By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 15, 2006
BAGHDAD -- In a row of grimy market stalls off Thieves Market, a shopper's hand passes over a display of steel handcuffs, police batons and jumbled wool balaclava masks with oval slots gouged out for the eyes.
The hand pauses over a dark circular patch, embroidered in white with the letters "IP." "Five hundred dinar," the bored vendor grunts, about 35 cents for a badge marking the wearer as a bona fide member of the Iraqi police.
A set of Iraqi police officer's insignia: "Five hundred." A full army uniform, one of a dozen or so dangling on hangers from the tin roofs of the stalls, above the mud puddles and browsers in the grimy market: "Twenty thousand" -- about $13.50.
In Iraq, anyone can be anyone for the price of a uniform. And no one can be sure who that anyone is when armed men come knocking at the door at midnight or wave traffic to a stop. Iraq is awash in foreign and domestic security companies; insurgent movements; religious militias of tens of thousands of men representing themselves as "people's armies" or as bodyguard details; armed wings of political parties; army, police and paramilitary groups; and criminal gangs posing as all of them.
The criminal gangs kidnap, rob and kill, but so do many of the others.
The inability to tell who the real police are is such that in March, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr mocked the gullibility of a group of Iraqi private security workers who believed they were under arrest by legitimate policemen when men wearing police uniforms, driving police vehicles and carrying standard-issue police pistols led them away from their office in broad daylight. The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, adamantly denied taking the men. Most of them have not been seen since.
"People in camouflage uniforms took them like sheep," Jabr said contemptuously. "If they cannot defend themselves, who can?"
The confusion led to a ministry initiative this spring to put all its forces in a single, hard-to-copy uniform. Ministry officials said recently that uniforms would now be issued in June.
The ministry also changed the name of its paramilitary and police forces, grouping commando and public order brigades under the single designation of national police.
The police forces are dominated by the Shiite parties that lead Iraq's government and are widely believed to be infiltrated by the parties' militias. To the Sunni Arab minority, units with such names as the Wolf Brigade have become synonymous with roundups, detention, torture and killing. Jabr recently confirmed that there were death squads operating within the Interior Ministry police forces but insisted that their numbers were few.
Interior Ministry officials have insisted that impostors in purloined uniforms are carrying out many of the crimes.
"It's a lot of lies that ruin the reputation of the commandos," said Gen. Rashid Flaih Mohammed, commander of an elite force trained with U.S. backing to take a lead role in fighting the insurgency.
"This uniform, anyone can buy it and wear it," the general said in an interview in his office earlier this year. "We are going to choose a uniform that is special to us and number our badges. No one can wear our uniform or have our vehicles. We will not allow it."
Iraqis say it will take more than a change of name and costume to clean up the police.
"It was the Iraqi police," one Iraqi man said, quoting an 11-year-old boy's description of highway robbers who shot the boy six times and killed his father and a family friend in front of him.
The gunmen had flagged down the family's car, forced the men and boy to lie on the ground, shot them, then ransacked the vehicle for cash, the boy said.
The killers, the boy said, wore blue police uniforms, drove a white-and-blue police pickup truck and shot them with police pistols. The Washington Post agreed not to further identify the people involved to protect them.
Similar descriptions are given regularly by witnesses to crimes, including the checkpoint abduction this month of two Iraqi journalists whose corpses were found shortly after.
Whether the killers are police or impostors, the government is responsible, a Sunni political leader said.
"We are concerned about the state of lawlessness," said Tarik al-Hashemi, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group. "This whole phenomenon is a result of chaos and confusion inside the government."
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.