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IRAQ: Rounding up the poor

February 21, 2008 | 10:25 am

Iraqibeggar

After three recent bombings carried out by women who appeared to be either paupers or mentally disabled, Iraqi authorities have announced plans to round up beggars, the homeless, and the mentally ill, a move they say will make the streets of Baghdad safer.

"These kinds of people belong in ... either social welfare institutes or hospitals," the spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry, Abdul-Kareem Khalaf, says.

Khalaf says those pretending to be down on their luck, either to dupe people into giving them handouts or to disguise evil intentions, will be arrested and prosecuted.

Iraqi law forbids begging, but police have been too busy dealing with attacks and other war-related crimes to enforce anti-begging legislation, said Tariq Harb, a prominent Baghdad attorney.

With U.S. and Iraqi officials accusing insurgents of recruiting juveniles and women, Harb and Khalaf say it makes sense to start cracking down.

But enforcing the law will be difficult. Beggars and street people are part of life here, and their numbers have grown dramatically since the war.

In addition, the Koran encourages people to help the needy, and Iraqis see nothing wrong with giving money to people who ask for it. In fact, beggars here often go door-to-door in residential neighborhoods seeking handouts. Others walk the chaotic streets hitting up people in passing cars when traffic slows.

The problem for Iraqis is figuring out who is genuinely needy, and who is merely stuffing already fattened pockets. "I know many men who sit in cheap motels smoking water pipes ... while their wives and kids roam in the streets of Baghdad begging for money," said Harb.

Skeptics question whether Baghdad has the facilities to care for throngs of mentally ill and homeless people. They also say Iraq's leaders have a history of targeting street beggars while tolerating official begging in the form of bribe-taking and other means.

Under Saddam Hussein, for example, officials of his ruling Baath Party would visit people's homes and strong-arm them into handing over their gold, ostensibly to support Iraq's effort in the war with Iran.

— Baghdad bureau

Photo: A woman receives a handout at a Baghdad intersection. Credit: Saad Khalaf/Los Angeles Times

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