Iraq sinks under tidal wave of crime

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Early this summer Khader al-Douri, former president of Baghdad University, returned home one afternoon in his large Japanese-made saloon car. A gang of car thieves which specialised in expensive vehicles was waiting for him, and shot him dead.

Douri's killers were caught and their trial shown on television, but car theft is so common in Iraq that the police rarely bother to follow up. The United Nations in Baghdad has had four vehicles stolen in the past year, mostly at gunpoint. Many drivers believe the best insurance against losing cars is to hire street gangs to guard them.

Iraq used to have little crime. Punishments were heavy, and during the oil boom it was easy to make money. But the UN embargo on the sale of oil since 1990 means 4 million are now close to starvation, and the rest live from hand to mouth. Even the amputation of the thieves' hands is no deterrent.

Crime is not only violent but highly organised. In June armed men broke into a museum at Assur, the ancient Assyrian capital in northern Iraq. After overpowering three guards they stole 168 objects, including large statues.

"I can do very little to stop them," said Dr Moaid Said, head of the Department of Antiquities in Baghdad.

There are 10,000 archaeological sites in Iraq and Dr Said said he has neither the men nor the vehicles to defend them all. Outside his office Range Rovers sit immobilised on tyres that went flat a long time ago and cannot be replaced. "Thieves killed a guard at the museum in Nassariya in the south," he said. "So I have given orders for our men to shoot back in future."

There are no published figures on the crime rate. Abdul Kader al-Janabi, a member of the National Assembly, said: "Crime always increases after any war because of poverty and hunger. Many gangs were punished and the stealing of cars is going down." Mr Janabi said UN sanctions, not the Iraqi government, is to blame for the crime wave.

Few believe the government has got violence under control. An example is the sudden popularity of guard dogs. Every Friday huge mastiffs go on sale in the part of the Shurjah market that used to deal in pets.

Violent crime is only one aspect of the breakdown of society under the impact of sanctions and hyper-inflation. Bribery is pervasive. Government officials are not allowed to resign but are often paid the equivalent of $5 a month. One university professor told how he spent two years trying to resign and only succeeded this summer after bribing hospital doctors "to say I have a serious heart condition". His pension is worth about 50p a month.

Another sign of the disaster facing the educated elite is the book market in the Souq al-Sarrai. Every few yards intellectuals are selling old volumes. A copy of Plutarch's Lives fetches less than 10p. One seller said he is giving up all his books to buy food, with the exception of his favourite, Dostoyevsky. Another said that whatever happened he would never sell the works of James Joyce.