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Police missing from Baghdad streets

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 6, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - One day after coalition forces announced with fanfare that Baghdad police were back on the beat, many officers appeared Monday to have abandoned their stations - often to the looters they were supposed to catch.

In some cases, U.S. soldiers stepped in to help fill the law enforcement vacuum, rounding up people carting away goods in cars, trucks, donkey carts and even a crane. Some of those arrested for looting were police officers.

"I think they're so used to being corrupt that it's hard to change their behavior," said 1st Lt. Jason Dickey, 26, of Winston-Salem, N.C. He was marching a single-file line of 14 suspected looters down the street. The last two wore police uniforms.

The U.S.-led reconstruction team announced Sunday that Baghdad police officers had heeded their call to return to work and were beginning to reclaim the streets from looters and gunmen who have roamed the capital since the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime.

But on Monday afternoon, visits to a half-dozen station houses and a trip across many of Baghdad's neighborhoods found few officers on the job. U.S. Central Command referred queries about police to the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which could not immediately be reached Monday night.

The absence of many police highlighted the challenges facing Iraq's new American administrators as they try to rebuild government services in a country without a government.

The only people inside the police station in the city's New Baghdad section, where officers had returned to work Sunday, were three men picking through already-looted offices. At the Rasheed and Rasaafa police stations, there were no looters, but no officers either.

"There's nothing left to loot," said Salem Kadem, 34, who lives across the street from the Rasaafa station.

In many parts of the city, American soldiers were doing police work. At a riverside palace formerly occupied by Hussein's family, soldiers rounded up a few dozen looters who were using cars, trucks and even a big yellow crane to haul off valuables after lighting a smoky fire. Among the suspects were two young girls and a young boy.

At the police academy, where officials with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance had announced Sunday that the police were returning, two U.S. military police Humvees stood guard. A few Iraqi officers milled about nearby.

An Iraqi police officer at the gate - Badge No. 126, though he refused to give his name - said officers stayed home because they didn't have weapons to defend themselves.

Zaim Abbas, 45, came to beg the police to arrest members of a gang who he said killed his brother, a police sergeant. The answer from the officer at the gate: Go away.

"Where are the police? Who can help me?" Abbas pleaded.

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