On Baghdad Streets, Corruption Thrives
Published on Monday, August 18, 2003 by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
On Baghdad Streets, Corruption Thrives
by Andrew England

BAGHDAD A Quranic verse plastered on a monument to freedom carries a simple message: God will send a plague on those who deal in drugs and spread corruption.

But the message is being widely ignored.

Across the busy highway from the monument, built in 1958 after the overthrow of the monarchy, traders have set up gambling tables and are openly selling pornography, fake ID cards and looted goods, including laboratory microscopes, industrial fuse boxes and pills stolen from psychiatric hospitals.

"Now we have freedom and democracy," said a 34-year-old trader selling pornographic DVDs with titles such as The Dirty Family and The Young Wife, and photocopied postcards of couples in various sexual positions. "We could not sell them when Saddam was here."

This is Baghdad four months after U.S. troops took over the sprawling city of 5 million, jobless, insecure, and in many cases taking "freedom and democracy" as license to do pretty much what you want and get away with it.

The trader, a father of two young daughters, was too embarrassed to give his name. Pornography is forbidden by Islam. "It's too bad, but there's no job for me," he said.

Formerly a government civil engineer earning about $150 a month, he said he lost the job the day before the March 20 U.S. invasion. His streetside sales are now netting him about $1,500 a month.

As he speaks, young men gather around, some appearing drunk or high. Gunfire erupts in the background. Hardly anyone appears to notice.

Abas Fadah pushes through the small crowd offering tranquilizers and other drugs looted from "mental hospitals," by "friends."

At another sidewalk stall, a small TV was showing a DVD of bare-chested Shiite Muslim men beating themselves at a religious ceremony. That, too, is evidence of Iraq's new freedom. Public displays of Shiite ritual were suppressed when Hussein and his Sunni minority ran the country.

All types of weapons, ammunition and drugs are also available in the street market in Bab al-Sharqi, or Eastern Gate, a dangerous area in central Baghdad where few women dare to venture, the traders say. A day earlier arms peddlers accidentally fired a pistol, killing an 8-year-old boy, they say.

"This is democracy, but what kind of democracy?" said Hamed Hameed, yards from where minutes earlier armed youths had been fighting over prostitutes down a dirty, narrow street.

"It's worse because there are thieves, corrupt people who are looting in the streets. Young people carry guns who drink and shoot in the streets."

Hameed, who runs a warehouse, complained that Iraq's fledgling police force does little to intervene and the 36,000 U.S. troops in the city don't know what's happening on the ground because they don't understand the language.

"The police are there but they are afraid. They hear shooting and they are scared to come. During Saddam's regime they used to take bribes. Now if they see a person being killed in front of them, they will do nothing," Hameed said, occasionally glancing warily over his shoulder. "I wish I was living in a desert rather than Baghdad."

On Friday, U.S. troops in Humvees fitted with loudspeakers rode around announcing in Arabic that street sales of alcohol would be banned beginning today.

About 12,000 police are back on Baghdad's hot, dusty streets, as well as 1,850 traffic police, a small but conspicuous presence in blue uniforms as they struggle to handle traffic on the city's jammed streets. But still, few drivers observe road laws as vehicles ride up curbs or take short cuts by hurtling down highways the wrong way.

Many blame much of the indiscipline on Hussein's October amnesty, which released murderers, rapists and thieves from prison as the United States ratcheted up its case for war.

"It was not good. It was intended by Saddam to make more problems in the country," said Ali Habib, 47, a parking lot worker.

Without supervision, the new police will keep taking bribes, Habib said. "The people could be controlled by power; without power, nobody can control them."

Copyright 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel