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Heavy duty for police detective in new Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The detective answered his mobile phone. He had been working all night, and it was 15 minutes to end of his shift.

A senior official in the Ministry of Industry had been shot in front of his home, the detective was told. "If not me, who?" he thought, although there is no overtime pay.

He drove to the hospital to interview the victim. But by the time he arrived, the man had died, becoming the detective's fifth murder case of the week.

The detective did not know that in six days, a suicide truck bomb would devastate his police station. For now, it was just another day on a police force overwhelmed by Iraq's post-war crime wave.

At the morgue, the detective looked over the body carefully as trickles of blood dried around the wounds. He knew there would be no forensic examination, other than what he could gather with his own eyes.

His next stop was the crime scene, where the wail of female relatives pierced the warm morning air. No fingerprints were taken, no measurements made, no plastic yellow tape strung up around the area.

This was Iraq: There weren't any crime scene investigators. There was only the detective.

He began reading through a pink-bound document that had been lying on the front passenger seat of the victim's SUV. It showed that the man had just finished a bid-rigging investigation that accused two Iraqi companies of defrauding the Iraqi government of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is going to be complicated, the detective thought.

Bush administration officials in Washington have praised the increasing effectiveness of Iraqi security forces. And it's true that since the June 28 handover of sovereignty, the police have arrested and patrolled more aggressively.

But in the everyday world of the al Bayaa police station, where Maj. Luay Majeed is a senior criminal investigator, officers acknowledge they are still no match for Iraq's epidemic of lawlessness.

"They're outgunned, they're outnumbered, and they definitely don't have the training they need, in my opinion," said Staff Sgt. Michael Ashcraft, who is part of a military police company assigned to the al Bayaa station. "Their idea of policing is to go out and sit and wait for something to happen."

The al Bayaa station covers an area home to 750,000 people. There are about 950 policemen on the books, though no one has ever seen all of them at work. There are just nine investigators.

They have no computers. Cases are recorded in paper files. They buy pens and paper with their own money. When the electricity goes off, they sometimes read by candlelight.

The officers complain that they don't have enough weapons or ammunition. Some have sold their guns on the black market.

Under Saddam, the police ranked lowest on the security pecking order, far below the intelligence services and the military. Salaries were next to nothing. Bribe taking and torture were rampant.

Most of today's police were in the department under the previous regime. And while some of them have been through U.S.-sponsored training courses on civil rights, it's clear that not much has changed.

In the last year, hundreds of police officers have been implicated in off-duty crimes, on-duty abuses and anti-coalition attacks, Iraqi prosecutors and American officials say.

Even the leaders, vetted by U.S. forces, cling to the old ways.

"When I know he is guilty of murder, and he refuses to confess, what should I do, give him a Rani juice?" asked Bayaa's senior commander, a blunt-talking police veteran named Col. Khaldoun Abdullah, referring to a popular brand of canned fruit drink.

Asked whether police still accept bribes, he replied: "Corruption is everywhere in Iraq. Only God is honest."

Sabir Kareem, a senior auditor in the Ministry of Industry, had been shot four times with a pistol as he stepped out of his car to bring home some bread for breakfast.

Kareem's 20-year-old-son said the family hadn't heard hear any gunfire. That, plus the nature of the wounds, led Majeed to believe that a silencer had been used.

In many parts of the world, the assassination of a government official would be a big deal.

In Iraq, such killings have become common.

In the last two weeks, the chief investigator looking into Iraq's oil for food scandal was blown up. Two provincial governors and a defense official were killed. Iraq's justice minister narrowly escaped a bomb attack.

There is no official count of the number of murders in Iraq since the war, but it's believed to be in the thousands. At al Bayaa, investigators say they have handled more than 400 murders since July 2003, 80 percent of which remain unsolved.

Add to that thousands of kidnappings, armed robberies and rapes. In the post-war security vacuum, Iraq has become one of the world's most crime-ridden countries.

If it had happened in the U.S. or Europe, one can imagine a team of detectives fanning out to investigate the Kareem murder before the trail went cold.

They would have talked to his family and his co-workers. They would have canvassed the neighborhood for witnesses. They would have pored over his case files to determine who stood to gain from his demise.

Nothing moves that fast in Iraq, and that's one reason most murders don't get solved.

Another is fear.

Majeed wanted above all to talk to Kareem's wife. But when he went to the house, she refused to see him, citing an Islamic tradition that a widow shouldn't receive men for 120 days. Relatives sent him away, saying the family had no information that could help.

The detective wondered whether they had been threatened.

A few interviews with neighbors yielded a single lead: a car had been seen driving suspiciously in the neighborhood that day.

By Wednesday, the day after the murder, the detective had traced the license plate, but he had to obtain a judicial warrant before going to detain the car owner—a rare nod to due process.

Since Wednesday was a national holiday, no judge was working.

In the al Bayaa station's one-room jail, 53 men and four teen-age boys sleep crammed together on floor mats. Some have been there for months awaiting court dates. A foul stench wafts from the bathroom.

Nearby, a woman who says she was tortured and raped sits in the separate jail cell for females. She is being kept there so her family doesn't kill her.

Ashcraft's military police company has an office in the station, but the interaction between soldiers and police these days has been limited to a few meetings and some joint patrols.

Ashcraft said he believes the boys in the jail become "cannon fodder" for sexual predators at night, but there's little the Americans can do unless someone complains.

"This place makes Abu Ghraib look like a palace," Ashcraft said, referring to the American-run prison where Iraqis were abused.

In addition to brutality, there is lethargy. Officers at al Bayaa spend a lot of time sitting around. On patrol, they drive for hours without interacting with residents. When it's too hot, they park in the shade and rest. Foot patrols are too dangerous, they say.

Still, just being on the police force takes courage. Hundreds of policemen have been shot or blown up in the last year, including six who died when a suicide car bomber hit the al Bayaa station last October. The station is routinely struck by small mortars launched from the neighborhood.

Officer pay starts at only $230 per month.

What's more, the police at al Bayaa have come a long way from last summer. They communicate with two-way radios and drive around in a fleet of blue and white painted vehicles with flashing lights and sirens. Nearly every officer has a rifle and a pistol.

Each week, they say, they arrest violent criminals.

But they know full well that in today's Iraq, most lawbreakers are never caught.

On Thursday, two days after the government auditor was killed, Majeed was working a day shift, which meant he had to sit in his office and process a steady stream of new cases.

He took a report from two men who had been duped into swapping thousands of U.S. dollars for near-worthless Polish currency. He grilled a bearded Islamist who had been asking suspicious questions about the police station. He yelled at a man who had failed to stop at a police checkpoint.

"You can't compare this situation to the States, where one investigator can spend a year on a single case," said Majeed, a burly, dapperly attired man who could have stepped off the set of "NYPD Blue." He has four young children at home and a sister in Indianapolis.

"Here we have to work on a lot of cases. When I go home I spend my time sleeping, because I am so exhausted."

In the afternoon, Majeed dispatched a group of officers to pick up the owner of the car seen driving near where the auditor was shot.

Six of them piled into a police SUV and drove to the man's house. They stopped five times to ask for directions. After fanning out in front of the gate with their rifles, they learned he was at work. A short drive later they found him.

They took the car owner and an employee who had been driving it that morning into custody.

But Majeed quickly concluded that the two weren't involved. The driver had been visiting his girlfriend, and his story checked out.

Yet they would remain in the crowded jail without bail for days because an investigating judge wanted to hold them. The detective let them sit in his office and drink tea.

A short while later, three representatives from the ministry came to talk to the detective about the case.

They seemed unwilling to acknowledge that the auditor may have been killed because of his fraud investigations, even though the detective said that was likely.

"There is no clear motive behind the killing," one official said, fingering his prayer beads.

During a half hour discussion with the detective, the three bureaucrats never broached the subject of who might have benefited from the auditor's death.

"I think they fear for themselves," the detective said after they had left.

One could almost feel the case growing colder, the hope for solving it fading.

The next morning, the detective was eating breakfast in his office when he felt an enormous rush of air. He didn't remember hearing the blast.

A suicide truck bomber had timed his strike for when hundreds of officers were gathering in the rear parking lot for a shift change. The crater was 32 feet wide.

When Majeed got to his feet, he saw that his door had been wrenched from its moorings. His large window had blown out. He silently thanked the American MPs for putting sticky tape all over the glass. He suffered only minor cuts.

In the hallway, he saw pandemonium. Stunned and bleeding officers began carrying the wounded to waiting cars for transport to the hospital. He ran to help.

Seven civilians and two police officers were killed. Of the 62 reported wounded, 28 were policemen. Eighty police vehicles were damaged. The station was strewn with shattered glass.

The detective noted that, unlike October's attack, the police did not panic and flee this time. There is more discipline now, more pride.

Ninety minutes after the blast, the detective began sweeping the floor of his office, a world-weary look on his face.

There would be no progress on the dead auditor today. Maybe tomorrow.

"This," he said, "is what we live with."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+police