Iraqi cop: once a cushy job, now perilous
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Being an Iraqi police officer used to be a safe, cushy job that sometimes required chasing down pickpockets and car thieves, but left plenty of time for tea.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, however, insurgents armed with automatic weapons, mortars and car bombs have made law enforcement one of Iraq’s most hazardous occupations.
“It used to be prestigious. … People respected us, criminals were afraid of us,” said 1st Lt. Amjid Mohammed, a 26-year-old detective at al-Bayaa police station, Baghdad’s largest. “Today it’s the opposite: It’s we who are afraid.”
Insurgents see police as collaborators with U.S.-led forces, who are struggling to restore order. They’ve blown up police stations all over the country, sometimes disguised as cops. They’ve gunned down officers in drive-by shootings as they left home for work, and they’ve battered police stations with mortar barrages and rocket-propelled grenades.
From April 2003 to May 2004 alone, 710 Iraqi police were killed out of a total force of 130,000 officers, authorities said. Until then, police say, an officer’s death was nearly always of natural causes.
Last month’s handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government has brought little change.
A truck bomb Wednesday targeted a police recruiting center in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, where hundreds of job applicants were gathered. It killed 70 people.
“We’re being targeted all the time,” said Mohammed, his face scarred from a car-bombing that destroyed the al-Bayaa station in October, killing 15 Iraqis and one U.S. soldier.
On July 19, the two-story station was hit again by an explosives-packed fuel tanker. Nine died, including an officer. About 70 of al-Bayaa’s 200 officers were wounded.
Mohammed was lucky: He was inside at the time. But he spent much of that day cleaning shards of glass from his office. Others tended to the wounded and picked pieces of charred flesh from rubble outside.
A few at al-Bayaa quit their jobs after this month’s bombing. But such violence has done little to deter potential recruits, who are lining up outside the main police academy in Baghdad, said Sabbah Kadhim, an adviser to the interior minister. “We have plenty of applicants,” he said.
Most are drawn by the salary of 295,000 Iraqi dinars a month, or $207, relatively good pay in a country where unemployment is high.
“Where else can I get this kind of salary?” said Ziyad Khalaf, a 54, who’s served 36 years in the Baghdad force. “I have a wife, six sons and three daughters. I have to feed them,” he said, rubbing his thumb across his fingers, as if holding a wad of cash.
Crime surged after U.S. troops advanced into Baghdad in April 2003. Mohammed, who used to investigate one case on a busy day, now gets 40 to 50 case files on his desk daily.
“Our biggest problem used to be fistfights,” said Mohammed. “Today we have gunfights, kidnappings, assassinations. It’s 100 times worse.”
During the Saddam era he carried no weapon. Now, like most officers, he tucks a Glock 9 mm pistol in his belt. Leaving the station Monday, he brought along an AK-47 assault rifle, too, in case his Glock ran out of bullets.
Authorities have been trying to raise the morale of an insecure public.
One ubiquitous Baghdad billboard shows a blue-uniformed policeman jabbing a forefinger into the distance, with the message: “I risk my life every day for the sake of my country. … I fight thieves, criminals and terrorists, not for money or reward, but because I am a member of the Iraqi police. What have you done for Iraq?”
In the capital, some of the billboards have been defaced with mud or black paint. A few have been torn down.
Police complain they’re ill-equipped. The al-Bayaa station has just eight flak jackets, and lacks vehicles, arms and ammunition, said 1st Lt. Riyal Ahmed Ali, 24, a stocky jail guard.
Police only patrol in vehicles. Foot patrols are considered too dangerous, Ali said.
Now a 12-foot-high concrete blast wall is going up around the station.
“This will help, but it won’t stop them,” Khalaf said of the two previous car-bombings. “We are waiting for the third.”