Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Checkpoints: Baghdad's Russian Roulette

Security-aware Iraqis try to minimise the risks as they negotiate their way through Baghdad.
By IWPR Reporters
If there is one thing that has become the defining feature of everyday life in Baghdad, it is the checkpoint.



They may be a familiar sight in other regional states where tensions run high, such as Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but checkpoints are nowhere as important as in Baghdad. The once-diverse Iraqi capital has become a patchwork of ethnic and sectarian divisions separated by concrete walls and countless checkpoints.



The number of official controls has skyrocketed since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003. Around 1,000 now exist in Baghdad, in addition to an unknown number of informal ones set up by various militias and outlawed insurgent groups.



The official checkpoints are run by the defence and interior ministries, and they are considerably better organised since the 2005 elections. Each government control is manned by five to ten soldiers or policemen armed with Kalashnikov rifles and equipped with armoured vehicles or four-wheel-drive cars. Some are permanent, while others are set up wherever the security situation requires.



The two ministries have divided the city's various districts between them. The defence ministry, regarded as a Sunni-led institution, controls the checkpoints in al-Karkh, the Sunni part of Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris, while the Shia-led interior ministry is responsible for security in the majority Shia section of the city, Rusafa, which lies on the east bank of the Tigris.



Iraqi lawmakers have been critical of both ministries, accusing them of setting up checkpoints manned by personnel without proper training or equipment.



Shadha al-Abusi, a member of parliament from the Sunni-led National Accord Front, believes that neither the police nor the army checkpoints are capable of establishing order in the streets.



“They are powerless,” he said, complaining that the security forces “don’t follow a strict military law that holds them accountable when they make mistakes.”



Mahmood Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, blamed the poor performance of checkpoints on the absence of intelligence information and modern bomb detection technology.



Despite such criticisms, officials maintain that the controls play an important part in demonstrating the government's authority on the ground, as well as helping to enforce law and order and ward of militant attacks.



“Their mission is to detect cars without [license] plates and put an end to militias that oppress people,” said defence ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari.



The security forces are supposed to arrest known suspects and drivers who lack the proper documents or have broken the law in some other way.



Askari acknowledged that there were weak points in the system, including lack of training and low levels of literacy among soldiers and policemen. The defence ministry admitted in January that militia members had infiltrated its ranks, and that military law was not being used to punish personnel who broke the rules.



Ayad Ali, a 25-year-old interior ministry employee, serves at a checkpoint in Rusafa. He and his colleagues have no explosives detection technology and receive poor, if any, information on suspicious cars or people from their superiors. All they can do, he said, is double-check cars they think look suspicious. But, he said, “that is not enough to arrest wanted individuals”.



Checkpoints are anything but popular in Baghdad. Although most people recognise the need for frequent security checks, many Baghdadis think the security posts do not make the capital any safer. Those who man them are often accused of causing more problems than they solve. The lengthy procedures create traffic jams, and civilians say they are molested while the real militants get through easily.



“These checkpoints are useless,” said Abdul-Amir Mohammed, a 54-year-old taxi driver. “It’s a mockery. People get delayed because the checkpoint staff don’t know how to check people and don’t have the equipment.”



The checkpoints are a key element of the Baghdad Security Plan, or Operation Law and Order, which began in February and involves US and Iraqi forces in a concerted effort to clear out extremists from the city, district by district. Once that objective has been achieved, the military maintain a constant presence on the ground, installing as many checkpoints as are deemed necessary in a given area. After this, the US forces are supposed to cede control to their Iraqi counterparts but remain in the background, ready to step in if needed.



Colonel Qasim Atta al-Musawi, spokesman for the Baghdad Security Plan, announced at a press conference that the government had imported bomb detection equipment, but so far it had not been used. In May, rumours spread that police were using fake detection equipment in the hope that this would deter insurgents from smuggling explosives.



Under the security plan, the men at checkpoints have been instructed to monitor all cars regardless of how they look, but also to keep an eye out for BMWs and Opels, still the preferred models for suicide bombings.



Stereotypical profiling seems to be weakening the impact of security checks. A BMW carrying young passengers will generally be stopped, but other cars often get through without any checks. However, a number of recent attacks have shown that the insurgents constantly change tactics. For example, to carry out an attack on Mustansiriya University that left dozens of casualties in January, they used innocuous-looking Daewoo and KIA cars.



People in Baghdad are uncomfortable that many checkpoints are located close to shopping and residential areas, since they are often targeted by insurgents.



There have also been complaints about checkpoint officers asking for bribes. Parliamentarian Abusi recalled being stopped at a control in Karkh, where the security forces asked her and her guards for some ammunition.



“My guards were harassed five times at checkpoints even though they carry [ID] badges," she said.



Widad Mohammed, a 50-year-old housewife, was travelling in to Amman when her car was stopped at a checkpoint close to Ghazaliya, west of Baghdad. The security officer asked the driver to give him a teapot he noticed in the car, but the driver refused, stating that he needed it for his passengers.



The security officer yelled at the driver and beat him over the head.



“He threatened to confiscate the car as a suspect vehicle, so the driver paid him off so as to put an end to it,” recalled Widad.



At nightfall when the city goes under curfew, the number of officers manning security posts decreases because the risk of attack is higher.



“I was shot when our checkpoint west of Baghdad was attacked at night,” said Khalil Mohammed, an 18-year-old national guardsman. “The insurgents usually attack us when it gets dark.”



The shortage of men at night makes it easier for insurgents to plant roadside explosive devices and car bombs.



The success of the security strategy is challenged by the barely-concealed mistrust and rivalry between the defence and interior ministries. Often it seems they are in conflict rather than cooperating with one another.



A source close to the defence ministry told IWPR that the two institutions compete to deploy more troops than each other. This, he said, “has a negative effect on their performance and weakens coordination”.



The source blamed the rivalry on sectarian feuding.



Both ministries refused to comment on how decisions are made regarding the location and staffing of their checkpoints. In some instances, the presence of forces from both ministries at one location has created problems, and on occasion this has led to armed skirmishes.



An employee of the defence ministry anonymously said that last January, fighting erupted between the National Guard and a police unit at a checkpoint when the latter refused to follow directions given by the military.



Hussein Jasim, a resident of Ur neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad, recalled an incident in January – before the security plan came into operation – that suggested a degree of complicity between security forces and paramilitary groups.



The incident began with a convoy of 11 cars full of militants arriving in the neighbourhood, and firing mortars at other areas.



Jasim said the attackers told people to stay at home, adding, “They told us they were shooting at the Americans, but in reality they were mortaring civilians in Silekh, a Sunni neighbourhood."



When the militants heard that United States troops were approaching the area, they dispersed and hid in nearby houses.



However, when they realised it was not an American but an Iraqi patrol, they re-emerged and talked to one of the officers, telling him that they were from Shaab, another Shia area, and he let them go without any trouble.



“How did they pass through three checkpoints without being stopped or investigated?” asked Jasim.



A hostage who survived being kidnapped by an armed militia also suggested that police collaborate with groups which abduct civilians and hold them to ransom.



The man, who has a business making soft drinks, and asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said he was kidnapped a few months ago at the Jamila wholesale market. The militants who seized him put them in the trunk of their car, which drove off and then stopped after a while.



“A policeman at a checkpoint opened the trunk but closed it again, as if he didn’t see me,” he said. “I was later released in return for 25,000 US dollars.”



In the general atmosphere of mistrust, ad hoc mobile checkpoints pose the biggest risk to members of the public, as it is impossible to gauge who is waiting there - real security forces, Sunni insurgents or Shia militiamen. To complicate matters, the men in uniform could be genuine policemen, but operating in cahoots with one of the militias. Or it could be Sunni insurgents disguised as security forces.



Marwan, a Baghdad journalist who requested that his last name not be used, remembers driving through the embattled quarter of Dora, south of the capital, with three friends.



"Suddenly we saw a checkpoint manned with police in front of us, and we were afraid we’d be killed because we were all Sunnis," he said. "But the men were Sunni jihadis [insurgents] in disguise, looking for real policemen to kill. We had to show our IDs, and they let us go."



When the Baghdad Security Plan began, people appeared to gain more trust in the checkpoints, and cooperated by passing on information to them. But this positive attitude quickly changed as residents realised that some of the official security posts had been subverted by various militias. There were growing complaints that police at the checkpoints were cooperating with the Mahdi Army, the Shia militia aligned with firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.



Thousands of people have been killed by Shia and Sunni death squads for belonging to the wrong group, and moving through the city these days is like Russian roulette.



This is especially true for people whose names clearly identify them as belonging to a particular group, such as the typically Sunni Omar, or Ali, a common Shia name.



Nearly everyone driving around Baghdad carries two sets of identification with them - their real ID and a fake one. One identifies them as Sunni, the other as Shia. Showing the right document can save their lives.



This art of disguise goes further, so that people arm themselves with an array of paraphernalia which they can whip out as appropriate when they approach a checkpoint.



For example, a Sunni driver coming up to a security post he believes is under Shia control should not only have the right ID to hand, but should also push in a tape playing Shia religious songs and turn up the volume. He should hang a picture of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the most revered figure in the Shia faith, from the rear-view mirror.



He might also slip on the large silver ring worn only by Shias, especially those considered to be descendants of the Prophet, and perhaps carry a “torba”, the round piece of clay that Shias often place on their foreheads when they bow down in prayer.



These and other handy tips are given on the Iraqi Rabita website, designed to advise Sunnis on how to get through Shia checkpoints. The site offers a 12-step plan for Sunnis to disguise themselves, including making sure their house is equipped with a poster of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, a copy of a Shia prayer book, and a set of black clothing as worn by Shia to commemorate special religious occasions.



Sunnis are also advised to brush up on the dates of birth and death of the succession of 12 imams who are central to the Shia branch of Islam. They can learn the right phrases, such as how to curse Yazid, the Sunni caliph whose army killed Imam Hussein in the seventh century. If all else fails, tip number 11 provides an exit strategy, "It is okay to claim that you were previously a Sunni but that you saw the light later and became a Shia."



Ammar, a young Sunni merchant, has been boning up on Shia practice as a matter of survival.



"I’ve even started surfing Shia websites - although I don’t like them - to learn how to recite the 12 imams of the Shias, in the right order of succession," he said. "I have heard that they will ask for them at the checkpoints to see whether I am a real Shia."



Ammar keeps a “latmiya” - a sad Shia chant about the 12 imams - as one of the ring tones in his cell phone, so that he can activate it in majority-Shia neighbourhoods.



In such surreal conditions, even the vigilantes sometimes get confused.



Haki Ismael is a Shia who works as a security guard at a government ministry, but because he lives in Amiriyah, a mostly Sunni neighbourhood, he would show his fake Sunni ID when he was in the area.



Ismael was recently abducted by members of the Mahdi Army in the mistaken belief that he was Sunni. Luckily for him, he speaks with the accent typical of Shias from southern Iraq, and the armed men finally relented and let him go.



Dawood, a Sunni construction engineer, had a similar lucky escape when he was stopped by Sunni militants on the western outskirts of Baghdad.



"They asked me a lot of questions and kept me talking for half an hour. They weren’t interested in the answers so much as my accent,” he said. “Obviously I sounded sufficiently 'Sunni', so they let me go.”