Atmosphere of Suspicion Pervades Iraqi Society
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
For many people in Iraq, trust has become a rare commodity. Strangers could be insurgents, or neighbors could be in death squads, and many fear the police are just as likely to commit a crime as to stop one.
Men in Iraqi police uniforms are blamed for crimes from mass kidnappings to robberies, to executions. The victims are left with little hope of justice.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF reporting:
It was getting dark when Kasim Hameed(ph) and a friend locked up their shops. No point in staying open later. Anyone who visits a goldsmith after dark in Baghdad these days isn't likely to be a paying customer.
The two men were driving down Oboonwa(ph) Street by the river when a police SUV screeched into their headlights and forced them up against the curb. Five men in police uniforms jumped out, waving their guns.
Mr. KASIM HAMEED (Iraqi Shopkeeper): (Through translator) They surrounded us and claimed that our car was used in an attack on a government minister earlier that day. They ordered us out of the car, handcuffed and blind-folded us, and said that they were taking us to the Interior Ministry.
FLINTOFF: But the Interior Ministry was close by, and the ride went on far longer than it should have.
Mr. HAMEED: (Through translator) So we understood that we were being kidnapped. They kept on driving for more than an hour until they stopped and separated us, putting each of us into the trunk of a different car.
FLINTOFF: The car lurched along for another hour or so. And when the trunk lid finally opened, the men in police uniforms dragged Kasim out and jammed a gun barrel against his temple. They wanted to know how much Kasim and his fellow jeweler might be worth.
Mr. HAMEED: (Through translator) We're targeted because people think that a goldsmith is sitting on a goldmine. People think we just pull gold out of the earth.
FLINTOFF: Kasim insisted that neither of them even owned their own shops anymore. The business is so dangerous and times are so bad they've had to work in the shops of other goldsmiths who've run from the country.
The nightmare got worse just before dawn. The kidnappers shoved Kasim back into the car and drove off, hoping to sell him to militants who would kill him.
Mr. HAMEED: (Through translator) You have to remember, it was very hot, and I was in the trunk. I was between two metal surfaces. I was completely grilled. They kept on driving until three or four in the afternoon, offering me to two groups that refused to buy me.
FLINTOFF: Finally, the kidnappers gave up and took Kasim to another house. He was relieved to see his friend there, alive. Then, the kidnappers called the men's families, demanding money and threatening them until they were near hysteria. The kidnappers kept it up until they found out the most money that each family was able to scrape together.
Two more days went by, and some of the guards began to turn chatty. They were young men, mostly, and out of work. One man told Kasim that his family and tribe didn't know what he was doing. He said they'd kill him if they found out.
Mr. HAMEED: (Through translator) I thought then, that this man could be mended, but it would be tough to turn his life around.
FLINTOFF: It took four days to get to a deal, but the two men's families were finally able to come up with the ransoms. So Kasim, the goldsmith, is now breathing the free but polluted air of Baghdad.
Does he think his life is going to get any better or more secure? No.
Mr. HAMEED: (Through translator) In the past, if you got kidnapped, you could hope that a checkpoint would free you. Now, if a policeman himself has taken you hostage, how can a checkpoint stop him? They arrest you in official uniform and deliver you right to the kidnappers. Then you're done for. There's no way things can get better because the police are working with gangsters in kidnappings and lootings. Things are totally out of hand.
FLINTOFF: The state of the goldsmith's art is an especially bitter pill for Kasim. He's a Sabian, a member of a religious minority that venerates John the Baptist. They don't carry guns and they don't play politics, but they've always dominated Iraq's trade in gold. Most have already left the country.
Kasim says now, that he too, will have to find another place to live in peace.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.