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Police Slowly Rebuild Trust

Iraq’s police force used to be despised, but it is beginning to regain respectability.
By Jawdat Kadhim

Iraqi police officers were once viewed as the thuggish agents of Saddam Hussein’s regime, who spent their time taking bribes when they were not beating people up.

The reconstituted police force is slowly rebuilding respect through a retraining programme. But it still has a long way to go – the legacy of the old force to which many belonged will not be easily forgotten.

The extent of police brutality was widely known but never discussed under Saddam’s rule, but has since come out into the open with media reports, including video recordings, showing the mistreatment of detainees.

In addition, the 30,000 strong force faces daily danger as it struggles to cope with the lawlessness prevailing in much of the country, and it is hard for police to assert their authority when the government they work for is still perceived as weak.

But at least their families no longer have to feel embarrassed at having a policeman at home. Under Saddam, the uniformed police were regarded as brutal and corrupt by the public – a situation that made them the butt of jokes and hostility from neighbours.

“In the past, I felt bad when I was reminded that I was a policeman’s wife,” said Iltizam Qasim, married to a lieutenant in the Baghdad police.

The sense of growing respectability is partly a result of the general insecurity, as people look for someone to protect them against rampant crime.

“Now I feel proud that my husband is really protecting people to the extent that he might sacrifice himself to guarantee everybody’s safety and security,” said Qasim.

Some police have organised civilian security patrols to protect against crime in their communities. Thani Nahi trained local men in his community to run a neighbourhood watch scheme at night. His wife Kifah Falih says the area is now safe and mostly crime free. “This has made my children and me feel proud,” she told IWPR.

The police also enjoy a higher social status because they are earning a good living. Under Saddam, a policeman earned three to eight US dollars a month – and bribery and extortion were considered a routine supplement to their income. They now receive about 120 dollars monthly.

“There’s now something of a balance between his efforts and the salary,” said Qasim of her husband. “In the past, it was not enough to cover our basic needs.”

Other wives agree. “Our social status has changed because of the salary my husband now receives,” said Hanan Hussein, whose husband is a Baghdad policeman “We used to suffer a lot to make enough for rent and the needs of our children.” Their 12-year-old son Ahmed added, “I am very happy to see my father has become an important man.”

Because of the changes, some women have decided to become law enforcers themselves. Karima Mahmoud, who is married to a police colonel, wants to go to police academy. It’s partly for the income, she admits, but partly also because “working with the police is now a source of pride”.

But the price of a police career can still be high. The wife of policeman Adai Sayad told IWPR that she worries constantly until he returns home in one piece. “Whenever I hear an explosion or that someone has launched an attack, I am so afraid,” she said.

Jawdat Kadhim Hameed is a reporter with Al-Nahdhah newspaper in Baghdad.

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