- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

BAGHDAD — Police call Walid Ibn al-Khibaza a lowlife punk with a mile-long rap sheet. So it was with pride that the officers of the department’s major crimes unit arrested the kidnapper, and with satisfaction that they watched him sentenced to 10 years in prison about two months ago.

But they were shocked a few weeks later to learn from an informer that he had been released from Abu Ghraib prison and was back on the street, plotting new kidnapping-for-ransom schemes. They confirmed the release through official sources.

“He did not even serve one month of his 10-year sentence,” said Maj. Moayed Saleh Hashemi of the major crimes unit. “We put him in prison and somehow he was released.”

Poorly trained and equipped, Iraq’s new police officers are fighting a battle against an unprecedented crime wave, with kidnappings, carjackings and homicides chipping away at the accomplishments of the post-Saddam era.

Saddam Hussein’s infamous prisoner-release program — in which he let loose many of the country’s criminals as a goodwill gesture shortly before he was toppled — gave Iraq’s hardened criminals a huge head start.

Now police say their aim of controlling crime has been overburdened by the release of numerous convicted criminals from prisons under the control of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Police officers say as many as half of the criminals they have arrested since the collapse of Saddam’s regime have been released.

“Actually, its very frustrating. I lose my enthusiasm,” said 1st Lt. Ghassem Ali Hamid, who investigates homicides and kidnappings.

“These people are professional criminals. We spend weeks and weeks tracking them down and capturing them. When they release them, it’s very hard to capture them again.”

Abu Ghraib is the focus of a scandal in which U.S. servicemen and private contractors are accused of physically and mentally abusing Iraqis suspected of taking part in anticoalition activities.

But coalition officials are at a loss to explain the release of criminals such as al-Khibaza from Abu Ghraib and other detention centers.

The hundreds of prisoners released in recent weeks are “security internees deemed to no longer be imminent security threats to Iraq,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, spokesman for U.S. forces at Iraqi prisons, said coalition forces were “not in a position to release criminal detainees,” but only the security detainees suspected of committing violent acts against U.S. forces.

But Col. Johnson said the coalition has been detaining criminals while the Ministry of Justice works to set up a prison system.

Only about 200 criminals remain in U.S. custody, he said. “The last of these criminal detainees are being transferred to the Ministry of Justice prior to June 30,” Col. Johnson said.

Lt. Hamid and other members of the major crimes unit say they are grateful for what they have been taught by the Americans, even if they are releasing criminals.

“What astonishes us is that when we go on patrols, the American [military police] will go with us and they’re so enthusiastic and do such a good job,” Lt. Hamid said.

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