Saturday, April 14, 2007

BAGHDAD — Baghdad, like a popular TV series, has its own crime scene investigation team, which is advised by a British detective.

But the war-zone CSI work is so dangerous and the caseload so overwhelming that just 5 percent of bombings, kidnappings and shootings are investigated, with police unable to spend more than 20 minutes at a given crime scene.

British Detective Sgt. Bob Lamburne often sees more homicides in one day than characters on the television dramas do in an entire season.

“At the scene of a bomb blast in America or Britain, you might get several days to cordon off the scene and investigate; but here you may have only 20 minutes or so because of the danger of being at the crime scene,” said Sgt. Lamburne, 53, who has also worked as a war crimes investigator in the Balkans.

“There might be gunmen trying to shoot at you; there might be a secondary bomb that has been placed there. The police here have learned how to get in and out quickly and gather what they can.”

Indeed, with killings in Baghdad running at up to 3,000 a month, the CSI unit’s file can be so overwhelming that it can be hard convincing colleagues in the security forces that the job is worth it. CSI Baghdad only manages to reach about 5 percent of crime scenes, and even then, it often finds that evidence has been cleared away.

At other times, Iraqi soldiers keep the team from the scene — sometimes, it is suspected, because the crime scene shows the signature of sectarian death squads within the security forces.

Sgt. Lamburne works at a heavily guarded police training college in eastern Baghdad, where the lessons include analyzing fingerprints, footprints and ballistics. Much of the work, though, concentrates on basic policing techniques, something he identified as necessary while previously posted in British-controlled Basra.

“In February 2005, I picked out at random 15 homicide cases and found there was only a record of the police actually going to five of them. There was no sketch plan, no photos taken, no records at all. Part of the [lesson] scheme is really just a basic investigator’s course.”

At present, the forensics team can make only a limited contribution. Promising clues cannot always be followed up because of lack of manpower. Also, the national fingerprint and DNA database is being built from scratch. To complicate matters, the favorite murder weapon in Iraq — the Kalashnikov assault rifle — is mass-produced. So every rifle leaves a near-identical ballistic trace.

Nonetheless, the CSI team’s efforts have helped secure a small number of convictions — and also proved some suspects to be innocent.

Success also has its risks. Sgt. Lamburne’s former partner, one of the few Iraqi policemen to receive forensic science training in dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, was killed in January.

Moreover, with Iraq’s police beset by accusations of dereliction of duty, Sgt. Lamburne knows that forensics training will be effective only if the CIS officers are willing do their work.

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