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Iraqi-American cop returns to restore law and order to Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the six years that Nouman Shubbar spent as a patrolman on some of the meanest streets of North Philadelphia, no one ever shot at him.

It only took three months for that to happen in Baghdad.

Shubbar, 39, is one of dozens of Iraqi-Americans who have returned to help with the reconstruction of their native country. On leave from his job as Philadelphia police sergeant, he works for Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police chief who's the senior American adviser to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which runs the police.

Shubbar fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq for the United States in 1981. He's one of two U.S. cops on Kerik's small staff who speak Arabic, and the only one who understands Iraqi culture. So he finds himself in all sorts of sticky situations.

He recently was dispatched to check out what turned out to be a mass grave of more than 500 bodies in Najaf. A few weeks ago, he helped run a sting operation on some arms dealers. Then there was the day he went with a group of officers to check out a tip that a kidnapping ring was operating out of a house in a Baghdad neighborhood.

Police surrounded the building and Shubbar, who wears a military haircut and a khaki vest over his weightlifter's build, knocked on the door. A man peeked out, ran back in and within seconds gunfire was blasting from the house in Shubbar's direction.

The police returned fire, and "a bad guy got hit," Shubbar said. "Two other ones tried to escape, but we got `em. We went in there and we found a man and a woman tied up separately. The woman, they had pulled out her fingernails. The guy they beat real bad."

It's all in a day's police work in Baghdad, one of the world's most crime-ridden cities. According to the director of statistics at the central morgue, 734 people died of gunshot wounds in the capital city in July. That's more than the number of murders in New York City all of last year, or in Philadelphia in the previous two years.

And for every dead body, there are uncountable kidnappings, carjackings, rapes and muggings. The U.S.-imposed curfew is 11 p.m., but many Iraqis are afraid to go out after sundown.

Coalition troops, who patrol mainly in armored vehicles, have been unable to solve Iraq's crime problem. Most experts think that job must fall to the new Iraqi police. That's where Kerik's people, including Shubbar, come in.

The force of 39,000 officers is expected to grow to 65,000. While U.S. military police units protect Iraqi police stations and National Guard troops help train recruits, Kerik and his staff are working on the big picture. They're trying to implement American-style rules and methods in place of the corrupt and abusive habits of the old regime.

It's tough going. The police still lack basic necessities, such as radios. Some don't have guns. A few weeks ago, two uniformed officers mistakenly were shot and killed by American troops as they were chasing some criminals.

Shubbar thinks the military should turn over policing functions to the Iraqi force faster than it has been. But overall, he's hopeful.

"My sense is, it's getting better by the day. Seriously."

Shubbar came to Iraq under a U.S. Defense Department program that hired Iraqi-Americans who want to help rebuild their country. He took leave from the Philadelphia police and flew into Baghdad on May 9, a week before Kerik arrived and a month after Saddam's regime fell.

He was shocked at the devastation: the bombed and looted buildings, the poverty and filth. It was a different city from the one he grew up in.

When he and other Americans first went to the Iraqi police headquarters, "We had these groups of policemen who each had loyalty to a boss ... nobody listened to one guy. Nobody would give up anything," he said.

With the help of some military police officers, Shubbar cleared everyone out of the building. "And then I picked one guy—a guy I thought was honest ... and we said, OK, you control access."

That man was Ahmed Ibrahim, who's now the chief of the Iraqi police.

Shubbar was born and raised in Baghdad, where his father ran a department in the Agriculture Ministry until he ran afoul of Saddam and was jailed for six months in the 1970s. At 18, with the Iran-Iraq war raging, Shubbar applied to study in the United States and never came back.

"I got out just in time," he said.

His parents soon followed, and they settled in Philadelphia. Shubbar got an electrical engineering degree from Temple University, but desk work wasn't for him. In 1992, he joined the Philadelphia police force, where he worked for six years as a patrolman. After Sept. 11, 2001, he joined the counterterrorism unit.

He and his wife, Nancy, have two sons, Ali, 8, and Zaid, 6.

"I'm happy that I came and was able to contribute something," he said. "My thing is, I really want this to work for both the United States and for the Iraqis. I actually believe that if Iraq becomes a democratic, free society, it can affect the rest of the Middle East. If we do this right."


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

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