IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After years of war, Iraqis hit by frenzy of crime

As the worst of the country's sectarian bloodshed ebbs, Iraqis now face a new threat to getting on with their lives: a frenzy of violent crime.
Image: Iraq crime wave
Relatives pray Sept. 9 at a memorial for Muhsin Mohammed Muhsin, who was beheaded by kidnappers in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqis, who have begun to cautiously resume normal routines of life they abandoned as sectarian violence peaked in 2006 and 2007, are being engulfed again, this time by a frenzy of violent crime. Karim Kadim / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The kidnappers holding an Iraqi auto mechanic's 11-year-old son gave him just two days to come up with $100,000 in ransom. When he could not, they were just as quick to deliver their punishment: They chopped off the boy's head and hands and dumped his body in the garbage.

The boy's final words to his father came in an agonizing phone call. "Daddy, give them the money. They are beating me," Muhsin Mohammed Muhsin pleaded a day before he was killed.

As the worst of the country's sectarian bloodshed ebbs, Iraqis now face a new threat to getting on with their lives: a frenzy of violent crime.

Many of those involved are believed to be battle-experienced former insurgents unable to find legitimate work. They often bring the same brutality to their crimes that they showed in the fighting that nearly pushed the country into a Sunni-Shiite civil war in 2006 and 2007.

The result has been a wave of thefts and armed robberies, hitting homes, cars, jewelry stores, currency exchanges, pawn shops and banks.

Targets are increasingly children
Kidnapping, too, remains terrifyingly common, as it was during the peak of the insurgency. Now, however, the targets are increasingly children, and the kidnappers, rather than having sectarian motives, are seeking ransoms.

In southern Baghdad's Saydiyah neighborhood, photos of missing children are pasted on electricity poles and the concrete blast walls that enclose many areas of the bomb-battered capital.

There are few statistics tracking the number and kinds of crimes, in part because the government remains focused on the bombings and other insurgent attacks that continue to plague Baghdad and Iraq's north.

But in the minds of the public, crime has become at least as consuming as the violence directly related to the war. And like the lack of electricity and other services, crime is now a top complaint of Iraqis.

To cope, some businesses are hiring more guards and even taking their money out of Iraqi banks, believing it will be safer in secret locations under private guard or in banks outside the country.

Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said investigations found that 60 to 70 percent of the criminal activity is carried out by former insurgent groups or by gangs affiliated with them — partly explaining the brutality of some of the crimes.

"After the success our forces have achieved in tightening the noose on insurgent groups, we are seeing that some of them are turning to form well-organized criminal gangs," al-Moussawi said.

Militants still infiltrating security services?
Some members of Iraq's security forces are also involved, perhaps a sign that militants are still infiltrating the security services.

In August, two gunmen in their 20s broke into a neighbor's house in Baghdad's southern Dora district, beheading a father and his 1-year-old daughter and severely injuring her mother and another child. They stole 5 million Iraqi dinars, or about $4,300, and some jewelry.

They were arrested the next day. One of them was a former soldier who left the Iraqi army seven months ago.

In one of the most high-profile crimes in recent years, several members of Iraq's presidential guards — which protect senior officials — broke into the state-run Rafidain Bank on July 28 and stole about 5.6 billion Iraqi dinars, or $4.8 million. They tied up eight guards at the bank in Baghdad's central Karradah area and shot each one execution-style.

Four of the robbers were convicted and sentenced to hang. Three others remain at large.

In another heist, four gunmen with Interior Ministry ID cards robbed a private bank on Aug. 13 after forcing employees into a side room at gunpoint. The gunmen surrendered after a shootout with police, and no one was hurt.

In April, Iraq created a military task force to battle gangland-style crime after gunmen with silencer-fitted weapons killed at least seven people during a daylight heist of jewelry stores.

Still, criminals continue to operate seemingly without fear of getting caught.

Kidnapped on his way home
Muhsin Mohammed Muhsin, the 11-year-old, was kidnapped around noon on his way home from a neighbor's funeral on Aug. 31 in Baghdad's eastern Shiite district of Sadr City.

His father frantically searched through police and hospitals records and distributed his son's picture. The kidnappers called two days later.

"They were calling us once every eight hours for two straight days," said Mohammed Muhsin, the 39-year-old father of six. "They said, 'You are wealthy people' and asked for $100,000, but I told them I could only secure $10,000."

"The next day, the police found him dumped in the garbage ... with his head and hands chopped off. His body showed burns and marks of torture."

Muhsin is wealthy by Iraqi standards. Besides his work as a mechanic, he and his brother own a truck and two private generators that help power his neighborhood during frequent outages — a significant source of income that perhaps made him a specific target.

"He was the closest to my heart," he said of his son. "They knew whom to kidnap."

Sadr City, where he and his family live, is home to about 2.5 million Shiites and was a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who fought U.S. troops intermittently until he declared a unilateral cease-fire in 2007.

Businesses taking new precautions
When it was under militia control, kidnappings there were extremely rare.

Alarmed by the crime wave, Baghdad-based businessmen Sabir Hassan, 54, and Alaa al-Moussawi, 45, have taken new precautions.

Hassan, owner of a transportation company, has hired two more guards to protect his trucks.

"The past four months have been scary with the number of criminal acts and robberies increasing, especially against cars traveling on remote highways," Hassan said.

Al-Moussawi, chairman of an export and import company, has pulled most of his capital out of the bank to keep it in a secret place.

"What feeds the fear inside us and increases our worries is that some of these gangs are members of the security forces," he said.