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New chief of Baghdad police puts new, old recruits on looted streets

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Baghdad's new police chief stood atop the hood of a patrol car Monday and told some 2,000 old, new and retreaded police officers to get out on the streets of the capital and take them back from the looters and criminals. Their first job: Find and retrieve all the stolen police cars.

As word spread that the police were coming back, new life appeared to be returning to the Iraqi capital as well. Cars began to fill some downtown streets, and shopkeepers began opening their doors to business for the first time in a month.

Vendors offered tomatoes, eggplants and onions on wide city sidewalks and several barbershops and beauty salons could be seen wide open to let in daylight as Baghdadis freshened up with haircuts. Even a few grilled kebab restaurants were open for business.

Buses cruised on the west side of the Tigris River, full but not crammed, with Iraqis on the move, along with American armored vehicles that cruised the streets to collect rocket propelled grenades and other unexploded ordinance that is still strewn around the city.

After vetting him carefully, U.S. Marine commanders appointed Brigadier Zuhar al Naami as temporary director general of Baghdad's police department, or police chief, saying he was respected in the community and had the kind of personality needed to rebuild the city's police department.

Al Naami said the first police patrols were starting on the city's east side, and would spread to the west side in the next few days. The Tigris River divides the city.

Crime, especially looting, has dominated the streets of Baghdad since the fall of Saddam's statue on Wednesday. Nearly every government building has been stripped bare, and many have been burned out. Young people carrying weapons have patrolled their own streets.

The absence of police has been the main complaint of many Iraqis, who said they couldn't feel free unless they felt safe. Right after the need for security, residents say, is the need to swiftly restore power and water to the city of more than 5 million inhabitants.

The crime "made me and my colleagues come back to work," said one returning policeman, Mohmid al Matly, 53. The looters "are not educated people. They have not read the Koran."

Al Naami served on Iraq's police force for 36 years, spending part of his career in the country's office of immigration, as an inspector general and as a director of one sector of the former police department.

Wearing a green Iraqi police uniform and black beret, al Naami stood on the hood of a police car in front of a crowd of retired police, fired police and police who had fled the streets when war came to Baghdad. He told them they had a job in the new Iraqi regime.

"Now we need policemen to go get their cars and start work," al Naami told them. "We will go back on the streets and control the city."

A Shiite imam, Saed Ayad al Moosawee, joined the new police chief atop the patrol car, telling the assembled police that they had a duty as Iraqis and as Muslims to rebuild their nation.

The officers gathered at the city's Police College, a looted former police academy that U.S. officials said would serve as temporary police headquarters. Radio ads had urged the former officers to apply for their old jobs.

As soon as al Naami made his talk, the police officers tore down a bust and pictures of Saddam and dragged them out onto the street.

"You are policemen. You shouldn't be breaking down stuff!" yelled Marine staff Sgt. Jeremy Stafford, 30. Stafford, a Los Angeles Police Department officer, came to Baghdad to help establish a police force.

Many of the officers swarmed al Naami to ask how they could begin working.

Al Naami said most of the country's police cars had been stolen, but "we will get them back immediately."

Outside the college, someone painted a sign that read: "Anyone who steals will be punished under the new Iraqi police department."

Moosawee told the crowd that his mosque in the al Hooreerah, or "Freedom," district of Baghdad was holding some returned looted items. Moosawee told the officers they should get the items back to their owners.

The Marine commanders spent two days investigating al Naami before naming him chief, said Maj. Mark Stanbrook, 34, of Hughesville, Md. Stanbrook said he interviewed al Naami, met with members of the community and checked al Naami's background before recommending him to the U.S. military.

Both al Naami and U.S. officials were still finessing many basic points: Would Iraqi officers be allowed to carry weapons? Which neighborhoods would the officers patrol? What kind of training would they receive?

For now, Iraqi officers will be allowed to carry pistols and U.S. Marines will patrol alongside them, Stanbrook said.

Within an hour of al Naami's speech, officers made their first arrest: A teenager was hauled into the new police headquarters for stealing nine Iraqi license plates from cars. He was processed—that is, yelled at—and then released.

Sami al Lamee, 47, opened his barbershop for the first time in five days when he heard the police were back. He said he hadn't seen one of the new police officers yet, but he felt the streets were safer.

Residents say they hope the United States also will work quickly to restore electricity and water. Within hours of opening his business, al Lamee brought a fan into his shop. He has no way to power it, but "I brought for the future."

Not all was quiet in the city. A fire raged in the Ministry of Education, while looters stole toilets from an office building nearby.

Meanwhile, as many as 17 Iraqi civilians were killed in a massive explosion of abandoned ammunition, set off by children playing, in a neighborhood northwest of the Saddam City section.

According to Capt. Mike Martin, K Company commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine regiment, as many as 100 civilians were injured by the blast. He said that just before the explosion, witnesses said there were children playing amid the munitions.

On the outskirts of the capital, Iraqis still could be seen siphoning stolen gasoline out of huge, pried-open storage tanks. They fled when U.S. troops showed up and fired shots into the air.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Patrick Peterson and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.