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Iraq plagued by wave of violent crime: The spirit of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves lives on, Charles Richards writes from Baghdad

IRAQ, known through the centuries for the toughness of its people and its brutal political regimes, has been plagued by a new affliction since the Iran-Iraq war: a big increase in such crimes as murder, rape and armed robbery. In one gruesome case, the Monster of Mahmudiyah (a town south of Baghdad) would drag women into waste ground, where he would rape, kill and mutilate them.

On successive Fridays, the public waited agog for transmissions of the trial of the Ghazaliyya gang. What emerged was a sordid picture of life in a poor area of Baghdad notorious for robbery. Three young men were charged with murdering seven members of the same family: father, mother, daughters, grandparents.

It transpired that the victims knew the killers: videos were found of some of them having sexual relations with the girls. The prosecution said the men turned up drunk one night and, as they were known clients, were let in. They then murdered the family one by one, hanging them in separate rooms. State-run television showed re-enactments. One of the accused was asked if he felt remorse. He said he did not: killing meant nothing, after having been through the Iran-Iraq war.

Wartime conditions were accepted as mitigation in most criminal trials. But the war is over and crime rates are up. The main reason for the increase, according to Muzahim Abdullah al-Amin, chief criminal investigator in the Karkh area of Old Baghdad, was economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

This was not, in fact, a defence accepted by the courts. The maximum penalty for car theft was execution. This was never imposed, but now the courts were prepared to take tougher action.

Mr Amin said that special tough legislation against theft had been introduced to protect women and children, whose menfolk were away at the front. 'There is an increase of crime because of the social and economic conditions. People have no work, no food. People live miserable lives. They steal; they kidnap.'

In addition, the war had taken many fathers way from their families. 'There was a lack of paternal authority: children grew up without a sense of right and wrong.'

The economic hardship experienced by all Iraqi families - except the ruling elite - since the impositon of sanctions has transformed social relations. The poor are much poorer and can be seen begging outside the great mosques of Baghdad. The middle classes are selling family heirlooms to buy food. Carpets, furniture, books and silverware are all being sold. Iraqis, whose reputation for hospitality is unparalleled in the Arab world, find they can seldom afford to invite friends home. And prostitution is increasing.

Car theft is probably the most widespread crime. No vehicle is sacrosanct: police cars and the limousines of Baath party officials have all been taken. But then, the mother of all plunders, the invasion and pillage of Kuwait, had been orchestrated by the government. It is of course merely coincidence that the first fountain built in modern Baghdad should have been inspired by one of the most famous of all local legends: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

LONDON - Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, hinted that Iraq might be willing to free two Britons held in Baghdad if Iraqi assets frozen in Britain were released, AP reports. The Foreign Office restated that the money would not be released until Iraq complied with all UN resolutions against it.

In an interview broadcast by Sky and the BBC, Mr Aziz said London had unjustly frozen millions of dollars in Iraqi assets during the Gulf war. If the money were to be released for humanitarian purposes, two Britons held in Iraq might be freed.

Paul Ride, a London caterer and Michael Wainwright, from Yorkshire, are serving seven- and 10-year sentences respectively for entering Iraq illegally.