Ali Baba, Ali Baba ! Hunting Looters in a Fast Humvee

When the American-Iraqi joint community-policing initiative involves a Humvee of Marines hurtling through the streets of Baghdad to apprehend a runaway police car, the U.S. non-occupation of Iraq is not going 100 percent smoothly.

The initiative was aimed at curtailing the carnival of plunder that is the all-too-liberated Iraqi capital; a place that is growing bitterly used to the sight of black smoke curling into the sky and the popping-corn sound of AK-47’s, and where every third car is so laden with loot that it swerves. Contrary to some accounts, the people of Baghdad are not too euphoric to notice that their city is going to hell in a handbasket, and many are angrily mystified as to why the U.S.-with its high ideals and higher profile here at the moment-has not done more at least to slow the trip.

As described by U.S. Marine Major Andrew Petrucci, assistant operations officer of Regimental Combat Team 7, now that the U.S. military can “transition from combat to stabilization operations,” it was beginning to do just that.

“The analogy that we’re using is that of a large boulder sitting on top of a hill,” the major said on the morning of Monday, April 14. He was standing in the parking lot of the police academy, where the U.S. forces had, mostly by word of mouth, urged Iraqi police officers to gather. The boulder in the analogy was the weight of the Iraqi civil services returning to their normal functions, initially with the endorsement and protection of the U.S. military. Then, as the boulder started to roll and gather momentum, the Americans would become less and less necessary until, toward the bottom of the hill, they fell away altogether.

Toward that end, the day’s plan was to send convoys of cooperation-two Humvees to one Iraqi police car-gently forth into the streets of Baghdad. Every so often, the convoys were to stop, authority figures Iraqi and American were to mingle with the citizenry, and Iraqis were thus to be injected with the sense that the rule of law and order, by and for Iraqis, was briskly on its way.

Then the convoys pulled out of the parking lot.

What followed was such a skirmish between intention and implementation, such a reminder of the invisible tangle of variables that runs through even the simplest project here, that it was hard not to see the afternoon as America’s Iraq dilemma in a nutshell-emphasis on nuts.

Things started predictably enough. Cpl. Shane Weeks, 21, was positioned as the gunner, looking out from over the roof of the vehicle and calling out directions to Cpl. Alex Gutierrez, 20, who was driving. The Iraqi contingent of three significantly older, olive-suited, black-bereted officers in an incongruously shiny squad car was led by Capt. Ahmed Saleh.

The first stop was in front of a few food shops. The Iraqis in the area seemed interested in the convoy, but not passionately so. Shopkeepers came out of their shops, and onlookers looked on. But no one cheered, and no one jeered. Everything was O.K., but just O.K.

Soon, however, Mr. Saleh began to make clear his desire to take the exercise beyond public relations. (His colleagues on other convoys, I later learned, were taking the exercise way beyond, into the realm of shooting at, and beating, looters they caught in the act.) He wanted to check the cars on the street to see whether they had been stolen.

Given that one hears the phrase “Ali Baba,” the local term for stolen goods, only somewhat less often than one hears salaam alaikum, the term for “hello,” Mr. Saleh’s suggestion was not unreasonable. Given that the purpose of the outing was, however, to make ordinary Iraqis feel confident in, rather than fearful of, the police, Cpl. Weeks did not like that idea, but agreed to radio a superior to check it out. Meanwhile, a large green and white bus pulled up and stopped at the intersection, and the sidewalk began to buzz with the rumor that it had been Ali Baba’d from the old Ministry of Trade. On the bus were a number of women and children whom the Iraqi police officers seemed eager to order onto the street for questioning. Cpl. Weeks did not like this idea at all. But it was soon established without incident that the bus was not, in fact, Ali Baba, and so all seemed well.

Then, all of a sudden, Cpl. Weeks ordered the Humvee to go, go, go. It was as if the vehicle were being fired upon, or an approaching suicide bomber had been spotted, but neither was the case. The case was that someone had told the police that a van passing by was Ali Baba, and the police had, without a word to their American partners in community policing, taken off hell for leather, siren wailing.

Cpl. Weeks’ voice, not hysterical but energetically irritated, came from above.

“I am not a police officer, damn it! I am a fucking Marine!” he exclaimed. “Stop driving crazy. Jesus Christ, what are these people doing? Stop! Go, go, go, go, go, go! These motherfuckers!”

Cpl. Gutierrez, who hails from Los Angeles and could definitely establish himself there as a stunt driver, maneuvered through side streets at a very good clip. Among the things he did not hit were an old man on a bicycle, a fully covered Shiite woman and any number of parked cars. Ultimately, the Humvee cornered the squad car at the alley corner where the squad car had cornered the van-which was not, in the end, Ali Baba.

I sat in the Humvee, waiting for Cpl. Weeks to straighten things out with Mr. Saleh. An Iraqi man wandering by stopped, practically stuck his head in my window and stated matter-of-factly, “I love you Bush.” (There is a lot of this, particularly-and perhaps, if hope is not soon rewarded, ominously-in the poorest areas. “You have rescued us from hellfire to paradise,” an old man walked up to me and said in one such area. A Shiite girl, just old enough to be covered, caught my eye and said “Saddam,” then spit on the ground and smiled.)

Mr. Saleh next suggested a search for some fedayeen . These, of course, are the notoriously ruthless sub-subgroup of Iraqi forces who remain fanatically loyal to Saddam, and who are presumed, in whatever form or forms they remain, to be making and planning much violent mischief.

Initially, this sounded promising. The police led the Marines to a bearded man in a striped shirt, who apparently could point out a nest of these domestic terrorists. It soon developed, however, that all the suspects were suspected of was being Palestinian and having guns. It further developed that there was some question as to just where the nest was located.

“They haven’t done anything wrong,” Cpl. Weeks told Mr. Saleh. “I don’t know why you want to go after them.”

“They came from five days ago,” said Mr. Saleh, whose English was barely serviceable, but far better than the Arabic of his American partners, which was nonexistent.

“We can’t go after them just because they’re Palestinians,” said Cpl. Weeks. “They haven’t shot anybody yet.”

“Now we don’t know-Palestinians, Syrians, we don’t know,” Mr. Saleh countered, sort of.

“Wait here,” said Cpl. Weeks. “We’ll talk to the lieutenant.”

Meanwhile, a twentyish local man in a rugby shirt, who seemed to know the Marines, was drafted to do a little ad hoc translating.

“Tell them when they drive real fast, we can’t keep up,” requested Cpl. Weeks.

The translator did so, and in turn mentioned on behalf of the police that they would prefer, for the sake of effectiveness, not to be wearing their uniforms. Cpl. Weeks tried to explain that since the point was to restore public confidence in a public way, going undercover might defeat the purpose.

“You are Marines or police?” asked Mr. Saleh, who seemed honestly unsure.

“We are Marines,” said Cpl. Weeks. “We cannot attack every building. We have to know the exact location.”

“We can do this job,” offered Mr. Saleh. “If you want, I will do this. I will enter.”

Meanwhile, the bearded man in the striped shirt had gone away. This occasioned a compromise: The police partners would neither kick in every door in the possible neighborhood of the allegedly suspicious Palestinians, nor ignore the allegation completely. Rather, they would go into the possible neighborhood and inquire about the exact address.

Like most neighborhoods in Baghdad these days, this one was blocked off with makeshift roadblocks that citizens had set up to foil any looters who might be en route to Ali Baba their homes. Thus, in order for the Humvee to turn into it, other Marines had to drag away an assortment of upturned metal chairs, capsized oil barrels and semi-crumbled bricks, and untie a sort of white sash that had been strung, for some reason, from one side of the street to the other, as if to make a finish line.

The police questioned a large, fat, shirtless man and then, one street over, a house full of students. The Palestinians, it turned out, had moved.

“We will find more situations,” assured Mr. Saleh. “You want to find [Saddam Hussein’s son] Uday’s house?”

Uday’s house had long since been raided, which was fortunate. On the way there, in a narrow lane of extremely modest, dilapidated homes and extremely modest, dilapidated cars, there was a white Toyota four-wheel drive without any license plates. At the sight of it, all thoughts of Uday faded and the Iraqis’ mission became one to convince the Marines to tow the Toyota. As the factors involved in doing so-the narrowness of the street, the ownership of the Toyota , the possible local reaction-were weighed, a crowd gathered. At this point, a man from the neighborhood tapped me on the shoulder and raised the issue of the day-an issue that, insofar as achieving stability is a matter of finding Iraqi civil servants who are both experienced and untainted, will be key for many days to come.

“The relationship between the Iraqi people and the police is so weak,” 42-year-old Mohammed Al-Hamari observed. He ended the sentence on a note of true revulsion, as if the word “weak” were a gulp of sour milk that he had drunk by mistake.

Meanwhile, a man had rushed out of his house to defend his custody of the white Toyota. He was covered in dirt and paint and had, judging by his breath, consumed a metholated alcoholic beverage at lunchtime.

“No Ali Baba, no Ali Baba, no, no, no, no, no, no!” he cried.

It was decided not to tow the vehicle, but Mr. Saleh had another idea.

“Now we are looking for explosives,” said Cpl. Weeks, trudging back to the Humvee.

As the Humvee pulled out, Mr. Al-Hamari trotted beside it until his face was next to mine. Apparently, he was afraid that I had missed the point.

“The Iraqi people,” he panted, “will despise the police forever!”

Outside the house allegedly containing the explosives, the Marines and the Iraqis drew their weapons, and Cpl. Weeks instructed the people not living in the house to get away. But as this was a relatively complicated sentence, this caused a hesitation that raised a question: What if something dangerous actually happened, and someone actually had to say something that would be immediately and clearly understood?

Fortunately, nothing did happen. On the third floor, where there were several rooms full of empty wooden crates, there once might have been quite an arsenal. Now, however, there were only several boxes of ammunition suitable for use with an AK-47. Out back, there was a big blue truck that had been Ali Baba’d, and to which the keys were available, so the Marines decided to take that back to the police academy.

There was one more house search that turned up nothing. Then at last, long after the convoy was due back from its little Baghdad meet-and-greet, Cpl. Weeks convinced Mr. Saleh that it was time to call it a day.

“Take a right at the intersection,” Cpl. Weeks instructed Cpl. Gutierrez as the Humvee headed back to the police academy. But then, as if on cue, the police car went left, then made a total U-turn and accelerated.

“No, no,” Cpl. Weeks corrected himself. “I guess these guys have a different idea.”