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Report from Iraq: Crime Remains Serious Problem in Baghdad

It has been nearly five months since the fall of Baghdad, and leaders of the U.S. led coalition and the Iraqi interim government are struggling to restore stability and basic services to millions of Iraqis suffering from decades of war and economic sanctions.

But a return to normalcy has been hampered by violent crime, which has soared because of the collapse of the law enforcement system, and has become the number one complaint of most Iraqis. Correspondent Scott Bobb has this report from Baghdad.

Three gangsters tried to rob a currency exchange shop in the middle of the day in a shopping zone in the Baghdad district of Karada, when police happened on the scene. The shootout that ensued left two policemen and three bystanders dead and pools of blood on the sidewalk. Two wounded gang members were captured, but the third escaped.

The incident highlights the most common complaint by Iraqis nearly five months after the end of the Iraq war: crime. They say carjackings, kidnappings and murder are increasing.

A saleslady in a perfume shop, Hadeel Adel Sarik, says the lack of security has affected her business, which used to stay open until midnight. "We close early because there is no peace here and the new government, the Americans, cannot give us peace," she said.

There are few pedestrians on the streets of Baghdad after dusk and the city becomes a ghost town as the 11 o'clock curfew approaches.

The current chairman of the Governing Council, Ahmed Chalabi, says Iraq's interim leadership is deeply concerned about the lack of security.

Mr. Chalabi says Iraq is not stable at this time. But he notes that the U.S.-led coalition forces have taken responsibility for security. He says police and law courts must be rehabilitated and thousands of new security officers must be trained.

In the lobby of a large meeting hall, an American drill sergeant, through an Iraqi translator, briefs recruits on how to use their weapons, brand new AK-47 Kalashnikovs.

Nevertheless, it is an uphill battle. Many police stations were looted after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the court system collapsed. In Baghdad's precincts, police officers sit in bare rooms that smell of fresh paint. They may have a desk and some chairs, but they have no telephone, no radio, not even filing cabinets. Most of the officers still have their service revolvers, but few have body armor. And most importantly, there are almost no vehicles to respond to criminal incidents.

One officer, who would give only his first name, Ahmed, says the Americans are preventing the Iraqi police from doing their job. The powerfully built captain, who has 20 years experience on the force, says U.S. soldiers don't know the criminal underworld here. His men, he says, have patrolled these neighborhoods for years and know the criminals and where they are hiding.

Captain Ahmed also says the U.S. military police want the Iraqi police to deal with criminals according to U.S. laws, but that is difficult. He acknowledges Iraqis want their civil rights to be respected. But he says you have to be tough with the criminals. Otherwise they will think they can commit crime without being punished.

He complains that coalition military police take suspected criminals away to their detention centers before his officers can complete their investigations. He says many criminals are subsequently released after a few weeks in jail.

And, he says, although police salaries are higher now than under the previous regime, police are no longer allowed to supplement their income. This is a reference to the practice of receiving gifts, bribes or protection money that coalition authorities say is corruption and will be punished.

The head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, rejects the criticism from the ranks, saying that, since the coalition took over in April, most of Iraq's prisons and courts have been reopened.

Mr. Bremer says Iraq's law enforcement system needs to be strengthened but also reformed. He has reinstated the 1969 criminal code in force before Saddam Hussein took power, but made some changes.

"I amended that code subsequently in three important aspects," he said, "to provide that (for) the first time in Iraq's history a defendant has a right to a lawyer from the beginning of the judicial process; secondly, that a defendant has the right to be silent without that incriminating him or her; and thirdly, that torture is no longer allowed in the Iraqi criminal system." Captain Ahmed says it is too soon to adopt Western standards of law enforcement.

He says in this vacuum of law and order, we have to be tough with criminals and suspects. When things get better, they will be treated with respect.

One of the members of the Governing Council, Samir Sumaidy, says there are aspects of Iraqi law enforcement that should be kept, such as the understanding and respect for social practices and individual characteristics of the people. But he says there are other aspects, like corruption and flouting the law, that must be abandoned.

"We would like to acquire for the local law enforcement people the traditions which are based on respect for the individual, respect for human rights and protection for even the criminal within the bounds of the law," he said. "But we want them [the coalition forces)] to understand that they do not know how to handle, or how to go about applying, these principles in Iraq necessarily because they are just part of the local scene," he said.

Mr. Sumaidy say the two forces should complement each other. American forces should trust and encourage local police officers, but also remain vigilant for signs of going back to what he calls the bad, old practices.