BAGHDAD, Iraq—For the past month, Laith al Dlhlaky has been living at his family's electrical supply store in the teeming Shoorjaa Market because he's afraid that a neighborhood gang will loot the place if he leaves.
The 25-year-old, who paid car thieves $2,500 to ransom his nephew's 2002 Nissan, keeps a gun in his office, and he won't turn on a light there at night because he's afraid thugs will shoot into the room. They've already put 50 bullet holes in the building.
"They want to kill me," he said.
The Iraqi capital's 5 million people are free of Saddam Hussein, but unchecked random and organized street crime has filled the vacuum, replacing a reign of terror with a wave of lawlessness.
A senior U.S. official said American and perhaps other forces must improve security first, before beginning to rebuild Iraq. "The real key is security in Baghdad," said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "We have about a month to get that under control; after that, it will be too late."
Ending the capital's crime wave, the official said, will require the United States to put more troops on the streets. It will require more military police than the Pentagon has dispatched so far, and it may take forces other than the two U.S. armored divisions now deployed around the capital.
L. Paul Bremer III, the former U.S. ambassador who's leading Iraq reconstruction efforts, said Thursday, "This is not a country in anarchy." Bremer plans to put more soldiers and police on the streets, and he said looters would be detained longer.
This past week, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, said 2,000 more military police would arrive in Baghdad in the next two weeks. Another 15,000 soldiers with the Army's 1st Armored Division are in Kuwait, waiting to leave for Baghdad. The Pentagon reported Thursday that there are 49,000 U.S. troops in greater Baghdad.
The city's instability has meant that crime, including an unknown number of homicides, continues unchecked.
A senior official with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the lead U.S. rebuilding agency, said homicides weren't investigated consistently.
Muhammed Sarhaan, 30, would agree. "There's no police," he said. On Friday, he brought his slain cousin's body, in a coffin, to a police station, but only to get a death certificate.
He said his cousin, Sataar Hameed, was killed with his father Thursday night when three men pulled up in a car outside their home and started shooting. The bandits took CDs from a shop in Hameed's home. Hameed leaves a wife and six children.
"We didn't see crime like this before the war," Sarhaan said.
The public perception is that Baghdad's thugs own the night, even with an 11 p.m. curfew.
Car-theft rings operate at will. As motorists approach, street bandits pick which vehicles they want and wave over the drivers at gunpoint. In a city where a dollar goes far, a thief can get $2,000 for every $10,000 car he steals.
The spoils of looting—televisions, tires, office furniture—sell at steeply discounted prices on medians and sidewalks where people never offered goods before. Shoppers and hawkers at looters' markets spill into the streets and disrupt traffic.
Despite the ORHA's public pronouncement to make combating lawlessness its top priority, people hear daily reports of rapes and abductions of young girls. No one seems to know how many serious crimes have occurred. In a sprawling city that lacks continuous electrical power and phone systems, there's no centralized reporting of crimes.
The police also remain at a disadvantage. In the mayhem that followed the U.S. invasion, looters pillaged many of the city's 60 police stations.
More than half the police force has returned to work. But more than a month after the war ended, most police stations don't operate 24 hours a day. Some officers still don't have badges.
Iraqi officers say they lack the firepower to contend with gangs armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Police have been reissued weapons only recently, including 9 mm pistols and a smaller supply of AK-47 automatic rifles.
The police also are fighting their reputation of corruption, violence and abuse under Saddam. Police officers are receiving new guidelines, including "no capital punishment, physical or mental coercion and no arbitrary arrest or detention," according to an ORHA fact sheet.
To prevent a reoccurrence of those tactics and to gain public trust in the police, the ORHA is planning public service announcements about a system that allows citizens to file complaints about officers or report previous human-rights violations. And U.S. military police are accompanying Iraqi officers on patrols, in part to monitor the Iraqis and ensure they are using reasonable force.
The ORHA has prohibited some Iraqi police units from returning to work because they committed gross human-rights abuses or were closely associated with Saddam's regime.
Last week, according to the ORHA official, who also asked not to be named, the police who returned to work included about 1,700 of 2,700 regular officers, 1,500 of 1,600 traffic officers and 1,100 of 3,700 security police.
Criminals take advantage of the fledgling police force. Organized carjackers, in particular, remain elusive. "We try to send a patrol, but by the time we get there, they're gone," said Capt. Steve Caruso, of the U.S. 18th Military Police Brigade and the head of a joint operating force with trusted Iraqi police officers.
Caruso hears citizens express frustration with the failed policing. The harshest comments are that streets seemed safer under Saddam's regime.
"It breaks my heart. But I understand why they feel that way," he said.
(Tim Potter reports for The Wichita Eagle.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-crime