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Baghdad's feared police force back on the streets

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Ali Baba is back on the streets. Few think that's a good thing.

Ali Baba is the nickname residents gave to local police under Saddam Hussein. The name comes from the legend Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. But while in the legend Ali Baba was a sort of Middle Eastern Robin Hood (the tale predates Robin Hood by more than a thousand years, locals point out) the nickname refers only to the thievery part.

"The police are Ali Baba to us," one mother said, afraid to give her name. "We were afraid of them before, why should we not be now?"

Even with the clamor for order amid looting and calm amid continued shooting, that's a common view of the reconstituted police force, which began joint patrols last week with Marines and U.S. troops.

"We're having trouble convincing the neighbors that they should trust the police," said Marine Capt. Alan Yankowsky, who has been working with residents and police since the occupation of the Iraqi capital. "The problem is that the police weren't nice guys. They basically robbed and raped and plundered.

"And now, look around. The police are back, they're driving the same cars as before, they're wearing the same uniforms, and they have all the same faces. I can understand the concern," he said.

The Marines on Monday named Brigadier Zuhar al Naami as temporary police chief. Throughout the week, more and more former officers have been brought back.

For their part, the police say they're public servants. An officer who would identify himself only as Captain Ali, because of a prohibition against speaking to the media while on rounds, said that slowly they would regain control of the city. He said there were some bad police under Saddam. But he notes that there were many concerned public servants as well.

"This is a new beginning for Iraq," he said. "People must begin with trust, and they must have some patience."

Some were willing to give the new system a chance.

"The old police were not safe, but there is always hope for the future," said Ahmed Marhan, a local barber. "So I will think good things are to come. What choice do I have?"

Many of the people think there is a choice. At the Al-Hakmai Mosque in what used to be known as Saddam City, Sheik Halim al Fatlawi, said Muslims will never accept Saddam's former police as public servants.

"Those police now with the American forces, they will do the same things they were doing under Saddam," he said. "We don't accept anyone who worked in the old Saddam government."

He continued by saying that Muslims have set up their own temporary government for Iraq, a government that would last, "maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, maybe longer."

That government includes a security force in the poorer parts of town, such as Saddam City, which locals have renamed Sadr City, for a murdered Shiite cleric.

Friday, at an intersection on the northern side of town, eight men with AK-47s were controlling traffic. The men said they were not officially sent by any mosque but were there because their faith told them they must work to help the people.

Basher Oba stood in the middle of the intersection, wearing a long gray robe and speaking into a megaphone. He would point at a line of traffic, call and wave for the vehicles to move and the gunmen would block the other lanes.

"We don't want the old police back," Oba said, as he halted traffic in all four directions. "They took money from the people. They beat the people. We do not need this again."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-POLICE