Baghdad's traffic cops are demanding their own guards after at least 10 were killed over the past week in drive-by shootings and other attacks that have set back efforts to restore normalcy to Iraq's capital after years of violence.
Security officials have blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the killings, in which gunmen used pistols fitted with silencers. They said the militants target traffic cops to create chaos on Baghdad's congested streets and embarrass authorities who boast of improved security.
Many of the traffic cops are unarmed, surprising given years of violence on the city's streets. Now, they are demanding assault rifles to defend themselves as well as protection from the tens of thousands of heavily armed policemen and soldiers deployed across the city.
Authorities, eager to stop the killings, are moving quickly to meet their demands.
"Yes, they only have pistols so we are giving them heavier firearms," said police Brig. Gen. Nijim Abed Jaber, chief spokesman for the traffic police force. "But let me remind everyone that combat is not the job of traffic policemen. They are peaceful individuals whose job is to help people."
Persistent violence across the country has raised concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security less than a month before the U.S. military ends combat operations and draws down to 50,000 troops, a step toward a full withdrawal by the end of next year.
However Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, maintained on Sunday that Iraq's military is ready and able to take over security operations even with the violence and Iraqi politicians continuing to squabble over the formation of a new government five months after an inconclusive election.
Baghdad's traffic cops — distinguished by their white shirts, navy blue trousers and hats — have struggled to regain control of the streets. Even before they were insurgent targets, it was not an easy job, coping with temperatures pushing 120 degrees (50 degrees Celsius) and relentless bombings striking Baghdad daily.
Members of the force have been killed in crossfire and bombings since the insurgency broke out in 2003, but this is the first time they have faced a string of killings in which they were the intended victims.
The capital was without traffic police for months after its capture by U.S. forces in 2003 and the city's unruly motorists did as they pleased, driving on sidewalks, medians and against incoming traffic. But the traffic police, with the help of American troops, were the first law-enforcement force to send its members out on the streets and have slowly begun to regain control.
Already in some Baghdad areas, traffic policemen are working in pairs, one directing the traffic and one shadowing him with an assault rifle at the ready. In other parts of the city, policemen and army soldiers are keeping a close watch on the traffic cops, standing guard close by.
"My sole duty now is carry an AK-47 rifle and respond to any attack against my colleagues by terrorists," said traffic cop Jassim Mohammed. "We will not walk out on our jobs because some cowardly terrorists are trying to kill traffic policemen who are offering a service to people."
Loai Qahtan Youssef, one of four traffic cops wounded last week in a roadside bomb that targeted their patrol, said recently added tasks to the force in Baghdad could have been behind the attacks.
"They are asking us now to impound stolen cars we come across and detain their passengers," he said from home, where he is recovering from a head wound.
The force directs traffic and issues tickets — but it also plays a less obvious role of bringing a semblance of order to a city desperately trying to return to normal after more than seven years of conflict. In a place where traffic lights are often ignored or not working, motorists are heavily dependent on the traffic cops for their safety.
A top security official involved in an ongoing investigation of the killings said 13 suspected insurgents have been detained in the past few days in connection with the targeting of the traffic cops. He said initial findings suggest that the killings are the work of al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgent groups.
What is not clear so far is whether these groups were coordinating the attacks, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Whoever is behind the killings, the attacks on the traffic cops have shown that Iraq's insurgency remains capable of striking in the heart of Baghdad, Iraq's most heavily guarded city, despite the killing and capture of hundreds of leaders and members.
Most of the drive-by shootings targeting the traffic cops have taken place in central parts of the city, not far from the heavily guarded areas housing ministries and government offices. The attacks of the past week wounded more than a dozen traffic cops.
The shootings, some in broad daylight, come close on the heels of two brazen attacks blamed on al-Qaida in which militants stormed army checkpoints, killing soldiers and planting the terror network's black banner in a symbolic act of defiance. Over the past 24 hours, at least 51 people were killed and more than 200 were wounded in bombings in the cities of Ramadi and Basra in attacks bearing the hallmarks of al-Qaida.
Some of the traffic cops have defiantly vowed not to be cowered by the killings. Others have stayed away from work for several days, fearing for their lives, although this was denied by the force.
"These attacks will not deter us from carrying out our jobs and serving the people," said Lt. Rustum Mohammed. "I had not heard about traffic cops quitting their jobs after the killings, but we have all become more cautious and we have also been given additional firearms," Mohammed, on duty at Kahramanah square in central Baghdad, said as his two-way radio crackled with messages about congestion in nearby areas.
Insurgents have targeted a range of different groups since 2003. Topping the list are police and soldiers, politicians, academics and doctors. Athletes, artists and entertainers have also been in their sights.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.