MOGADISHU, SOMALIA -- A revitalized Somali police force is back patrolling this capital's lawless streets in what U.S. and U.N. officials say is a first step to reestablishing some order in Somalia's war-damaged society.

During the two-year civil war here, the police force disintegrated. Now, six months after a U.S.-led military force intervened in Somalia to help rebuild the country's institutions, the Somali police have been reorganized and officers are on the streets in twos or threes, often alongside foreign troops. They make arrests. They engage bandits in shootouts. And in the last three months, four have been shot dead in the line of duty.

When a Zimbabwean soldier was wounded by a sniper earlier this month in a crowded marketplace, it was a Somali policeman who returned the fire. He missed the sniper and two innocent donkeys were killed in the cross-fire. When Italian troops wanted to apprehend a suspected bandit who had fled into a north Mogadishu mosque, they sent Somali police into the mosque (barefoot, to accommodate Islamic custom) to make the arrest.

And when looters tried to blast their way into a Red Cross kitchen in north Mogadishu a week ago, a Somali policeman died in the ensuing firefight.

The police are seen as more effective than foreign troops at conducting routine police work, such as controlling crowds, directing traffic and providing security at feeding centers.

One long-range plan calls for a police force stationed along Somalia's long border with Kenya and Ethiopia as a border patrol in the absence of a national army here. Some U.N. officials also have suggested that Somali police, rather than foreign troops, ultimately should take the lead in the continuing process of disarming residents through weapons sweeps and house-to-house searches.

U.N. and U.S. military officials said they aim to develop the Somali police into a strong, effective force so that the 20,000 U.N. troops here can begin to withdraw.

At the moment, however, the police concede they are outmanned and outgunned by Somalia's rival militias and well-armed bandits as they try to reestablish their presence in the city.

"The police have some small arms, but the criminals are armed even with heavy weapons," said Col. Elmi Sahal Ali, a member of the 10-man police committee that supervises the Mogadishu force. "We have no idea how many they are. But they are out there."

"No police force can be effective and carry out its duties as long as the country is awash with arms," said Gen. Ahmed Jama, a former national police chief fired by then-dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1989. "The country must be disarmed, and the police are not in a position to carry out this task. The people causing the problems are better-equipped and better-armed and do not look at the police as a challenge to them."

There are now 2,840 Somali policemen in Mogadishu -- about the same number as before the war -- working out of 13 refurbished police stations and divided into seven regional headquarters. Two thousand more are scattered among major southern cities such as Baidoa, Baardheere and Kismaayo. They all served as police officers before the civil war began in January 1991. U.N. and American military officials say they have tried to screen out any officers who committed human rights abuses under the Siad Barre regime.

According to Western diplomats and some Somalis, the old Somali national police managed to keep its reputation largely intact even during the worst days of Siad Barre's dictatorship. The military apparatus, including the presidential guard and the national security bureau, was primarily responsible for propping up the regime and enforcing state terrorism through the surveillance, arrest and torture of suspected dissenters.

"They have a good reputation because they have not been involved in what was happening in the country," said Jama. Under Siad Barre, he said, "the police were practically ignored."

U.S. Army Maj. Mark Inch, who has been working closely with the Somali police force, agreed. "The police were not the military security forces or the secret service," he said. "They had a focused mission. Of all the institutions, it appears it was the least influenced by clan politics and corruption. Therefore, it's the best institution to start with."

Still, the question of arming the Somali police force has proven sensitive. Foreign troops here are fearful of creating another armed faction in the country, and they have taken a variety of measures to ensure that police officers cannot use their firearms when off-duty. So far, U.N. officials here have issued only 758 weapons to the police nationwide, covering less than 20 percent of the force. Those weapons are carefully controlled at the precinct houses, and each officer must return his weapon at the end of his shift.

In addition, U.N. plans call for keeping the police units localized, city by city, and not combining them into a national police force such as the one that existed before the civil war. Here in Mogadishu, the local forces are controlled by committees, usually consisting of town and city elders and former policemen. This system avoids the appointment of a powerful police chief who, in the absence of formal government, could become a new warlord.

Jama, who has been mentioned as a candidate for chief of a future expanded police force, says having only local units is a mistake. "You have to start some place," Jama said. "But really, the plan should be to integrate these local forces into one national police."

But the new police force faces larger and more immediate problems. For one, Somalia still lacks a functioning court and legal system. Retired U.S. Navy admiral Jonathan T. Howe, the U.N. envoy here, announced last week that he plans to hold a series of meetings with Somali lawyers and jurists aimed at creating a temporary, neutral judicial system during the two-year "transition period" that is taking place before elections are held and a government can be formed. At least one Somali warlord, Mohamed Farah Aideed, has sharply criticized Howe's plan for a judicial system as outside the United Nations' authority and an "interference" in Somalia's internal affairs.

There is also a lack of equipment and inadequate pay. The police here in Mogadishu have just 14 small vehicles and no radios to allow them to communicate with each other or with the U.N. troops here. And their U.N.-supplied salaries -- a maximum of 25,000 Somali shillings daily, or about $5 -- are "not even enough for a single man to live on," said Ali of the Mogadishu police committee.

Another problem is that since current rebuilding efforts have concentrated on finding and rehiring former policemen, many of the officers are old and some have lost skills after more than two years without work. There are no plans for new recruitment, although U.N. officials said they are looking at ways to institute a retraining program for the rehired police.

Simply locating many of the former policemen has proven an arduous task, but it has been made less difficult by one officer, Col. Sharif Ahmed Yahya, who stayed in the central police records room in Mogadishu and protected the employment files during the war even while the rest of the headquarters building was under siege by armed looters. In a small brick annex on the largely devastated compound of the old police headquarters, Yahya now sits among stacks of file folders and record books dating back to 1954, most of which miraculously survived a looting frenzy in which even the doors and hinges from the main headquarters building were stripped away.

"I was one of the people who stayed and protected them," Yahya said. "As a police colonel, it was my duty to stay."