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Victims of Baghdad's car theft gangsters

Innocent drivers are increasingly becoming the target of gangs of vehicle thieves who are said to be using them in bomb attacks.

Iraqi policemen examine a car that was used in an attack at an Iraqi checkpoint. Some stolen cars are being used as car bombs.
Iraqi policemen examine a car that was used in an attack at an Iraqi checkpoint. Some stolen cars are being used as car bombs.

Baghdad // Earlier this year, Ahmed Deyyin, 43, was driving from his home in the Karrada neighbourhood when a police officer stopped him and asked if he would drive two men to Yarmouk hospital, where they were due to visit a sick friend. He agreed to drop them off, even though it was not really on his way. "We were heading past the central market when the men ordered me to stop and get out of the car," Mr Deyyin said. "I pulled over and was arguing, but one of them had a pistol.

"We struggled a bit and as I was getting out of the car, he shot me in the leg. I was hit twice." Fortunately for Mr Deyyin, who is a father of three, the bullets left only a flesh wound, not something more serious. However the robbery, did leave him with severe financial difficulties as well as with his injuries. "I was working as a driver and the car was my business," he said. "I had to borrow money to buy it, so now I have a loan to pay off and no way of earning any income."

He has not reported the crime, insisting that there is no point because he said the police were complicit in the incident. In the Bab al Sharqi area of the city, Sittar Hussein, a resident, said car thefts were becoming an increasing concern, despite a general improvement in security over the past two years. "A car was stolen from outside a shop in the daytime, and there was a child in it," he said.

"We don't see that many police patrols and everyone says there is a gang here, working to steal cars and to sell them on to people making car bombs. "We don't know who is doing the stealing, but they seem to be able to do so without any intervention from the police, no-one is stopping them." Car theft is a normal occurance in any big city, whether in Iraq or elsewhere. But violent car jackings have become fairly common here.

The fact that some stolen vehicles are being turned into bombs is of continuing concern. The problem exists not only in Baghdad. In Ninewah, lorries and dump trucks that were stolen or falsely registered with the authorities have been used in a series of devastating attacks. And in 2005 US investigators discovered that cars stolen in the US had been shipped to the Middle East and subsequently used in Iraq bombings.

A jeep registered in Texas had earlier been found by American troops in Fallujah in 2004, being prepared as a vehicle bomb. There are no reliable crime figures available for Iraq, a country that remains a battlefield between the US military, Iraqi security forces, Islamic militants and various other insurgent groups. Under such circumstances, official statistics are published for the number of dead each month, but not for the number of crimes that take place.

An officer in Baghdad's police force said car robberies were frequent, and often carried out in a professional, highly violent manner. "We see cases where car drivers are lured into secluded areas by prostitutes, and then have their cars stolen," he said. "It seems to be the work of gangs and they are always armed: they'll carry anything from machine guns to screwdrivers, and if there is any problem, they use them."

The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, said some of the women involved in the robberies had been arrested. But he admitted there has been little impact, with the robberies continuing unabated. Ammar Tohme, an Iraqi MP and member of the parliamentary security and defence committee, said a stagnant economy and ineffective politicians were to blame for high rates of crime, and criminals were often co-operating with insurgents.

"Economics, politics and violence are all related," he said. "Political failures are reflected in social and economic life. "There is little employment or investment and many young people do not get jobs. "Stealing a car is work and I expect to see increases in violence and increases in car bombings before the next election [scheduled for January 2010]." nlatif@thenational.ae