Brian Conley and Isam Rashid
BAGHDAD, Feb 17 (IPS) - Iraqis live amidst the excesses of the occupation, death squads, shooting and terrorist bombing — but that is not all. They have learnt to live increasingly with crime that often enters homes without anyone to check it.
It is widely accepted that Iraq’s recent crime problems began with Saddam Hussein’s general amnesty declaration in October 2002. It is also widely believed the crime wave reached a high in April 2003 with the collapse of Saddam’s seat of power in Baghdad.
Given the porous borders and the focus of security forces on the war, criminals of all kinds gained a stronger foothold within Iraq. Today criminals and thugs are considered as difficult a problem as terrorism and the intransigent resistance.
“There are many kinds of crimes in Iraq now — robbery, murder, kidnapping, revenge, rape and drugs,” an Iraqi police officer told IPS. “There are new crimes we didn’t know before that are killing many innocent people in the name of resistance. Like the attacks that have happened many times like car bombs near schools, markets, and other places.”
Today, nearly three years into the occupation, there are few places considered safe from crime. People are attacked in their homes regularly in some parts of Baghdad.
Twenty-year-old Abdullah Sabah, currently unemployed, was robbed in his house in Baghdad last year. “In November 2005 my family’s home was robbed by one of the gangs,” he told IPS. “They threatened my family with guns, and they stole all our money and many other things.”
Crimes like this have become ubiquitous in Iraqis’ daily lives. Sabah blames the Multi National Forces-Iraq (MNF-I). The failure of these forces to secure Iraq and to live up to obligations under international law has left many Iraqis bitter and frustrated.
“When they occupied Iraq they helped thieves to rob banks,” Sabah said. “The occupation forces helped them because the thieves were stealing in front of the soldiers and they did nothing. When we asked them to stop the thieves the occupation forces’ answer was: ‘We are soldiers not police, this is not our job’.”
It was then that the problem began. Eventually the money raised through these crimes was lost through gambling and spent on other things such as liquor and drugs. After they ran out of money, gangs began fighting one another to gain money and power.
Some gangs began to attack the professional class. “Another new kind of crime is the murder of Iraqi scholars, pilots, doctors, and teachers,” the Iraqi police officer said. “The people who do that know very well what they are doing. It is organised crime, a mafia you can say, and they want to destroy Iraq by these crimes.”
One of these gangs kidnapped 14-year-old Hassan. “The gangs called me and asked for a ransom of 100,000 dollars,” his father Thaer, a car dealer, told IPS.
High ransom demands have been typical in kidnappings. Iraqis often report initial demands ranging from 20,000 dollars to 100,000 dollars. These demands are usually drastically reduced later, sometimes to only a few hundred dollars.
Iraqis who do not have the money to pay usually attempt to make a deal with the kidnapper, or call the police. Thaer did both.
“I didn’t have this money, so after two days I started to negotiate with them to lower the ransom,” he said. “At the same time I called the police, but the police were still weak at that time. The police used my cars to follow the gang. The gang released my son because the police caught one of them. But in that operation one of the police was wounded and my cousin was killed.”
Such crimes were unknown in Iraq under Saddam. Before the war, the only kidnapping Iraqis worried about were those carried out by Saddam’s secret police. Iraqis knew that if they did not challenge Saddam’s political mandate, they could expect to remain relatively secure.
“We lived in this country before the war and there was safety,” Thaer said. “Nothing has changed except the occupation. It is the only new thing; that means the occupation bears a big responsibility for the crime in Iraq.”
Drug trafficking too has risen after the war, says 35-year-old taxi driver Salem. “Iraq was a very clean country before the occupation,” he told IPS. “Under Saddam’s government if they caught anyone with drugs, the sentence was execution. After the war drugs became a very big problem for Iraqis.”
The drugs problem is rarely discussed publicly. “As a taxi driver I meet many people using drugs in my car,” said Salem. “I feel sad for them because most of them are young. It was easy for anyone to smuggle drugs because the Iraqi borders were open after the war.”
Thaer believes that beyond fighting crime, “if the Iraqi government offers jobs for Iraqis, this will make crime less and less.”
Salem says the crime will stop only when the occupation ends and Iraqis take care of themselves. “I feel sad for my country and I wish the Iraqi government builds a good and strong security system as quickly as possible,” he said. “There is no hope from occupation forces. They work for their security only, and they don’t care about Iraq.” (ENDS/IPS/MM/IK/IP/BC/SS/06)