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[casi] Western Vice - Iraq's New Tyrant

Western vice - Iraq's new tyrant
Date: August 13 2003
Sydney Morning Herald
Iraq's brutal dictatorship has been replaced by a crime wave. Now sex and drugs are freely 
available on the street, writes Paul McGeough in Baghdad.

It is 10am and the crowd is pouring into the seedy Al Najah cinema on Baghdad's Al Rasheed Street. 
They come, at 70 cents a ticket, for sex on a loop - fleshy scenes from a dozen B-grade movies 
spliced into a single program, for which there is standing room only.

In Sadoun Street the midday temperature is 50 degrees and the prostitutes tout for business from 
the shade of a beach umbrella. Further along, in Fidros Square - where US troops stage-managed the 
demolition of a statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9 - as many as 30 teenagers are sniffing glue and 
paint thinner.

Drug dealers in the treacherous Bab al Sharqi markets, just off central Tahrir Square, are doing a 
brisk trade in looted prescription drugs.

The biggest demand is for mind-altering, and addictive, medications. Each trader has a special, 
half-hidden box for what he calls feel good capsules and tablets - the Herald came away with a 
multi-coloured cocktail of 200 pills for less than $10.

At the other end of the day hundreds of street drinkers converge on the banks of the Tigris River, 
openly selling and drinking gin, arak and beer in a raucous celebration of the ending of Saddam's 
rigid control of vice.

Under Saddam, alcohol, drugs, pornography and prostitution were state-controlled for the pleasure 
of a few. But in the post-war vacuum vice has exploded and the likes of Majid Al Sa'adi's tea 
house, just back from the bustle of Sadoun Street, has become a one-stop shop.

The TV on which patrons were obliged to watch endless speeches by Saddam and oily reports of his 
daily activities is now home to hardcore German pornography. Among the 25 adults sitting in the 
shop glued to the screen is a 12-year-old boy.

Al Sa'adi's jeans pocket is stuffed with tablets. He sells between 60 and 80 a day for 80 cents 
each to customers who, he says, take them with their tea.

This morning he shows all the woozy signs of having consumed his own product. But he has another 
line of business - offering the services of two black-shrouded prostitutes who sit on the pavement 
across the way. They, too, have obviously been drinking or taking drugs.

Al Sa'adi dealt drugs, albeit secretly, when Saddam was in power - for which he spent two years in 
jail. But he says, all the while playing with a long-bladed Japanese knife: "Business is much, much 
easier now that Saddam is gone. Now, there are no police.

"The prostitutes used to operate from hairdressing salons, but now they have come onto the streets 
and nobody stops them. Those girls," - and he pauses to wave the knife at the two sitting on the 
pavement - "would not have sat there when Saddam was in power. Even without the paint thinners 
they'd have been arrested. And I couldn't have carried even a single tablet in my pocket. It would 
have been too dangerous."

There are no sensible crime statistics in the new Iraq. What is clear is that crime has risen in a 
way that has left much of the population more fearful of the present than of the past.

Thousands suffered appall-ingly under Saddam, but the vast majority knew the rigid rules imposed by 
the regime and, by the perverse double standards of the Iraqi dictatorship, they were able to live 
a deprived but peaceable enough existence.

Suddenly, starting with the looting when Baghdad fell, they have been burdened with the excesses of 
a whole new criminal class. Add to that the prewar release of thousands of criminals by Saddam from 
his jails and it is easy to understand the fear in the streets.

Many Iraqis go to sleep listening to gunfire. Gangs trade shots in the streets in broad daylight 
and rampant car-hijacking frequently ends in death. There is a spate of kidnappings - most of which 
are followed by ransom demands as much as $60,000, with some of the victims undergoing torture as 

Businesses are robbed so frequently they close at 2pm and most homes at night are bolted and 
shuttered against thieves.

There are frequent revenge killings of those accused of helping the old regime - like Dr Mohammed 
Alrawi, who had treated Saddam and was gunned down in his Baghdad consulting rooms last week

But there is a further complication.

In the past the worst crimes were carried out in the name of the state and executed by the police, 
which commanded none of the community's respect or confidence.

Now non-state crime is taking hold, and because Iraqis lived for decades in fear of the police, 
they believe there is no point in reporting crime and so remain at the mercy of the gangs.

The US Administration in Iraq has been so slow in dealing with security issues that mosque 
communities, particularly those of the majority Shiites, have set up their own vigilante squads and 
Islamic courts, which hand out instant decisions on criminal and civil matters. There has even been 
a retreat to tribal justice in some parts of the country. Last week the Herald reported that a 
father had been ordered to kill his son or have his family executed after the young man was accused 
of collaborating with the US military.

The coalition is busy setting up a new police force, but hard-line Islamic clerics, and the 
movements that support them, are already running their own clampdown on vice - liquor merchants, 
cinema and tea house operators and video shops have been warned they will be bombed out of business 
if they do not stop selling alcohol or put an end to even the mildest pornography.

Scores of liquor shops have been torched in the country's south, and in Basra three Christian 
liquor sellers have been murdered. Basra used to have almost 150 liquor outlets - now all are said 
to have closed down. Several of Baghdad's distilleries and breweries have been torched or bombed 
and many of the capital's liquor shops have been gutted by fire or sprayed with gunfire. One in 
Baghdad was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade.

Baghdad's cinemas have also been warned - from the pulpit and in flyers and graffiti. Some have 
taken to blacking out the offending body parts in promotional posters, others have hired armed 
guards and a few have simply closed down.

Senior Islamic clerics have condemned the campaign of direct action - but at the same time they 
speak well of its impact, claiming that all vice offends the deeply held principles of Islam.

There were some limitations in Saddam's Iraq - alcohol could only be sold warm and by Christians, 
and be drunk at home; cinemas could not show pornography. But for all that it remained a broadly 
secular society.

Now the clerics are endorsing the setting up of mosque committees, the brief of which appears to 
have been directly lifted from Saudi Arabia's and the Taliban's ministries for the promotion of 
virtue and the prevention of vice.

Women have also been told to return to wearing the traditional hejab head dress.

The Pentagon has given the bullet-headed, blunt-talking former police commissioner of New York 
Bernie Kerik the task of reconstructing Iraq's police force.

Mr Kerik claims that busier streets and markets are a sign of Iraqis' growing confidence.

He told said he had sacked about two-thirds of Saddam's police and that all existing and newly 
recruited officers would be put through a training course in the most basic concepts of community 

Acknowledging that state-sanctioned crime represented about 80 per cent of all crime under Saddam, 
he said: "We have to build the people's confidence . . . and the police have to understand why they 
are not liked. They have to shift from being a force to being a service.

"We have to teach them the principles of policing in a free and democratic society. Teach them how 
to patrol - this is a concept they don't know.

"We actually have to get them to understand that torture, abuse and killing are not a part of 
investigation; and that they have to treat women who come in with complaints with dignity and not 
as criminals.

"It's very basic stuff. But to them it's something they have never heard before."

The immunity from prosecution the police enjoyed under Saddam would end.

Mr Kerik said he was ready to deal with vice when it became a problem, and he suspected that, as in 
Bosnia and Kosovo, many of those who turned to it would be former security forces now looking for 
easy money.

But for now he is not sure it is a problem. "I have heard that we are making some arrests in 
prostitution and pornography, but these are not violent crimes, and there is evidence that it was 
happening before the war."

And he is across the clerics' drive to impose Islamic discipline. He said several clerics had 
volunteered dozens of men for the police force, but he directed them to the police recruiting 
office to apply for jobs and to submit themselves to the new vetting process.

But at the Sunni Al Khudriri mosque, on the north side of central Baghdad, Sheik Thalib Ahmed was a 
measure of the challenge facing Mr Kerik and his new force.

Outlining in great detail how vice offended Islam, Sheik Ahmed declared that its explosion in Iraq 
was a Jewish plot.

"After the fall of Baghdad the people who use these services found a gate to get into this dirty 
war and there was no one to watch or punish them.

"What was the name of the philosopher who asked how many crimes would be committed in the name of 
liberty and freedom? This is one of those crimes.

"Saddam held a stick over the people. For a time he executed prostitutes and their male pimps. But 
now nobody threatens or punishes the people who are into vice. There is no authority."

Asked if he supported the threats against alcohol dealers and cinema operators, he hedged his bets: 
"Sometimes this good medicine must be administered without offending our Islamic principles.

"At first we order the people to abstain from these bad things, but if they do not follow the 
wisdom we offer, then we have to use our hand against them."

For now, Majid Al Sa'adi is unmoved. The tea house proprietor said: "The people from the mosque are 
chasing me. A few days ago they dropped a grenade in the Sinbad Cinema, around the corner. And they 
came here and warned me that they will do the same if we keep operating like this. For now, we're 
still in business."

And, it seems, so too are the bad habits of Saddam's police. In the last week more than a dozen 
motorists have complained about being pulled over by members of the new force on a trumped up 
charge, only to be let go after paying a bribe.

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