August 9, 2010 in Nation/World

Militants’ latest target: Baghdad’s traffic cops

Gunmen take aim as U.S. prepares exit
Hamza Hendawi Associated Press

BAGHDAD – Baghdad’s traffic cops are demanding their own guards after at least 10 were killed over the past week in drive-by shootings and other attacks that have set back efforts to restore normalcy to Iraq’s capital after years of violence.

Security officials have blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the killings, in which gunmen used pistols fitted with silencers. They said the militants target traffic cops to create chaos on Baghdad’s congested streets and embarrass authorities who boast of improved security.

Many of the traffic cops are unarmed, surprising given years of violence on the city’s streets. Now, they are demanding assault rifles to defend themselves as well as protection from the tens of thousands of heavily armed policemen and soldiers deployed across the city.

Authorities, eager to stop the killings, are moving quickly to meet their demands.

“Yes, they only have pistols so we are giving them heavier firearms,” said police Brig. Gen. Nijim Abed Jaber, chief spokesman for the traffic police force. “But let me remind everyone that combat is not the job of traffic policemen. They are peaceful individuals whose job is to help people.”

Persistent violence across the country has raised concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security less than a month before the U.S. military ends combat operations and draws down to 50,000 troops, a step toward a full withdrawal by the end of next year.

However, Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, maintained on Sunday that Iraq’s military is ready and able to take over security operations even with the violence and Iraqi politicians continuing to squabble over the formation of a new government five months after an inconclusive election.

Baghdad’s traffic cops – distinguished by their white shirts, navy blue trousers and hats – have struggled to regain control of the streets. Even before they were insurgent targets, it was not an easy job, coping with temperatures pushing 120 degrees and relentless bombings striking Baghdad daily.

Members of the force have been killed in crossfire and bombings since the insurgency broke out in 2003, but this is the first time they have faced a string of killings in which they were the intended victims.

The capital was without traffic police for months after its capture by U.S. forces in 2003. The city’s unruly motorists did as they pleased, driving on sidewalks and against oncoming traffic. But the traffic police, with the help of American troops, were the first law-enforcement force to send its members out on the streets and have slowly begun to regain control.

Already in some Baghdad areas, traffic policemen are working in pairs, one directing the traffic and one shadowing him with an assault rifle at the ready. In other parts of the city, policemen and army soldiers are keeping a close watch on the traffic cops, standing guard close by.

“My sole duty now is carry an AK-47 rifle and respond to any attack against my colleagues by terrorists,” said traffic cop Jassim Mohammed. “We will not walk out on our jobs because some cowardly terrorists are trying to kill traffic policemen who are offering a service to people.”

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