protect against the decades-long martial law in Arab countries like Syria and Egypt that have kept undemocratic regimes in power.
Any emergency would apply only to a specified geographic area and will be limited to 60 days. An emergency would have to be unanimously approved by Allawi and the three-member presidency, a group that represents Kurdish, religious Shiite, secular Shiite, and Sunni interests. The need for unanimous agreement should prove a break on Allawi's power. The Iraqi courts will also be allowed to review the order.
The security law prohibits Allawi from abrogating any part of the Transitional Administrative Law, the interim constitution that the US helped to write.