BAGHDAD — Video footage of an armed group robbing a man of his car in broad daylight went viral on social networking sites Nov. 23. The incident happened on Palestine Street in the center of the Iraqi capital, a heavily populated and high traffic area.
The video is just one example of dozens of criminal acts committed on the streets of Iraq on a daily basis, to the extent that they have become part of the daily life of citizens. Since the end of 2014, the people of Baghdad have reported increasing crime, especially cases of citizens being kidnapped or robbed of their belongings or cars on public roads.
It seems these incidents are growing in light of the Iraqi state’s weakness and its lack of control after the Islamic State (IS) took over vast areas in Iraq. The situation has led to crippling fear among the citizens and increasing brazenness by organized crime gangs.
However, the circulation of these stories among Baghdad’s residents has also increased their vigilance and prompted the residents to take precautions. Resident Haider al-Asadi faced an attempted robbery in October, but thanks to some foresight and preparation, he was able to save his car.
Asadi is a taxi driver and he was transporting two young men from the region of al-Arsat in central Baghdad to the Shaab neighborhood in the east of the capital. When they reached their destination, one of the young men pointed a gun to Asadi’s head. He immediately realized they were going to steal his car.
Asadi had installed a security system in his car, and now a hidden wire shuts down the car’s motor. He managed to trip it without the robbers noticing. They did not understand why the car suddenly broke down and got out and left while cursing him.
Asadi told Al-Monitor, “Most taxi drivers are fitting their car’s motor with this system or with similar ones that are very popular in the market. These systems allow the driver to turn off the ignition when facing a robbery.”
He continued, “Some drivers have mechanical experience in such techniques, while others turn to Baghdad mechanics, who install this system for a high price.” He added that this practice has become commonplace in a large city with a population of more than 7 million people, saying, “Every day we hear about these widespread robber gangs.”
The security authorities, represented by the Baghdad Operation Command, have intensified their efforts. On Nov. 21, 2014, the Ministry of Interior announced the arrest of 82 people forming 18 gangs known for kidnapping, theft and murder.
The large number of arrests gives the impression that the authorities had dealt a heavy blow to organized crime and that it is in the process of eliminating it. But these gangs have turned out to be more rampant than security forces anticipated. In January, the Higher Judicial Council of Iraq announced the arrest of 234 members of 15 criminal gangs and the issuance of 70 arrest warrants. It also announced that an investigative committee is operating at the Baghdad Operation Command headquarters to address these crimes.
Following these developments, Majid al-Ghraoui, a member of the Iraqi parliament's Security and Defense Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Criminal offenses are spreading in all governorates of Iraq." However, he did not offer statistics on the extent of the problem and noted that the Interior Ministry is solely responsible for such data.
Al-Monitor’s correspondent tried to obtain accurate statistics from the Interior Ministry on crime rates, but a number of civil servants in the ministry authorized to give statements to the media chose to withhold this information.
Iraq has been a suitable environment for the emergence of these gangs since IS took control of about one-third of the country. The poverty rate has risen to about 30% since the fall of Mosul in June 2014, and weapons proliferated as a result of tribal expansion and the weakness of the government, which has not been able to control the street.
Ghraoui attributed the spread of crime in Iraq to several reasons, but focused on the preoccupation of security forces with the fight against IS, saying it has diverted the focus of security services in the cities, particularly Baghdad.
Ghraoui said, “The parliament is now seeking to enact a law to deter people from carrying unlicensed arms.” He added that he hopes “this law will limit the possession of weapons and their spread in Iraq.”
Ghraoui went on, “There are gangs robbing, extorting and killing on a sectarian basis and taking advantage of their affiliation with some of the armed factions of the Popular Mobilization Units.”
Social worker Nashwan Mohammed Hussein talked to Al-Monitor about the prevalence of crime in Iraq. He attributed the problem to “the wars, the crises and the absence of the rule of law produced by political factors.” He explained, “This undermined the important factor of social control, namely public opinion, which represents a pressing moral force stigmatizing criminals,” adding, “Iraq is open to capitalism, in which conflicts involving use of force and violence for quick profits prevail and greed is rampant.”
Hussein pointed to economic factors affecting the crime rate, saying, “The most relevant factor is the unjust distribution of wealth, which urges those who are deprived to punish those who are wealthy. They sometimes justify their criminal behavior as aimed to recover what is rightfully theirs. … This factor falls within the scope of the social classes struggle, even in a distorted manner. We must not forget the fixed factors of poverty and unemployment.”
Hussein concluded that the crimes committed openly in the streets are a direct result of “the proliferation and the easy access to weapons.” He said, “Some kidnappings and robber gangs hide behind the Popular Mobilization Units, which provides a convenient cover for this type of crime that brings wealth in short periods.”
Indeed, the state’s responsibility for the increase of the crime rate seems clear. The Iraqi government has not intervened and stood idly by while poverty rates rose, weapons spread and marginalized social environments emerged, not to mention the lack of equitable distribution of national resources.
Iraqi society is paying a high price for the state’s lack of efficient security plans and the uncontrolled phenomena of organized crime that has been clearly evolving to the extent of becoming a public nuisance.
Any analysis of the phenomenon of organized crime will point to the fragility of the political situation, the absence of the rule of law, the economic crisis, rampant corruption and the long-lasting turmoil ensuing from the bloody struggle against IS.
The Iraqi security forces do not seem to have actual plans to eliminate organized crime other than issuing statements that cases of kidnapping and theft have decreased by about 80%, a claim belied by the situation on the Iraqi street.