- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

SAMAWAH, Iraq — A junkie with a stab wound staggers into a hospital. He wants care, he wants drugs, he wants it all right now, so he goes berserk. He flails wildly, breaks free of the orderlies, threatens everyone in sight.

A clutch of local cops springs into inaction, shrinking back and cowering before the addict’s twitchy, strung-out dance of desperation.

One lawman stands his ground.

Steven Gallagher, a police officer from suburban Milwaukee and, as it happens, a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, goes after the invader and takes him down, but not before the wild-eyed walk-in has sunk his teeth into Maj. Gallagher’s right hand, breaking the skin.

Now Maj. Gallagher will have to face a series of worrisome blood tests.

Iraq has a crime problem, but it is not just the looting unleashed after the U.S.-British invasion. The burgling binge has run its course for the most part. Products poached from the era of Saddam Hussein’s police state are being recycled into an organically grown underground economy. Even cartloads of stolen bricks from half-built government buildings are reappearing as homes in a nation with a dire housing crunch.

The emerging crime problem is subtler and scarier: theft, extortion, and drug- and arms-smuggling operations that have become more sophisticated, more clandestine and more organized. In Baghdad, one team of thieves recently burned down a warehouse filled with the hot booty of another group. It was one mob sending a message to another.

Not exactly the Mafia — not yet anyway. But lawmen believe that beneath the random street crime are the raw materials for gangsters in the making.

Like Russia, the Balkans, eastern Germany and other places where an established order has imploded in a historical blink of an eye, Iraq has many of the key ingredients for gangland warfare and organized crime to grow quickly.

The police force here, as in other Iraqi cities, is a work in progress, said Maj. Gallagher, who is in charge of developing a public-safety system.

Samawah is on its third police chief is less than two months. The current top cop is the former fire chief, Col. Fadel Abbas Ali.

A local legend, Col. Ali, with his men, managed to keep the fire department from being looted after the war and continued to fight fires even as the U.S.-led coalition was blasting its way through his country.

“It’s already started, and it’s going to be a big problem, especially in a big city like Baghdad,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Greg Bruce, 40, a reservist assigned to the U.S. Marines’ 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment.

The Marines are in Samawah to protect a U.S. Army civil affairs unit that is building a district government, including a police department and judicial system.

Chief Warrant Officer Bruce’s job as a Marine reservist is basically the same as his full-time occupation: patrolman of a special antigang unit for the Los Angeles Police Department, where his Newtown Division turf includes South Central, one of the most infamous nests of gangs, guns and drugs in the United States.

“I basically do the same thing here: I go out, talk to people and find out where the bad guys are,” said Chief Warrant Officer Bruce, who has had similar stints in Bosnia, Korea and Panama.

Samawah has never been short of bad guys. It is the closest city to the long, indistinct Saudi border and has been a key transit point on a Middle Eastern smuggling route for centuries — in recent decades for heroin, hashish and weapons.

Saddam cracked down on the drug trade in Samawah in 2000, said Samawah police Capt. Nagib Ali Najam, who held the post for 20 years under the regime.

Saddam’s carrot-and-stick crackdown included rewards for drug raids and executions for drug trafficking, though wealthy dealers and their government accomplices often would simply pay a bribe and a hapless mental patient would be hauled out of the asylum and hanged in place of the guilty party, Capt. Najam said.

But, just as efforts costing billions of dollars haven’t broken the American drug habit, Saddam’s ruthless government couldn’t keep Iraq from being a pit stop on one of the world’s narcotics superhighways.

“These trade routes have been there thousands of years,” said Chief Warrant Officer Bruce.

Based on interviews with merchants who profit from regional price disparities, the country is a gigantic crossroads for dealers in anything that is plentiful in one place but scarce elsewhere. A bottle of, say, Johnnie Walker Red scotch could sell for as little as $8 on the street in Baghdad and fetch $85 in Basra, where Islamic militants killed two liquor dealers last month.

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