IRAQ: In absence of police, vigilantes take to the streets
BAGHDAD, 19 February 2007 (IRIN) - Muhammad Azawi, 58, wakes up early every morning and joins fellow vigilantes to patrol their Yarmouk neighbourhood of Baghdad.
“Our mission is to keep peace in our neighbourhood. We keep in contact with the other vigilantes in the neighbourhood to make sure there is no danger. Should something untoward happen, we start putting our defence mechanisms in motion,” Azawi said, a retired fireman and father of five.
With an increase in sectarian violence in Baghdad and a lack of effective policing, ordinary citizens have been forced to find their own ways of protecting their loved ones.
“We take our guns with us only when it is necessary, because we don’t want to give the impression that we are also fighters. Some neighbourhoods are attacked by militias and others by insurgents but the result is always the same - the death of dozens of Iraqis on a daily basis,” Azawi added.
Azawi said that when any member of the vigilante group senses danger in the neighbourhood, he would call the others and ensure all entrances and exits to the area are closed. At the same time, they would phone the police to tell them what is happening.
“We have had success but sometimes when the attackers or criminals get scared they start to shoot everywhere. In those cases they might hurt someone. But women and children now know that when something like that happens, they should go inside their homes, close their doors and never go out until a relative tells them to do so,” he said.
The absence of police officers in some neighbourhoods is the main reason for the formation of self-help defence groups, say vigilante members.
“You don’t see police officers in some neighbourhoods of Baghdad. They are scared to go in areas which are hot spots due to the constant fighting between militias and insurgents,” said vigilante Abu Khudaiffa, 43, from the Alawi district of the capital.
“When you approach them [the police] asking for their help, they just respond by asking you not to enter the area. And when the situation calms down, they go to check what is going on, but most of the time it is too late,” Abu Khudaiffa said.
Police officers working in the Baghdad neighbourhoods in question told IRIN that they felt they were fighting a losing battle as they are being targeted by militias on sectarian grounds, by insurgents for supporting the government and by criminals simply for being police.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, they added that they were not as well equipped with firearms as the people they were meant to be arresting.
The levels of violence and prevalence of policemen varies throughout Baghdad. Hurriya district and Sadr City, stronghold of the fearsome Shia militia the Mahdi Army, are said to be two of the worst areas with virtually no police presence.
“Some militias have taken control of many areas and are targeting any police officer who invades their space. When we enter such districts we have to have backup forces to protect us. There is always a disaster when the US and Iraqi troops want to conduct a search because the search never ends without the death of a police officer,” said Mounir Omar, 34, a Baghdad police officer.
“I know people need our protection but it is hard to go to an area where there’s a high chance you might not leave alive,” Omar added.
This has given rise to more and more vigilante groups policing their own neighbourhoods. Residents said they felt more secure in the knowledge that someone was doing something to protect them, but relatives of vigilantes said they had the added fear of losing a loved one in the course of their new duty.
“We understand that the aim of this patrolling is to rid the most dangerous areas of the capital of all kinds of criminals but we, as wives, know that on any given day one of our loved ones won’t come home,” said Dina Safwat, 45, a mother of three whose husband and two sons take part in the daily patrols of their neighbourhood.
Lt. Col. Hussein Shab, a senior official in Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, said that despite the levels of insecurity in the country, the government did not approve of people taking the law into their own hands.
“First, taking such private security measures will just increase the violence. And second, the vigilante members might be arrested or killed by troops [US or Iraqi],” said Shab.
“We understand how difficult it is for them to live in a place where there is insecurity but using their own guns is also a crime and it is the responsibility of the local police, which has increased its numbers in many areas of the capital,” Shab added.
But vigilantes said they had little hope of security conditions improving and would continue to patrol their neighbourhoods until the government fulfilled its responsibility to keep Baghdad safe.
“We are just protecting ourselves and are helping to keep order where the government is unable to do so,” Abu Khudaifa said.
Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
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