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Police work on despite Taliban threat

By Ivan Watson, CNN
  • Pakistan's police officers are an attractive target for militants
  • Superintendent of Islamabad police says 41 officers killed in city in three years
  • One officer injured in bombing back on duty at city road blocks
  • Any car he stops could be rigged with deadly explosives

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Assistant Sub Inspector Anwar Ali starts his day with a prayer. He needs all the help he can get.

Anwar is a police officer -- part of Pakistan's increasingly vulnerable "thin blue line." Pakistan's men in blue are a police force under siege.

When he sets out for work on a small motorcycle, his family watches from the terrace of his small, three-bedroom apartment, praying he will come back in one piece.

"My family doesn't go to sleep until I return home from being on duty," Anwar says.

Militants have attacked the Pakistani police with car bombs and suicide bombs more than 300 times in the past three years, said Sajid Kiani, superintendent of police in Islamabad. The Islamabad police have been particularly hard hit.

"During the last two and a half years we had around 41 martyrs who laid [down] their lives in different attacks and more than 40 were injured," Kiani said, listing the casualty statistics for Islamabad's police force.

Video: Pakistan's thin blue line

The police are the first line of defense as Pakistani cities reel from a wave of militant bomb attacks that have killed at least 250 people in six weeks. The militants have made a point of targeting the police, repeatedly bombing police stations and a major police academy.

Anwar knows the risks all too well.

Last summer he almost died when a suicide bomb was detonated in Islamabad's Rescue 15 police station, the compound where police units deploy on emergency calls coming from the public.

"I was taking off my uniform to unwind because my shift had just ended," Anwar recalls. "Suddenly there was a blast. Two of my comrades died and I was wounded and taken to the hospital. I woke up three days later in the intensive care ward."

It is amazing Anwar survived. The bomb blast pelted the office where he worked with lethal ball bearings, instantly killing the two officers sitting next to him.

The scars from that attack still show on Anwar's forehead, face and right leg. But the ordeal hasn't stopped him from going back into the line of fire.

Seven days a week he mans one of the many checkpoints that have sprouted up around the Pakistani capital in response to the upsurge in Taliban-inspired attacks.

The police officers have no flak jackets. One man does guard duty behind a bunker of sandbags, wearing a battered helmet with a crude grill face mask that would be more useful for stopping hockey pucks than protecting from flying shrapnel.

Police commanders often describe their service as the most neglected branch of Pakistan's security forces when it comes to funding and equipment. Police officers can often be seen at rush hour trying to hitch-hike their way home on the side of the road.

Anwar checks identity cards and searches many of the vehicles streaming through a series of yellow and white concrete barriers emblazoned with the warning "STOP." Any one of these cars -- or even the drivers -- could be rigged with deadly explosives.

"By the grace of God I am not scared," Anwar insists as he waves over another car for a search. "I know that life and death is in the hands of the almighty. He has already fixed a date for our death, which can come even if we stay at home."

"We have a saying here," he adds. "'If you're going to get hit by a bullet, better to take it in the chest than be shot in the back.'"

Islamabad is a particularly tempting target for the Taliban and its militant allies, according to intelligence intercepts made by the police.

"They [the militants] say that killing one person in Islamabad is better than killing 100 or 200 in [the provinces]," said police superintendent Kiani. "The terrorists believe ... that Islamabad is a good target for the impact they want on the government and the public."

At the end of another long shift, Anwar hops on his motorcycle and heads home, with a plastic bag full of his belongings hanging from the bike's chassis.

On the way back, the brightly lit paved roads and leafy villas of Islamabad give way to a muddy, garbage-lined track that winds between the sagging brick houses of one of the lower income communities that surround the Pakistani capital.

Anwar's wife, four daughters and two sons are relieved to see him home.

"Those were the most difficult moments of my life," says his eldest son, Zeeshan, when recalling the suicide bombing that almost killed his father.

Despite the violence, despite the war in Pakistan that is far from over, 22-year-old Zeeshan says he wants to follow in his father's footsteps by enrolling in the police academy.

"If we won't protect the country, then who will?" he asks. "God willing, I too will join the police."