By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
BAGHDAD, Feb. 19 -- The Iraqi government has a new tactic in its fight against the insurgency: clearing the streets of the mentally disabled and homeless.
In a nationwide campaign launched Tuesday, the Iraqi Interior Ministry ordered police to round up beggars, itinerants and the mentally disabled, fearing they could be unwittingly used as suicide bombers by insurgent groups.
"We want to prevent al-Qaeda from using the mentally handicapped to kill innocent people," said Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, referring to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Iraqi government has said that a number of recent suicide attacks were carried out by the mentally impaired. Iraqi and U.S. officials said a suicide bombing this month that killed nearly 100 people was unwittingly carried out by two women with Down syndrome.
Khalaf said Iraqi law already prohibits beggars and the mentally disabled from "hanging around in the streets." He said beggars younger than 18 would be brought to shelters and adult professional panhandlers would be charged with crimes. The mentally disabled would be taken to hospitals, he said.
"These people with mental defects can cause a lot of damage if they are left on the streets and taken advantage of by al-Qaeda," Khalaf said. "Their proper place is in the hospitals."
Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a U.S. military spokesman, said in an e-mail that the U.S.-led coalition was "aware of the Ministry of Interior's efforts to try and protect homeless and mentally impaired citizens from becoming the unwitting victims of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is our understanding that the MOI intends to transfer these, the most vulnerable of Iraq's people, to the Ministry of Work and Social Affairs."
The campaign got off to a slow start. News of the crackdown leaked out, Khalaf said, and all the beggars and mentally disabled people "disappeared" from the streets. "We couldn't arrest anybody because they were not available," he said. "But we will continue our campaign."
Also Tuesday, the trial of high-ranking former officials accused of letting Shiite militias use hospitals and ambulances to kill and kidnap civilians was postponed.
Judge Abdul Satar Ghafur al-Bayrkdar, the spokesman for the Iraqi judicial system, said the case would be delayed until March 2 because a number of witnesses failed to show up for the trial of Hakim al-Zamili, a former deputy minister of health, and Brig. Gen. Hamid Hamza Alwan Abbas al-Shamari, a former top security official for the ministry. Both are accused of having ties to the Mahdi Army, the powerful militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The case has been viewed as a test of the judicial system's ability to deal with senior officials, particularly Shiites whose support is crucial to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In the evening, at least five Iraqi police officers were killed and 10 wounded when they came upon insurgents in a truck firing rockets and mortars at a U.S. military outpost in eastern Baghdad, U.S. officials said. The truck exploded after the insurgents left, causing the injuries. Three American troops were injured from rocket or mortar fire on the base, U.S. officials said.
[On Wednesday, Australia's defense chief said the country was planning to withdraw 550 soldiers based in southern Iraq, along with 65 army trainers, the Associated Press reported from Canberra.]