By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
BASRA, IRAQFor hours before he was shot to death in a Basra warehouse on August 2, New York City freelance writer Steve Vincent and his Iraqi interpreter, Nooriya Tuaiz, were apparently torturedthis according to statements by residents of this southern city who could hear the screams. It's tragic that, while there is no shortage of police in Basra, none came to Vincent and Tuaiz's aid.
Tragic, but not surprising. As Vincent pointed out in a July 31 op-ed piece in The New York Times, Basra's 7,000 cops are all but subject to the city's religious parties, few of which would object to another dead Westerner. After initially linking Vincent's murder to an allegedly romantic relationship with Tuaiz that enraged religious and tribal enforcers, many observers are now blaming the very police Vincent had criticized in his Times piece. Information from the FBI relayed by Vincent's wife in Manhattan indicates that the killers indeed claimed to be cops.
Still, no one knows for sure who killed Vincentnot yet at least, despite the FBI's sending a team to Basra to investigate. The uncertainty raises questions about the true position and power of police in this oil-rich Shiite stronghold, the economic capital of Iraq.
Perhaps the meanest part of this mean city is Habbaniyah, a strip of poor housing nicknamed "Shia Flats" by British forces. The neighborhood was the target of a September 7 bombing by Sunni insurgents that killed 16 people. Such is Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's sway here that the local police chief, 30-year-old Captain Ali Mater, says he's powerless. Habbaniyah businessman Kadem Homoed, 58, says tribes and religious parties sort out most of the crimes.
British army major Andy Hadfield, 37, deployed to Basra, says police here won't touch crimes perpetrated by or against tribes and political parties. He says the tribes and parties themselves settle accounts. How any crimes at all fall outside the tribal/party rubric in a town so dominated by these groups is a mystery to Hadfield. Coalition officers struggle to understand southern Iraq's true power structure.
At the British Army's Camp Chindit in the town of Az Zubayr, west of Basra, an interpreter has sketched a chart of tribal relationships for the British commander, Major Mick Aston. The chart is a maze of names. Aston says he stares at it every day but still can't make sense of it.
Chindit is a former Iraqi prison. There are crude hooks in the ceilings. Aston jokes that the hooks were for ceiling fans, but he knows better. They were for people. The British occupation has brought foreign aid and some investment and it has facilitated elections, but that hasn't changed the fact that Az Zubayr is fundamentally a tribal town: corrupt and violent, ruled by thugs with guns. There are a thousand cops in this town of 450,000, but they have little real power.
While on a mission to Az Zubayr's largest market and two adjacent police stations on August 31, Aston and British army captain Phill Moxey, 27, try to describe the local police. The first thing, Moxey says, is to "get away from expecting Western standards. The question is, do they operate in an effective way by the standards of this country?" He says yes.
But, according to Hadfield, the standards of Iraq mean that the tribes and religious parties are in charge. Tribal and religious affiliations often overlapand both tribes and parties maintain militias. Who's most powerful where is a question few Western observers are qualified to answer.
After visiting the Al Quibla station on September 1, Hadfield drops by nearby Jehad station. Surveying the neighborhood, Hadfield points out where two Western contractors were murdered on July 30.
Jehad's chief, Ali Mater, complains that his police have no authority. Part of the problem, he says, is that the neighborhood is awash in guns. "The government before kept weapons off the street," he says. "Now everyone has a white card"white government-issued cards authorize households to each own one assault rifle for self-defense. The system makes it easy for tribal leaders to form militias and challenge police authority. Here, in Mater's neighborhood, the militias have won.
Mater seconds Homoed's assessment of the power structure in Basra. He says police authority in Basra has been waning since the old regime fell in 2003. He disparages what he calls the new "multiparty" Iraq, where tribe and sect trump government.
However, Hadfield says the waning authority of the police is not entirely a bad thing, recalling that the police in the Saddam Hussein era ruled by fearand that's not how it's supposed to work in a democracy.
But then, as Vincent pointed out in his New York Times op-ed piece, parties (and tribes) rule by fear too.
As coalition officers say, Iraqis can't be held to Western standards, and their democracy won't look like ours. Perhaps more fear of the (good) police would make Iraq safer. But it's hard to fear any force that appears to be so lazy.
British army sergeant Glen Goldthorpe says it's hard to motivate the police here because it's hard to fire them. This too is a tribal problem. Basra's Five Mile station has been through a half-dozen chiefs in recent years, he says, and the good ones promise to clean house of ineffective cops. Then the tribes threaten: Fire our boys and you'll have trouble. Tribal violence against policemen is common in Basra. Good police chiefs don't last in an environment like this. Bad ones just might.