After hearing the first crackly reports on his walkie-talkie that U.S. tanks were rolling into central Baghdad, Col. Hussein Zubaidi of the Baghdad police abandoned his post, rushed home and stripped out of his olive-green uniform. As looters ransacked the city over the next four days, he remained ensconced in his house. "The Americans might have mistaken me for a soldier," he said, "and shot me."
Today, another radio report prompted him to don his uniform again. The BBC's Arabic-language shortwave service said U.S. forces were appealing for Iraqi policemen to help stem the wave of lawlessness. So Zubaidi, wearing his black beret and silver lapel stars, went to the posh downtown club mentioned on the radio expecting to sign a paper or two and reclaim his old assignment.
What he found instead was more chaos.
Hundreds of men were in the club lounge, shouting and shoving for a chance to sign a registration list. There were active-duty officers, retirees and even a few unemployed men hoping to land a new job -- and a gun. Some of the generals and colonels who tried to take charge were heckled.
"He's a murderer," one man in the crowd yelled.
"He's dirty," another screamed. "He's taken too many bribes."
The pandemonium at the Wiyah Club provided a glimpse of the steep challenges that confront U.S. troops as they begin to resuscitate basic civil services in this war-ravaged country. Although U.S. military officers here say they want to have Iraqi policemen patrolling the streets, Iraqi electricians fixing the power grid and Iraqi engineers working on the water supply, making that happen has turned out to be far more complicated than saying: "Back to work."
The U.S. troops want an initial force of a few hundred Iraqi police officers to accompany them on anti-looting patrols. But they face a challenge separating the honest from the venal, the law enforcing from the law breaking. During former president Saddam Hussein's three-decade rule, the police were part of a vast internal security apparatus that was accused of bribe-taking, torture, illegal detentions and summary executions.
Although participants at today's meeting insisted they were clean and their corrupt colleagues were on the run, there was no way to tell if that was true. At least a few men insisted that some of the rotten ones were trying to pass themselves off as reformers.
"We have to approach this in a step-by-step way," said Maj. Mark Stainbrook, a Los Angeles police officer and Marine reservist who is part of a civil affairs team trying to screen potential Iraqi policemen. "We're going to make an honest attempt to interview each person."
U.S. military officials said most rank-and-file officers probably would be accepted. Serious corruption, they said, existed primarily within the leadership.
To proclaim his honesty, Zubaidi, 45, mentioned with pride what had been a badge of shame in the police force: his reassignment in 2001 from Baghdad to Maysan, a province in the south, after 23 years of service. He did not want to get into details, calling the reasons for the move "trivial." But a friend of his, Lt. Hussein Abbas, said it was "because he doesn't take bribes."
"He was punished," Abbas said, "because he was good."
Abbas said he came to the meeting because he wanted to help "restore order" in Baghdad. "Our city is being destroyed," he said. "We need to help stop the looting."
Although it is difficult to imagine most Iraqis wanting corrupt police officers, there appears to be growing unease with the pace of efforts to return to normality.
"They need to move faster," said Gailan Mahmood Ramiz, a political science lecturer at Baghdad University. "The Americans need to make sure they have the shortest possible timetable to leave."
Even without Iraqi policemen, the looting that had enveloped the capital since Wednesday appeared to ebb today. Several factors appeared to be responsible: increased patrols by U.S. forces, the lack of anything left to pilfer from unguarded government buildings and a sense, at least among some, that they had taken their fill.
"This was all that's left," said Khalid Jaffar, 20, an unemployed laborer, as he pushed a broken, vinyl-covered office chair across the street in front of the Planning Ministry. This afternoon he was one of just a half-dozen people in front of the building, which had been teeming with looters just 24 hours earlier.
"Things are getting a lot better," said Capt. Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division, which is occupying the eastern half of the capital. "Order is being restored."
More convoys of heavily armed Marines, traveling in armored personnel carriers and Humvees with roof-mounted grenade launchers, patrolled several downtown streets and fired warning shots to disperse would-be thieves.
Col. Hussein Mehdi, another officer at the club who sought to reclaim his job, insisted Iraqis were best suited to clamp down on the looting because they knew the likely targets. "We want to work with the Americans right away," he said. "We are together."
Although the meeting began with a semblance of order as a U.S. Marine officer addressed the crowd, it quickly degenerated into screaming and gesticulating. There was no agreement on which Iraqi general should be in charge. Many participants wanted to start working right away. Some wanted to know how much they would get paid. Everyone wanted to sign a registration list that kept disappearing.
"We want to work," one man growled.
"Why did you register his name and not mine?" another queried aloud.
The Marines took it in stride. But as they departed, Stainbrook admitted that he had "a pretty big headache."
In another room, health workers, electricians and water engineers were trying to hash out similar issues. Eventually it was decided that police officers should gather Monday at the police training college, health workers at a hospital and electricity workers at one of Baghdad's power stations.
"We all want to cooperate to get things back to normal," said Faek Baedhani, a mechanical engineering professor at Baghdad University who has no previous experience in running a municipal power service but nevertheless was selected by Marine officers to temporarily lead the electricity task force.
Because many top officials in utility companies and public security services were also senior members of Hussein's Baath Party, many have fled. Others are regarded as incompetent political appointees who sought only to enrich themselves. But the lack of top management has created a leadership vacuum, with middle managers competing with each other to seize authority.
"Who are you to tell me to be quiet?" a stout man shouted at police Gen. Zuhair Nuaimi, one of the few top officers of the Baghdad force who showed up. After much bickering, he became the de facto leader of the police group. But his efforts to exert authority were not without controversy.
"I am a policeman like you," the man continued bellowing at Nuaimi. "You have no right to tell me to sit down."
"Just be quiet," another man intoned. "He is only trying to help us."
After the meeting, Zubaidi said he expects the officers to iron out their differences. But he predicted it would be tougher to convince Baghdad residents that the new force will be different from the old one.
"We have to do serious work," he said. "We have to show the people we are decent, educated people who are here to serve the people."