CSI Baghdad hunting for truth in combat zone

BAGHDAD — A 30,000 per cent increase in the murder rate would overwhelm the best equipped detectives, but Lieutenant Colonel Amir of CSI Baghdad refuses to despair.

As violence claims 100 lives a day in the Iraqi capital, the 23-year veteran of Saddam Hussein’s police thinks a new forensic science academy opening on Monday can make a real difference.

To do so, though, he needs more equipment.

“If we have the right tools, we have enough experts. We can do a great deal,” he told Reuters as he prepared for the grand opening, alongside his British and American police advisers.

Yet he still has to convince most colleagues even to think of calling the Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) team before they shovel and hose away evidence from the latest suicide bombing or assassination. And he accepts, too, that sectarian death squads operate within the police itself who do not welcome his efforts.

“Before the war, the level of murders was very low, up to maybe 10 a month,” Amir said. “Now we have more than 1,000 a month — and in the last three months, even up to 3,000.” Few killings are ever solved — it is more of a war than a crime wave — and only about 5 per cent of crime scenes are ever looked at by CSI teams, said Amir, a smiling, dapper 45-year old who uses only his first name for his own protection.

He now has 28 CSI experts out in the field in Baghdad, compared to 12 before the war, he says. They are backed up by some 300 technicians who have benefited from millions of dollars worth of training and equipment from US and British advisers.

Though a far cry from the high-tech crime scene analysis familiar from Hollywood’s “CSI” and other shows glamourising the work of forensics experts, the Baghdad team and five others round the country do use the same basic equipment as the FBI or Scotland Yard — Amir proudly shows off fingerprinting kit used to train officers, ultra-violet lamps and a magnifying glass.

Alongside, on a steel work bench, lies a grubby washing machine timer attached to a mobile phone headset — the simple but effective detonating device from a roadside bomb defused in Baghdad last month. On it, clearly visible, is a fingerprint.

Has that clue led anywhere? Amir shrugs. “No.” Only about 2 per cent of those few convictions obtained are due to forensic evidence, officials said, though forensics do also contribute in identifying suspects and gaining confessions — generally the strongest element in Iraqi court cases.

 

Opposition

 

Siting the new, $3 million forensics academy inside the main police training site in Baghdad is partly aimed at convincing the rest of the Iraqi police to appreciate the experts’ value.

Amir and his US and British advisers freely admit that CSI teams are frequently prevented from attending crime scenes by other police and even US forces. When they reach there, they have sometimes fallen victim to follow-up gun and bomb attacks.

“But we have to do it,” Amir said. “If we can take fingerprints, we can save thousands of Iraqi lives.” His advisers speak admiringly of the CSI Baghdad’s skill at improvising under fire, scooping up evidence on the run where counterparts abroad might have days or weeks to gather samples.

“They go in a month to as many murder scenes as the average UK cop goes to in a career,” said Bob Lamburne, a former British policeman who worked in Kosovo and testified against Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague before coming to train Iraqis in Baghdad.

“They can teach us a thing or two.” As testimony to the team’s standing, they cite its role in examining the ruins of the Shiite Golden Mosque at Samarra, whose destruction in February, blamed on Al Qaeda, was the spark for the last few months of worsening sectarian violence.

Yet as if the scale of the bloodshed and the dangers for the investigators were not daunting enough, Amir and his team feel at best ignored, at worst opposed by others in the police.

“We haven’t had any help from the interior ministry,” he said with a smile. “I don’t think they appreciate my work.” Lamburne and Michael Hallmark, his American counterpart from Florida, say the team steer clear of politics. But one of Amir’s aides cannot resist a sectarian jibe at the Shiite-dominated force: “They have a different job,” he said quietly. “Killing.” US and Iraqi leaders acknowledge the problem of mainly Shiite militia infiltration of the police and say they plan to tackle it. Hallmark said the CSI teams “meet a lot of opposition because of the militias” who have no interest in solving crimes.

“Our investigations are simply a search for the truth,” said Lamburne. “What people do with the truth is another matter.” Even in a war zone, he said, the detective had his duty: “You get your particular slice of the cake and you deal with it.”

“It’s a question of focus. If it’s a murder here or a murder in LA, say, it’s still a murder and you deal with it.” As the new forensics academy opens, Lieutenant Colonel Amir remains keen to build up his equipment and skills. There is work to be done, as he is no optimist about political improvement: “If people were sincere, we would have a good situation,” he said. “But I don’t expect that.”

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