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Thieves of Baghdad fuel fears

Abu Gharib (Iraq), Oct. 21 (AFP): Baghdadis braced today for the influx of hundreds, if not thousands, of common law prisoners once considered dangerous criminals but now set free under a general amnesty by Saddam Hussein.

“The thieves of Baghdad have been released,” lamented one resident in the Iraqi capital, which is generally considered to have a low crime rate despite severe poverty.

Make sure your doors and windows are shut tightly, counselled some Baghdadis, while others organised watches over their districts, as gossip spread of dire consequences from the return to the city of so many “wrongdoers”.

“Baghdad will not sleep quietly tonight with all these thieves on the street,” one taxi-driver heading out of Abu Gharib said yesterday.

The advice came after Saddam issued a decree pardoning most prisoners with immediate effect. While no figures for the prisoners included in the amnesty were given, it was expected to involve many thousands.

“We prefer clemency to punishment,” Saddam explained, adding that the move was aimed at shifting the responsibility for the reform of prisoners from the state apparatus to their families.

When news of the amnesty broke, family members and friends of the prisoners massed outside the huge Abu Gharib compound.

The pressure of the crowd finally collapsed the external walls and led to emotional scenes as people overran the prison wings in search of loved ones.

Scenes of chaos ensued, with prison guards having to use batons to keep a minimum of control over the unruly crowd.

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