by David Axe & r & BASRA, IRAQ -- For hours before he was shot to death in a Basra warehouse on Aug. 2, New York City freelance writer Steve Vincent and his Iraqi interpreter, Nooriya Tuaiz, were apparently tortured -- this according to statements by residents of this southern city who could hear the screams. It's tragic that, while there is no shortage of police in Basra, none came to Vincent and Tuaiz's aid.

Tragic, but not surprising. As Vincent pointed out in a July 31 op-ed piece in The New York Times, Basra's 7,000 cops are all but subject to the city's religious parties, few of which would object to another dead Westerner. After initially linking Vincent's murder to an allegedly romantic relationship with Tuaiz that enraged religious and tribal enforcers, many observers are now blaming the very police Vincent had criticized in his Times piece. Information from the FBI relayed by Vincent's wife in Manhattan indicates that the killers indeed claimed to be cops.

Still, no one knows for sure who killed Vincent -- not yet, at least, despite the FBI's sending a team to Basra to investigate. The uncertainty raises questions about the true position and power of police in this oil-rich Shiite stronghold, the economic capital of Iraq.

Perhaps the meanest part of this mean city is Habbaniyah, a strip of poor housing nicknamed "Shia Flats" by British forces. The neighborhood was the target of a Sept. 7 bombing by Sunni insurgents that killed 16 people. Such is Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's sway here that the local police chief, 30-year-old Captain Ali Mater, says he's powerless. Habbaniyah businessman Kadem Homoed, 58, says tribes and religious parties sort out most of the crimes.

British army major Andy Hadfield, 37, deployed to Basra, says Iraqi police here won't touch crimes perpetrated by or against tribes and political parties. He says the tribes and parties themselves settle accounts. How any crimes at all fall outside the tribal/party rubric in a town so dominated by these groups is a mystery to Hadfield. Coalition officers struggle to understand southern Iraq's true power structure.

At the British Army's Camp Chindit in the town of Az Zubayr, west of Basra, an interpreter has sketched a chart of tribal relationships for the British commander, Major Mick Aston. The chart is a maze of names. Aston says he stares at it every day but still can't make sense of it.

Chindit is a former Iraqi prison. There are crude hooks in the ceilings. Aston jokes that the hooks were for ceiling fans, but he knows better. They were for people. The British occupation has brought foreign aid and some investment and it has facilitated elections, but that hasn't changed the fact that Az Zubayr is fundamentally a tribal town: corrupt and violent, ruled by thugs with guns. There are a thousand cops in this city of 450,000, but they have little real power.

While on a mission to Az Zubayr's largest market and two adjacent police stations on Aug. 31, Aston and British army captain Phill Moxey, 27, try to describe the local police. The first thing, Moxey says, is to "get away from expecting Western standards. The question is 'Do they operate in an effective way by the standards of this country?'" His answer is yes.

But according to Hadfield, the standards of Iraq mean that the tribes and religious parties are in charge. Tribal and religious affiliations often overlap -- and both tribes and parties maintain militias. Who's most powerful where is a question few Western observers are qualified to answer.

After visiting the Al Quibla station on Sept. 1, Hadfield drops by the nearby Jehad station. Surveying the neighborhood, Hadfield points out where two Western contractors were murdered on July 30.

Jehad's chief, Ali Mater, complains that his police have no authority. Part of the problem, he says, is that the neighborhood is awash in guns. "The government before kept weapons off the street," he says. "Now everyone has a white card" - white, government-issued cards authorize households to own one assault rifle each for self-defense. The system makes it easy for tribal leaders to form militias and challenge police authority. Here in Mater's neighborhood, the militias have won.

Mater seconds Iraqi businessman Homoed's assessment of the power structure in Basra. He says police authority in Basra has been waning since the old regime fell in 2003. He disparages what he calls the new "multiparty" Iraq, where tribe and sect trump government.

However, says Hadfield, the waning authority of the police is not entirely a bad thing, recalling that the police in the Saddam Hussein era ruled by fear -- and that's not how it's supposed to work in a democracy. But then, as Vincent pointed out in his New York Times op-ed piece, parties (and tribes) rule by fear, too.

As coalition officers say, Iraqis can't be held to Western standards, and their democracy won't look like ours. Perhaps more fear of the (good) police would make Iraq safer. But it's hard to fear any force that appears to be so lazy.

British army sergeant Glen Goldthorpe says it's hard to motivate the police here because it's hard to fire them. This, too, is a tribal problem. Basra's Five Mile station has been through a half-dozen chiefs in recent years, he says, and the good ones promise to clean house with ineffective cops. Then the tribes threaten: Fire our boys and you'll have trouble. Tribal violence against policemen is common in Basra. Good police chiefs don't last in an environment like this. Bad ones just might.

Police forces in Iraq don't just stand aside and let the tribes and parties have their way. It's not that simple. Many policemen are themselves active members of tribes and parties. As much as 60 percent of Basra's population is affiliated with al-Sadr. So the men who abducted Vincent may really have been Iraqi police. But whether they were acting as police or on orders from their tribes or parties is another matter. Iraq's convoluted power structure makes it difficult to trace the paths of decision-making.

In his Times piece, Vincent accused British forces of failing to teach Iraqi police democratic values. Vincent was wrong. There has been an effort to instill Western values in recruits. "We're trying to make these people accountable to the law, firstly," says Arnie Morgan, 51, a British police trainer from Armor Group, a firm that employs civilian policemen as advisers in Iraq.

At some stations, Armor Group has made headway, only to see the reformed police run into an unreformed populace.

Capt. Ibrahim Kamil, 32, a police captain in the town of Samawah, says his officers struggle to enforce rules and regulations in a society that values tribe and family over law. "Men," says Kamil, "use their tribes to protect them." On June 4, for example, Kamil's officers arrested several Iraqi men for carjacking. Within hours, the suspects' families attacked the police.

The British are trying; some Iraqi cops are, too. But you can't change the attitudes of 25 million people overnight.

Steve Vincent was wrong about the Brits, but he was right to blame Basra's cops for bowing to tribe and party. However, the consensus among British officers and interpreters in Basra is that Vincent's criticism of the police isn't what led to his murder. As was initially suspected by some observers, it currently seems to be thought here that Vincent's perceived relationship with Tuaiz probably got him killed. What's more, Vincent made no effort to blend in. He dressed like a Westerner, spoke little Arabic and flaunted his friendship with Tuaiz. British officers say they warned him he was in danger. There's no need to invent police conspiracies to explain Vincent's murder.

Vincent's killers probably were cops. But in the new Iraq, their being cops is incidental. When sheikhs and imams order their thugs to exact retribution on a white Christian who -- to them -- seemingly loves a Muslim woman, the only allegiances that matter are not to a uniform or to law, but to a more primal code.

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