Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Violence Continues to Plague Baghdad

Residents admit security has improved but they still do not feel safe.
By Omar Anwar

A year ago, many Iraqis were stunned to see Baghdad dissolve into chaos and lawlessness.


Without the army, police, security, or Baath party militias to control the situation, the nation's capital was engulfed by a wave of looting, kidnapping, robbery and murder.


While security has improved dramatically since then, Iraqis still insist the situation must improve considerably before they will feel truly safe again.


Naser al-Sifaar, 24, a computer science student at Baghdad University, describes a city overwhelmed by "killing, kidnapping... and weapons in the hands of children".


"Saddam was a dictator, but he managed the security situation very well," Sifaar said.


"I want to feel safe when I go out, as I used to do [before the war], but now I am afraid," he said, adding that "I cannot go out past 9.00 pm, whereas I used to be out at 3.00 or 4.00 am in the past".


Salem al-Zaydi, 41, a textile shop owner, feels a "terrible sense of fear".


During the day, Zaydi avoids certain districts, such as Sadr City in northeast Baghdad or the Bab al-Sharji market in the city centre.


At night, though, Zaydi doesn't venture out at all, "I go back home at 5.00 pm each day and don't leave until next morning."


Statistics from Baghdad's morgue - one of the few institutions to provide reliable figures related to security - indicate a surge in the number of violent deaths immediately after the war, followed by a slow but steady decline.


By mid-summer 2003, the morgue was handling three to four times as many cases of death by bullet or explosive as it did before the war, said its director, Faeq Amin Baqir.


It handled 228 such cases in February 2002 and 246 in January 2003. By contrast, there were 458 cases in May 2003, 612 in June and 872 in August.


The numbers then began to decline: 767 in September, 661 in October, 636 in January 2004 and 570 in February.


Police say they've re-established themselves throughout the city, and made a dent in Iraq's gangs - most of them habitual criminals freed from Iraq's jails by a general amnesty in October 2002.


First lieutenant Kamal Hanoon, an officer in the working class district of New Baghdad, says police patrols and checkpoints have caused a decline in the rates of gang-related crimes such as robbery and kidnapping.


He cites the recent capture of a seven-member gang specialising in auto theft as a success.


Hanoon nonetheless claims security under Saddam was "very good. We can't compare it to what happening now".


Police used to patrol the streets without fear late at night, he says. Now, they are not even safe in their own station.


In November, Hanoon says, officers arrested a Yemeni who had stopped outside their station in a Land Cruiser. Officers pulled the man from his vehicle before he could detonate its cargo - 2.5 tons of TNT.


Hanoon also says criminals are no longer deterred by the legal system - a common complaint among officers, who say that US troops take possession of detainees, only to release them for lack of evidence.


"Under Saddam strict sentences were imposed on criminals. That made them think a hundred times before committing any crime. Now they fear nothing because they believe that they will be detained for a while... and get released by the Americans," he said.


The director of north Baghdad's al-Muthanna police station, who asked to be identified by his rank of lieutenant colonel and not his name, says his men feel the effects of Iraq's post-war anarchy.


Five of his men have been killed in the line of duty in the last two months.


However, he says, the killings "won't deter us from doing our duty... It just needs more time, effort, and care".


Omar Anwar is an IWPR trainee