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the policeman
From: Martin Smith · Re: Baquba · Date: Nov. 28, 2003

 
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He has no choice, [our translator] says. What other job can he get? There are no jobs here.

An hour north of Baghdad is the farming community of Baquba. [Name withheld], our driver, says it is the orange capital of Iraq, but we see no orange groves surrounding it.

At the entrance to town we ask [our driver] to stop and translate the graffiti that is painted in red and black on the walls of several abandoned buildings and a monument of some sort. He reads: "Long Live the Mujahadeen," "Welcome to Saddam," "Spies and Collaborators With the Coalition Will Be Shot." These are the typical slogans we've seen written on walls throughout central Iraq.

We've come to Baquba because of the large number of attacks on U.S. troops here -- and on those Iraqis who are cooperating with American forces. On Nov. 22, a bomb ripped through the central police station. The attack caught my attention for two reasons. One was the size of the bomb. Detonated by a suicide bomber some 50 feet from the station building, the devastation was immense. When we arrive a few days later there are around 15 cars and trucks, completely twisted and mangled by the blast, that have been dragged from the parking lot out front to a muddy field next door. Truckloads of dirt are being hauled in to fill the bomb's crater, 20 feet in diameter, and the police are crudely reconstructing a protective wall. Inside the compound's exterior walls, I stand in front of the two-story building and look up. The entire façade is damaged.

I ask a sergeant on duty how large he thinks the bomb was. "One ton of TNT."

The other thing that strikes me about this bombing is that it was triggered simultaneously with another bomb in front of another police station about 20 kilometers away. Coordinated attacks are, of course, the signature of Al Qaeda. Whether someone other than Al Qaeda is imitating them for effect, or whether this is the work of foreign AQ militants, seems to make little difference at this point. The two bombs killed 16 people, including 11 policemen.

We make our way down a muddy alleyway and through a small concrete courtyard to the home of one of the wounded men. I remove my shoes and step into a small, dark room with pillows around the edges. A couple of men sit cross-legged and stand to greet me as I enter. When my eyes adjust, I see a young man in bed in the far corner, an IV needle stuck in his left arm. He reaches out to shake my hand but doesn't have either the energy or the heart to speak. He shows me his wounds. His entire chest is bandaged, as is his left leg from hip to toe.

We have come here because we were told by the Americans that since the bombings some 30 to 50 policemen (the estimates vary) have either quit or failed to show up for work at police stations across the province. Like the Americans, who are rapidly training Iraqis to replace them, they want out. But apparently not the man lying before us here. When I ask if he plans to return to work, he nods. Yet since the bombing, he manages to say, he has not been paid his wages.

At the U.S. Army headquarters -- a building with far, far better protection than that afforded the proxy police force -- I speak with the base commander, Lieutenant Susan Greig. I ask her about the missing wages.

"This is not true," she says. "They will be paid. I think he is just fearful."

I ask her about money in general. She says that is a problem.

"As is the case everywhere in Iraq, the U.S. forces ran out of funds around early October. Only now we're receiving word that money is going to begin flowing again."

"The police tell me they don't even have jackets for winter. Is this true?" I ask.

"Yes, this is true." But, she adds, "we are going to get them soon."

Now I understand the ragtag look of many Iraqi policemen. Temperatures drop to freezing at night at this time of year, and the police are wearing anything they can bring from home to keep warm. It makes it hard to tell who is a policeman and who is not.

As we leave the U.S. compound, I stop to talk to one of the policemen guarding the gates. He is wearing a heavy, ratty sweater. I ask him if some police have left the force since the bombing. "A few, but not many," he says. He says he doesn't know of the numbers the Americans are talking about, but he is concerned about his future.

"What do you think will happen when the Americans leave?" I ask.

"I am afraid."

As we walk to our car, [name withheld], the translator, tells me that I shouldn't believe the wounded policeman when he says he wants to return to work. It is not a matter of wanting.

"He has no choice," [our translator] says. "What other job can he get? There are no jobs here." He is as scared as the others.

Last month, President Bush asked Ambassador Bremer to accelerate the process of handing over power to Iraqis. The key to that is replacing coalition soldiers with Iraqi policemen like the ones I have met.

[Editor's Note: The names of the Iraqi driver and translator have been removed from this dispatch for security purposes.]

 

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posted february 12, 2004

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