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First full day in sovereign Iraq ends peacefully for one police patrol

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Short on equipment, training and the respect of their countrymen, targeted by insurgents and everyday criminals, Iraqi policemen have a job that's tougher than ever.

So the 320 patrolmen and 22 officers at the command of Brig. Gen. Safaa Ali in the Bayaa station's patrol division stick together as they roam the 9 square miles under their jurisdiction at the city's southwest edge.

"Even a police officer these days may need another police officer," said Ali, 45. "We are ready, and we are expecting anything."

Setting out on patrol Tuesday, the first full day of Iraqi sovereignty, it was obvious that Ali's men faced the same monumental challenges as the day before the American occupation officially ended. They professed optimism, but were all too aware of the dangers as well as their force's shortcomings.

Ali had doubled the number of eight-man patrols per 12-hour shift to 30, anticipating that insurgents will try to disrupt the new government. His men still lacked body armor and two-way radios as they deployed from the bunkerlike station, four to a car or SUV.

Fortunately, the day was largely quiet. 1st Lt. Ammar Abdul Hamid, 30, led a team of officers on an inspection of police checkpoints in the al Saydiah district. "It's quiet today," Hamid said. "Until this moment, there's been nothing."

A 10-year police veteran, Hamid said recent signs had been encouraging. Police have been finding fewer homemade bombs and there've been fewer attacks on police stations.

Still, Bayaa police are assaulted about twice a month, occasionally even in their homes, said Hamid, who was injured during a devastating car bombing at the station in November. A predawn attack on a station Tuesday in Mahmudiyah, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, killed one policeman and injured three.

Two months ago, a Bayaa policeman returning home after work was shot a dozen times by three to 10 gunmen, Hamid said. He survived, but his wounds are still a topic of conversation. "In this neighborhood, the policemen are almost always a target," Hamid said.

American troops are still teaching and assessing Iraqi police, trying to help them get better, and a contingent of U.S. military police is based at the Bayaa station.

"We conduct patrols with them, try to support them any way we can," said Capt. Ian Townsend, 29, the commander of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division's 545th Military Police Company, stationed at Bayaa. "They have the basic skills of being a policeman down, and they have the ability and desire to get out and make their town safer. It's just a constant growing process."

Ali, the station's patrol division commander, said his force not only lacked essential equipment, but also was short-staffed by about 50. More than half have been hired since the end of the war. Others have bad attitudes.

"The majority here love their work and love to serve their people," Ali said. As for the rest, "we're doing our best to get rid of them."

On the streets of al Saydiah, Hamid and his patrol raced from checkpoint to checkpoint, motoring through residential areas and open-air markets and past a power plant ringed in razor wire, often at speeds of up to 100 mph.

They were dispatched to the scene of a robbery and came across a crowd that had stopped a suspected carjacker.

"Day by day we're beginning to improve," Hamid said, as he prowled a neighborhood in one of his team's two blue and white Toyota Land Cruisers. "If I weren't optimistic, you wouldn't find me in this patrol."

As policemen in the other SUV chatted about whether the day or night shift was better, the radio relayed an urgent message: "Fighting in Mahmudiyah! Please, we want more patrol cars!" Gunmen had fired on the same police station that was attacked early Tuesday.

Casual conversation ceased. The policemen flicked off the safeties on their rifles, pointed them out the window and raced to the scene. By the time they arrived, the danger had passed. They began the return trip to Bayaa station, relieved but wary.

"If we get out of Mahmudiyah, we are safe," said policeman Hussein Khadim, 25. "Thanks be to God."


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

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


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