- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s interim government yesterday said it was considering reviving emergency martial law powers from the Saddam Hussein era to combat a wave of violence that has killed nearly 200 people and paralyzed oil exports.

Malik Dohan al-Hassan, justice minister in the caretaker Iraqi government, said authorities may resort to “exceptional” laws imposed by the former dictator after it takes power on June 30.

“The idea of imposing exceptional laws is under study,” he said, adding that there were no legal hurdles.

Defense Minister Hazem Shalan al-Khuzaei and Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib also warned that the new government may impose martial law to control what Mr. al-Naqib called “terrorist acts” after 41 persons were killed in two car bombings Thursday.

Such a move would be welcome by Col. Haydar Abdul Rasool, an officer in the fledgling Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

Given the country’s mounting security woes, Col. Rasool said he would recommend closing the nation’s borders and giving police and soldiers a much freer hand to deal with wrongdoers on the street.

If Iraqi leaders follow through with the martial law idea, he just might get his way.

“Right now we can only open fire on people if they threaten us,” the burly commander of 1,300 soldiers said in an interview. “We should have more freedom to act. We must have more brutal laws. The American laws are weak laws.”

After a grisly month in which terrorists set off 17 car bombs in 18 days, Iraqi leaders are publicly pondering the idea of imposing harsh measures to combat a wave of lawlessness and violence.

Since the toppling of Saddam last year, Iraqi officials have been eager to take more authority over the country’s security from the U.S.-led occupation force, which is set to hand control of the country to Iraqis on June 30.

Mr. al-Khuzaei, the defense minister, vowed this week that his government would track down insurgents “from house to house and from street to street, by all means available.”

“We will cut off the hands of those people; we will cut their necks if it is necessary to do so,” he told reporters.

Under martial law, soldiers are given broad powers to arrest lawbreakers and impose order at the barrel of a gun. It also often has meant a suspension of civil liberties and political activity.

The latest attacks, against a recruitment center for the new Iraqi army in Baghdad and against members of Col. Rasool’s Iraqi Civil Defense Corps in the central Iraqi city of Balad, killed at least 41 and wounded 150 Iraqis, many of them poor young men seeking jobs with Iraq’s new security forces.

Iraqis have grown tired of the carnage and chaos in their streets.

In Baghdad, homicide rates have skyrocketed to twice that of Bogota, Colombia, and kidnappings for ransom have become epidemic. The car bombings have filled up emergency rooms and morgues with mangled bodies and weeping relatives.

Many of Iraq’s newly established security forces concede they simply do not have the tools to combat this level of violence.

“We cannot defend against car bombs,” said Fares Ibrahim, a member of the Iraqi military police. “It’s like trying to predict when a jug of gasoline left out in the sun will explode.”

Col. Rasool, a no-nonsense military leader who was an officer during Saddam’s rule, said he was looking forward to the day when he can set up checkpoints and dispatch patrols without coordinating with American troops or abiding by the Americans’ rules of engagement.

“The looter, the kidnapper or thief — we take him and put him in prison [but] he’s out in a month,” he said. “The Americans don’t know who the criminals are. We know.”

Given a free hand, he said, the military would all but close down Iraq’s borders and impose tighter passport controls on all those entering and exiting the country. He said he would purge his own ranks of many unqualified recruits brought in by the Americans.

“A lot of them are not tough enough to be soldiers,” he said.

He said the coalition had begun supplying the new troops with new weapons, bulletproof jackets and vehicles.

Sometime in the next few weeks, he said, his civil defense corpsmen are scheduled to put on a massive show of strength throughout the capital, flooding the streets with at least 100 men per neighborhood.

“That will show people that we’re in charge,” said Col. Rasool, who said he lost about 35 men over the last year. “Once the Americans pull back to their bases, we’ll have more freedom to act.”

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