Published September 16, 2003, in The New York Times.

Open War Over, Iraqis Focus On Crime and a Hunt for Jobs


The judge sits in his chambers, waiting.

He is waiting for the United States military to deliver the first batch of prisoners for trial in the newly refurbished criminal court in Kharkh District.

The judge, Nawar Mohammed Nasser, the court's chief justice, has grown accustomed to waiting. He was promised prisoners on Aug. 16. No one showed up. It happened again on Aug. 23, then on Sept. 6 and once more on Sept. 9.

"It's not a problem with the judicial system," said the 53-year-old judge, nattily dressed in a gray suit and a deep gray tie with white polka dots. "It's a problem with the coalition forces.

"If they cannot get prisoners to court at the right time, how can we expect them to run the entire administration, the entire state -- to establish a new order in Iraq?"

The question of whether the Americans can transform Iraq is asked with increasing frequency.

Iraqis, in general thrilled to be freed from the long, sinister rule of Saddam Hussein, had high expectations that the arrival of the Americans would utterly transform their lives.

As the occupation enters its sixth month, however, they are looking for something, anything, they can hold in their hands that assures them that the future will be better -- and they cannot find it.

The residents of Baghdad, more than in any other part of the country, object to living with rampant crime, terrorist bombings, constant power cuts, an ill-defined political process, sluggish reconstruction and a mostly American administration that remains largely inaccessible in its bunkered palaces.

"We have no idea how to follow our proposals through the system," said Adel Abdel Mahdi, a senior official with the main Shiite political group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which sits on the Iraqi Governing Council.

"They tell us our ideas are good, but we have no idea whether they are discussed, whether there is a decision. It's very frustrating."

The Americans tend to counsel patience and promise that things will improve. Iraqis say they could be patient if someone explained the plan to them in a coherent way.

"When they came to Iraq, they didn't really have a plan for what happens next," said Ali Sahib al-Qamoosi, a 33-year-old businessman who celebrated his newfound freedom by opening an Internet cafe. "I say I'm optimistic, but it's only because things were so bad before, that they could never get worse."  

At Baghdad Central Morgue

Dr. Faiq Amin Bakr, director of the Baghdad Central Morgue for the past 13 years, reels off the grim statistics that confirm to Iraqis that they have entered what they see as a terrifyingly lawless twilight zone: 462 people dead under suspicious circumstances or in automobile accidents in May, some 70 percent from gunshot wounds; 626 in June; 751 in July; 872 in August. By comparison, last year there were 237 deaths in July, one of the highest months, with just 21 from gunfire.

Dozens of Iraqis mill around outside, their dead relatives a cross-section of ill-fated lives.

A police officer arrives with an ambulance bearing the body of an unidentified man, roughly 21 years old, shot dead in the street, probably the victim of a carjacking.

One family is collecting the body of their 25-year-old cousin, killed by a bullet in the neck, probably a burst of celebratory gunfire during a wedding.

A second family is collecting the body of a 30-year-old night watchman at a large state-owned factory, shot dead by looters.

Several families from Abu Ghraib are there to gather some of the four victims, including an 8-year-old girl, who they said were shot dead by American soldiers in the market after a grenade was thrown at an armored personnel carrier.

An American military spokesman in Baghdad confirmed that one soldier was wounded in a grenade attack but denied that the soldiers, from the First Armored Division, fired back.

"The American soldiers are so panicky that if a tire bursts in the street, they start shooting," said Nabil Saleh Al-ani, a cousin of victim.

Dr. Bakr, the morgue's director, said he had never seen street crime like this.

"When you see your people are killed every day," he said, "you imagine the amount of crime in the country, you imagine how much insecurity there is."  

At the Police Station

Lt. Hussein al-Saedi, a former army officer now assigned to Al Nasr Police Station in the sprawling slum called Thawra, harbors nostalgia for the old ways.

"Before, we used to bring the guy, we beat him, hung him by a hook on the ceiling, and he would confess every single criminal act he committed since he was a toddler," he said. "Before, it was much better. Before, we used to solve these cases in one night."

Cpl. Zuhair Mudthafir argues otherwise. He recently completed a three-week American course to retrain officers in work like interrogation, note-taking and human rights. "You know, the Americans have genius officers who find ways to extract confessions from defendants without beating them," he says.

At the police academy, where the courses are taught, Capt. Jason Brandt, a reservist from San Diego, explains that it is going to take some time to train an estimated 5,500 officers, given that they can handle only about 230 at a time.

"They have a lot of pride; they think they are perfect," said Specialist Corey Mann, a 20-year-old college student serving with the 18th Military Police Brigade. "When they first come in here, they say 'We don't have drugs, we don't have domestic violence and the Koran says we can hit our women, anyway.' "

There are frequent discussions about where to draw the line between cultural traditions and police work. The Iraqi police generally like the course. It makes them feel part of the world. Some critics say the United States is putting the cart before the horse, teaching human rights rather than training new police, just as they talk about privatizing universities at a time when most Iraqis can barely afford books.

Those who have had frequent dealings with the police appreciate the difference, though.

"When the big dictator toppled, all the little dictators changed," said Adnan Jabar al-Saidi, a 31-year-old lawyer who helps run the Iraqi Human Rights Association. "It's as if they were taking their cue from the big dictator."

The main problem with the police, senior officials admit, is that there are just not enough and they remain ill equipped. Three weeks ago, the 60 officers at Al Nasr shared seven guns, two cars and no radios. They told a visitor to leave the area before nightfall because it was too dangerous even for them to venture out.

This week they have 44 guns -- mostly rifles -- and three radios. They can only use the radios every other day, however, because they have to take them to headquarters to recharge the batteries.

They also lost their two cars to an emergency police unit. When they arrest someone now, they hail a cab.

There are some 30,000 police officers throughout the country, including about 14,000 in Baghdad.

Ayad Alawi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council whose senior aide was appointed minister of the interior, said that he expected 40,000 officers would be deployed by the end of October, and that that should help turn the tide. In addition, the first 1,200-member brigade of the Iraqi Civil Defense Force, a kind of paramilitary unit, are due to complete their training.

Once there are more police officers and more jobs for everyone, he believes, the number of people willing to carry out attacks will dwindle. He recalled a recent interrogation in which suspects involved in a grenade attack on American military vehicles said they did it for $200.  

The Reconstruction Scene

Adnan Janabi, the part owner of a construction company, believes the solution to the rampant crime will be to distribute contracts to an array of Iraqi companies to refurbish the forest of burned government buildings inBaghdad. That would get the unemployed off the streets.

The Baghdad City Council recently hired 11,000 men at $3 a day for a month to clean the streets. That helped spread around a little money, one councilman said, but it is seen as too limited.

Mr. Janabi has been either unable to reach the officials involved or has hit the Iraq reconstruction "Catch-22."

He has been told that American government regulations require numerous studies before any reconstruction can get started -- and that the people needed to conduct the studies do not want to come to Iraq because of the dire security conditions.

He points at the sidewalks bursting with electronic equipment and other consumer items; despite the frequent hijackings and thievery on the road from Amman, Jordan, the demands of the booming market are such that the traders absorb the losses.

Private Iraqi construction firms would take similar risks, working under the danger of attack just to get the business, Mr. Janabi says.

"They tell us there is no security, that they cannot rehabilitate the oil sector, that we cannot rehabilitate hospitals, because there is nobody to guard them," he said. "We are fed up with being told to wait because there is no security. We can make our own security."

He filled out a complicated, 10-page form in May to try to bid for some of the $215 million in subcontracts that the Bechtel Corporation says it will hand out from the $680 contract it was given.

At that time, Bechtel had an office in the Sheraton, which they closed on Aug. 1 due to security concerns.

Now their two offices lie behind the barbed wire and multiple barricades that the military maintains around all government offices. The mood of the American soldiers often determines who gets in and who does not.

Mr. Janabi has tried to reach Bechtel and other major contractors via the Internet, but gets no response, and yet he can see on the Web sites that contracts are being awarded.

"A liberal economy is an open economy, a competitive economy," he said, his remarks echoed by a banker who works with similar small- and medium-size companies. "That does not exist here; we don't even see the birth signs."

Gregory F. Huger, the Bechtel manager in charge of major reconstruction projects, said the timetable involved did not allow for open bidding. Instead, the company screened those who attended its early conferences about contracting work and asks 15 to 20 selected companies to bid on specific jobs.

Mr. Huger also said Bechtel was not involved in the restoration of ministry buildings.

Of the 123 subcontracts given out by Sept. 7, 89 went to Iraqi companies, said Francis M. Canavan, Bechtel's public affairs manager in Iraq. He could not give a dollar value for those contracts.

If Mr. Qamoosi, the Internet cafe owner, is to be believed, the Americans share a problem with Saddam Hussein: they have promised a lot, and Iraqis are waiting for a sign they are going to get it.

"Saddam used to tell us that we would cross the river to the other bank," he recalled.

"It was a famous saying of his. You could just refer to it as The Crossing and people knew what you meant. It's the same thing now. The Americans keep saying this will happen and this will happen and this will happen, but nothing happens."  

GRAPHIC: Photos: Trainees at the police academy, which hopes to train 5,500 Iraqi officers but can handle only 230 at a time.; A coffin waits at the Baghdad morgue for one of the hundreds of victims of street violence who are brought in each month. The Arabic sign warns relatives not to pay the clerk more than the official amount, 10,000 dinars, to reclaim a body, a warning intended to discourage requests for bribes. (Photographs by Joao Silva for The New York Times)(pg. A10)      

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