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.
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.
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.
“The police stations, including ours, aren’t located properly. If you go to the Interior Ministry, you’ll see a concrete wall surrounding it half a mile away," says Abu Abbas. "In front of our police station is an apartment building.”
He longs for proper concrete walls around his police station, like the ones he sees on television in foreign cities.
“In London they have a bell – people just ring the bell,” he says, pressing an imaginary door bell and making ringing noises.
As part of a security alert around the Sept. 1 end of the US combat mission here, security forces were placed on high alert, more checkpoints set up, and police were directed to patrol on foot instead of the usual vehicle patrols – a move the police chief disagrees with in his vulnerable neighborhood.
“What do I benefit from sending men out in the street and everyone can see them? I’d rather send them out in plain clothes,” says Abu Abbas, who acknowledges that recent attacks have made him and his unit more cautious. “When you feel you’re targeted, there will be changes. These armed groups specialized in assassinations with silencers – it’s a big problem for us.”
Deprived of police training in France
Abu Abbas has been a police officer for more than two decades. He languishes at the dusty outpost in the down-at-the-heels neighborhood because he has no tribal or political connections. He says he was nominated recently for training in France but another officer managed to bribe his way into the course instead.
“I’ve never been out of the country,” he says. “I’ve never even seen an airplane up close.”
But he is a keen observer of political history.
“When America brought its armies … we had a political vacuum and it became a breeding ground for terrorists,” he says. “All of the interests of neighboring countries here coincided.”
As for the Americans leaving: “It’s been a long time since we dealt with them,” he says. “At the beginning they were with us a lot, but that stopped a long time ago. Whether they’re leaving or not, we just see it on TV.”
Interior Ministry praises police's huge strides
At the Interior Ministry, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragheef – the director of internal affairs – says the police have made huge strides in the last four years, when they were infiltrated by militia members and death squads.
In a major victory last week, he says the police, acting on intelligence obtained from confessions, discovered a storehouse near Fallujah, built under a bathroom, that contained suicide vests, rocket-propelled-grenades, and packages of explosives.
At the same location, they found a four-wheel-drive loaded with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives ready to be detonated. The alleged military leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda-linked group, was arrested in a related operation.
Abu Ragheef believes the attacks are supported by neighboring countries, and made worse by the lack of a government here.
“The planning against Iraq is a plot that other countries are participating in,” he told the Monitor. “There are people who are throwing wood on this fire.”
“We are completely confident that we can assume responsibility for security in Iraq, but it will be incomplete if citizens and politicians are not part of it,” he says. “You cannot have one hand applauding.”
Mohammad Dulaimy contributed to this report.