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Unchecked Lawlessness Stresses Iraqi Society

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page A30

BAGHDAD -- The report of his death found Abdulsemi Janabi in a meeting. His cell phone chirped, and through her sobs his wife told him that a radio station had just reported that his head had been found in one part of Baghdad, his body in another.

Janabi, a dean at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, assured his wife that he remained in one piece, safe and sound. He was on campus, sitting opposite a group of angry Shiite students demanding a prayer room and an office. In that moment, Janabi decided to take their demands more seriously.

Members of an Iraqi Shiite militia take positions along the streets of Sadr City in Baghdad after a fight last week with U.S. troops. (Karim Kadim -- AP)

Faced with the threatening broadcast and rumors that the students were supported by shadowy allies off campus, Janabi stopped going to work. His colleagues, who recounted the story, called his decision prudent in a city ruled by the law of the jungle for more than a year.

Violence, and the fear of it, defined everyday life in occupied Iraq long before the current insurgency. Ambushes, kidnappings and militias -- all the dangers lurking for Western visitors since last month -- emerged as dangers for many of Baghdad's 5 million residents shortly after the city fell in April 2003.

In the months that followed, while car bombs and attacks on U.S. forces grabbed the headlines, a relentless sense of insecurity eroded the patience of Iraqis, 92 percent of whom agreed that "freedom and democracy are meaningless without peace and security," according to a poll conducted in January for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Much of the country has been badly destabilized by the recent surge in fighting aimed at forcing out U.S. troops. But Iraqis say that their society was already strained by the disorder that emerged whenever U.S. forces were not around -- a lawlessness largely unchecked by a U.S.-trained police force that many citizens regarded as ineffectual from the start.

"Is there any solution for this?" said Abu Fateh, cradling his gray head in his hands in a room crowded with friends of his nephew, a mechanic murdered in the Volkswagen repair shop the family runs across the street from their home. Ahmed died beside a co-worker in the kind of gangland killing that has become routine over the last year in a neighborhood in western Baghdad called Khadra.

The killers, who wielded German-made submachine guns and cleared out in seconds, seemed professional. The police did not. "They just came in their cars and watched from a distance," Fateh said.

The wonder is that any came at all. For months after a car bomb destroyed the district's police station in early November, an adjoining precinct deployed just 15 officers to the neighborhood, which has a population of 100,000 people.

"The police work sometimes. Sometimes they're tired," Ahmed Kadim Ibrahim, deputy interior minister, said on one of his last days on the job before heading to a position with Iraq's delegation to the United Nations. ("I need to learn politics," he explained.) Ibrahim spent a year working alongside U.S. overseers trying to build the national police force, which partially collapsed last month when some members joined insurgents and others simply surrendered the streets to men with guns.

"Three months ago you could see Iraqi police setting up checkpoints all over at night," he said. "Now, you cannot find them."

On paper, the force entered April at full strength: 70,000. But Coalition Provisional Authority figures show that fewer than 3,000 completed a two-month training course, and 55,000 were listed as "untrained."

"Police officers require long training," said Sameer Shaker Sumaidaie, Iraq's new interior minister. An effective force "cannot be produced by courses that take as long as boiling eggs."

The shortage of officers in the field is striking. At clogged intersections across the capital, traffic is often directed by teenagers wearing homemade badges and working for tips from drivers grateful that someone has taken charge.

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