“The police are going to kill me unless you take me with you,” said Ahmed Hussein in a terrified voice, as half a dozen angry Iraqi policemen closed in on him. One of them had just taken his black pistol out of his belt and was holding it by his side.
Violence erupts with extraordinary speed in Baghdad. Early yesterday morning a hundred or more blue-shirted Iraqi police, armed with sub-machine-guns, had expelled Mr Hussein and 54 families from 17 luxury houses they had occupied illegally since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The houses, shaded by green bushes and trees from the ferocious heat, were once homes for Saddam’s relatives and guards in the well-off district of Jadriyah in the centre of the capital. When he was overthrown, homeless families from all over Baghdad moved into the mansions. But Iyad Allawi, the Prime Minister, is trying to restore the power of the Iraqi government. This includes repossessing its property and moving out those who took it over – often at the point of a gun – at the height of the chaos following the US army entry into Baghdad.
Mr Hussein had been volubly complaining about his eviction when the police standing around, mishearing what he had said, thought he had just accused them of looting his house. One grey-haired policeman said he had worked in the force for 22 years and was forced to live in a caravan in a distant suburb while Mr Hussein was living rent-free in the house he had seized.
We finally persuaded a more senior officer to tell his men to allow Mr Hussein to go and he jumped nervously into the back seat of our car, still exclaiming: “Let’s get away from here before they kill me.”
The Iraqi state, once all-powerful, is gradually reasserting itself. In the wake of the fall of Saddam, there was something of a social revolution. The poor of Baghdad, destitute and near starvation, seemed to draw real pleasure as well as profit from looting the ministries and museums and the houses of the supporters of the old regime.
Mr Allawi, an old Baath party member himself, is trying to win the support of party members and government officials who were marginalised during American direct rule. The police in Baghdad certainly feel that at last they have a government to their liking.
Their methods are not gentle. The police had moved in on the old government compound in Jadriyah at 7am yesterday morning. “They shot in the air to frighten us,” said Khadir Abbas Jassim, standing beside a heap of broken furniture, on top of which was a metal office chair with the foam stuffing bursting out of the torn seat.
He went on: “An American patrol came past and we asked them to help us but the police said we belonged to the Army of Mehdi.” Mr Jassim said he had once been a professional cyclist, but now, like the other evicted squatters, “I make a living selling cigarettes and soft drinks by the side of the street.” A few hours later the belongings of families removed by the police were being heaped up in lorries, with brightly coloured toys mixed with old carpets and cooking pots. Ten of the squatters were taken off to jail, including Ahmed Hussein’s father. A man in a brown shirt with blood oozing from his right eye appeared, saying: “The police were pushing my mother, and when I tried to stop it one of them hit me in the eye with his rifle butt.”
Inside the compound, General Hussein Abdullah, the policeman in charge of the operation, said that the squatters had been given plenty of warning that they were going to be evicted. “We are a legal state and we are just applying the law,” he said. He waved away complaints that he had no written order from a court to take over the property.
General Abdullah explained that he intended to make the houses he had just taken over his operational headquarters in future. “It will take me 20 days to get it running,” he said. He pointed with disgust at light sockets that had been ripped out by the previous occupants and a swimming pool painted light blue, in the bottom of which was stagnant brown water.
The presence of a new police station is not very good news for the neighbours, which include The Independent office, because police stations are a frequent target of ferocious attacks by suicide bombers, wholly careless of whom they kill. General Abdullah said he would not block nearby roads, but police stations in Baghdad are normally protected by rows of enormous concrete blocks designed to protect them from bomb blast.
The manner with which the police took over the old compound of Saddam’s guards and evicted its inhabitants shows that they are regaining the swaggering confidence they had under the old regime. Mr Hussein, whom we rescued, must have forgotten this when he criticised them.
Perhaps they would not have killed him as he feared, but they would probably have beaten him half to death.