Protection, not oppression: How the new mobile police patrols have discovered job satisfaction

Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

30 July 2004

Their Kalashnikov automatic rifles regularly jam after firing two bullets, their flak jackets don't protect them, their promised £45 pay increase never arrived, their boss wants to take the air-conditioners from their vehicles and the hospitals can't cope with their wounded. Apart from that, the men of the new Iraqi police mobile patrols in Baghdad - the front-line victims of the Iraq war - are fighting fit. More than that. They've found that protecting people, rather than oppressing them as they did under Saddam, makes them genuinely popular.

Sergeants Mahmoud and Mohamed and Constable Nahed drive their Land Cruiser, police number 365, through the streets of Baghdad with something approaching bravado. "The people like us now," Sergeant Mohamed says. "They want our patrols and we want to help them and we are ready for the looters and the troublemakers." Erhabi is the word he uses for troublemakers (it's the nearest Arabic equivalent to terrorists) and he will not use the word resistance. "These people want anarchy here so that the old Baathists can come back and take over again."

All three men were cops under Saddam, as were most of the 310 officers at the Al-Risafah police station on Palestine Street, and even if they complain about the failure to honour a promise to raise their pay, their monthly salary of £250 is a lot better than their £14-a-month under the previous regime. But weaving through the traffic past Mustansariya University, you can see that their lives could be improved; indeed, that their lives would be more easily saved.

Mohamed hands me his Kalashnikov ammunition clip. "We get into battles and, after two rounds, the gun jams and what are we supposed to do?" he asks. "We have flak jackets that are past their expiry date. We've fired at them and the bullets go right through. We want to help people. We are ready to be martyrs. But surely the authorities can do better than this." As we travel through one of the worst districts for looting and kidnapping in the Iraqi capital, their all-police radio suddenly dies. Their only contact with headquarters now is the walkie-talkie on the dashboard.

Within an hour, we have to start scrounging for petrol. At the police fuel dump, there is a two-hour wait. So they pay from their own pockets to refuel their patrol car at a commercial petrol station. Only when another police vehicle comes alongside do they hear that they are needed on the other side of the motorway.

"A red car covered in blood, parked half way across a road; you better get there," the sergeant in the other vehicle shouts. The Kalashnikovs bounce on the floor of our Land Cruiser as we mount the central median, career towards the oncoming traffic and race across an intersection at red.

Baquba, I keep saying to them. Baquba. Almost a hundred died outside the police station there on Wednesday. Doesn't it frighten them? "We feel very sorry for those martyrs," Mahmoud says. "Most of them were civilians who only wanted to earn a living and join the police. But we are not afraid. We like our job. We are protecting people." Until now, Mohamed and Mahmoud have been joking and telling stories but now Mahmoud is fighting the steering column, driving across the top of a hot, foetid rubbish dump, its garbage collectors sweating in the muck. Round the corner of a tree-lined, middle-class street is the car.

It's a red Toyota, battered, the windows open, half-blocking the empty road. We climb out of the Land Cruiser into the oven of midday. Mohamed approaches the car with his arms held out behind him to keep us at a distance, like an elderly man about to dive into a swimming pool. We walk around the car and then we peer through the open windows. There is no blood but there is a key in the ignition. And we all start whispering the word infijah, a booby-trap. Then from the corner of the street comes an old man in a stained grey gown and a white headcloth and a little beard who starts to apologise. "I broke down; it's my car and I went to try to find a mechanic."

Cigarettes appear in policemen's hands, sweat drips from their chins. Thirty-six hours earlier, on the Risafah bridge a few hundred metres away, one of Mohamed's colleagues was hit by a roadside bomb. "He had bad burns on his stomach and I took him to the nearest hospital and they said it was too full of wounded; they told me to take him to the Yarmouk hospital. But when I got there, they said they were full too, that they had patients in all their beds. What are we to do when the authorities won't look after their own policemen?"

Mahmoud believes the Americans really did invade Iraq to bring democracy. "I cannot believe I can speak freely to you now," he says. "We were forbidden to talk to other Arabs or foreigners and we could be arrested by Saddam's mukhabarat [intelligence] men." Mohamed knows all about it. Although he was a policeman, he was repeatedly questioned by Saddam's goons after a cousin deserted the army during the Iran-Iraq war. "They shot him 24 hours after they caught him and informed the family one day later. He had four children."

All three cops are from Sadr City, which means they are Shia Muslims although we do not discuss their religion, and their patrols search for thieves and gunmen in Sunni as well as Shia areas of Baghdad. We pass American patrols on the bridges over the Tigris. Neither the soldiers nor the Iraqi cops acknowledge each other. Other cops say they suspect the Americans don't all trust them, which is not surprising after the police force of at least one southern city went off to join the Shia insurgency last April. But it's the chief of police, Abdul Razak, who seems to earn fewest Brownie points.

"This man was a big intelligence head under Saddam," another policeman - not the men of Land Cruiser 365 - says. "Now he's our big boss and he tells the police to take the air-conditioners out of their vehicles because he doesn't want them to stay in their cars. We can do without air-conditioners but it was wrong to try to impose this on us. So in one part of Baghdad, the police threatened to strike.

"In the old regime, we had to work for bosses. Abdul-Razak wants the same. But I don't work for him now. I work for my country and for the people."