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Pity Baghdad's police: Insurgents want to blow them up and restaurants don't want to seat them

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Most restaurants would be happy to have police officers as regular customers, grateful not only for the business but also for the presence of law and order.

Not in Baghdad. Not when Iraqi security forces are the target of insurgents' bombs. In many restaurants, Baghdad's finest are politely, albeit reluctantly, requested to walk out the door the minute they walk in.

"We ask the police not to come," said Yasser Emad, 39, the manager of his family's popular restaurant in the capital's middle-class Karrada district. "We hate to do this, but we want peace for the public and the restaurant."

It's an awkward conversation that can end unpleasantly, yet restaurant owners and workers said they had no choice but to protect lives and livelihoods. The bombings, while sporadic, are too frequent and devastating for restaurants and their civilian customers to ignore.

Earlier this month, a car bomb blasted a south Baghdad restaurant, killing three people, including two police commandos, and wounding 12, including six commandos. In November, a bomber blew himself up in a restaurant as police were eating breakfast, killing 35 officers and civilians and wounding 25.

Such attacks give everyday Iraqis another reason to fear the presence of Baghdad's blue-shirted patrol officers. Already, motorists in the capital's traffic-jammed streets had steered clear of police cars and sweated out checkpoints, knowing that proximity put them in danger.

To those Iraqis who'd prefer to support the beleaguered force, such wariness is a necessary but uncomfortable position.

"I don't enter a restaurant if there are police," said construction contractor Omar Ahmed, 25, as he dined recently in Baghdad. "I wish I could eat with them at the same table, but we cannot, because of the security situation."

Some diners quickly finish eating when police walk in, said Emad, the restaurant manager. Others ask before entering whether police are inside, explaining that they "do not want to dine with the Prophet Muhammad," a gallows-humor reference to the possibility of being blown to heaven mid-meal.

The situation has contributed to hard times for restaurants, another blow on top of the nightly curfew and other security concerns that deter Iraqis from eating out. Emad said receipts had plummeted by 40 percent since the insurgency began, and that the family had considered selling the business and leaving the country.

The Interior Ministry has responded to complaints by providing hot meals to some security forces at stations or cold meals while officers are on patrol. Still, there are practical limits to that solution, and many officers find it easier and more enjoyable to eat out.

The Interior Ministry "... used to cook for us, but the food gets cold when we fetch it for our colleagues," said patrol officer Haider Ahmed Saleem, 28, as he emerged from a restaurant with a bag of sandwiches for himself and fellow officers. "We prefer food from the restaurant because it is clean, hot and delicious."

Aware of the danger, Saleem said he and other officers had heeded requests to eat take-away food more often, sending one officer to pick it up while the rest waited elsewhere. Police also vary the restaurants they visit and the routes they travel to get there, he and other officers said.

"We do not want to jeopardize lives and the government's property," said police Maj. Ali Hussein, 37, as he and other police sipped tea at tables in front of a restaurant, awaiting their next assignment.

Not every officer is so understanding. Emad said a policeman once declared angrily that he and his fellow officers would "eat here whether you like it or not" when the manager asked them to wait for food to be delivered to them in their cars.

Other restaurants, however, said they weren't ready to pull away the welcome mat. Muhammed Ali, 60, said he steered clear of the police whenever he could but had stopped short of trying to keep them out of his restaurant.

"They are the government, and we cannot refuse" to serve them, Ali said. "Besides, they are like brothers to us, and they are here to protect us from the terrorists."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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