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Iraqis thrilled to see police

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 23, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Here's something you don't often see -- a motorist kissing a traffic cop.

"We're happy the police are back to keep things organized," says factory owner Amir Mossa as he embraces an officer at a busy Baghdad intersection. "We want more of them -- it's been bad, very bad."

In most places, traffic police have a thankless job, writing tickets, chasing stolen cars and nagging drivers to buckle up. But in the chaos of post-war Baghdad, the reappearance of officers in their blue and white uniforms is a welcome sign that life is slowly returning to normal.

"Slowly" is the operative word. Like most government institutions in Iraq, the Department of General Traffic virtually ceased to function when Saddam Hussein's regime toppled from power earlier this month. With no one to give orders or write paychecks, employees went home and looters rampaged through the empty headquarters in Baghdad.

But now -- in scenes repeated in other government agencies -- the traffic police are taking matters into their own hands instead of waiting for the Americans to decide what to do. Each day, police are drifting back to work even though there's still no pay or clear direction.

"We don't care how much they give us," says Ali Abed Hussein, who showed up Tuesday in a freshly pressed uniform. "There are many people out of jobs and we are ready to work. This is for the good of the country."

Iraq used to have 6,000 traffic police, about 2,500 of them assigned to Baghdad with its notoriously inept drivers and decrepit cars. Before the war, motorists generally viewed the police less as friends than as obstructionists who frequently stopped and searched vehicles at numerous checkpoints throughout the city.

When the regime fell, the Department of General Traffic was among the many targets of angry mobs. Looters set fire to several parts of the headquarters, destroying records, and went through the director's elegant office like grasshoppers through a wheat field.

"There used to be carpet and rugs on top of that," says Officer Qais Allafey, holding his fingers apart to convey the thickness and plushness.

Besides stripping the floor bare, looters took the chandeliers, air conditioner, wall fixtures and a large painting that hung over the fireplace. In an adjoining bathroom, they smashed the sink and toilet bowl and ripped out the metal towel racks.

All the furniture -- "first class stuff," Allafey says admiringly -- went, too. Now the only things in the huge office are a small desk salvaged from another room and a few cheap chairs that used to be in the reception area.

The director himself has yet to return to work, although Allafey and others would be glad to see him. They considered him a good, well-qualified boss.

But he is a proud man -- "He is respected in the society and he wants someone to invite him back," Allafey says.

The starting salary for a traffic officer is about $30 a month, decent pay in a country with an economy ruined by sanctions and three wars.

No one has been paid in a month, but 500 or so officers have gone to headquarters to say they want to work. There is little direct criticism of either Hussein's regime or the new American occupiers, though some officers clearly would like to see a firm hand.

"We need a central government that gives orders," says Allafey, who used to work 250 miles away in Al Marah but came to Baghdad because there was no one at home in charge anymore.

"If they leave it like this, it won't work. I want someone to tell me go and do it and I will get it back to normal."

In the meantime, some officers are taking it on themselves to handle citizen complaints and direct traffic. There have been numerous accidents because power is still out in many parts of the city and traffic lights aren't working. Several officers also have set up an informal checkpoint to nab stolen vehicles.

Hussein's brutal regime had one positive aspect -- no one stole a car for fear of being caught and tortured.

But in the breakdown of law and order in war's aftermath, looters have made off with countless vehicles of every size and model. By early Tuesday afternoon, officers had impounded six stolen cars, including a BMW, a Mercedes and a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser.

How do police tell someone is a car thief?

"By the look in their eyes," says Officer Fadil Enad Mohammed.

At that precise moment, an American tank rumbled past and Mohammed's own eyes narrowed in anger. "We don't want the military here -- this is a civilian area," he said.

The traffic police think their presence already is helping to reduce the crime rate without generating as much hostility as the Americans sometimes do. And the police note that though millions of paper records were destroyed, data on traffic violations was copied onto computer disks that survived the looting.

But proving some things never change, scofflaws still hope to beat the rap.

"We have the fines recorded but people are expecting the new regime to give them a break," says Maj. Abdel Hussein.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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