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

Easy Riders on the Tigris

Motorbikes are all the rage in Baghdad as congestion caused by checkpoints, petrol queues and the sheer volume of cars on the road snarls up the city.
By Duraed Salman
A year and a half ago, Hussein Sahib, 37, decided to get himself a car. He chose a Korean model, a small Kia. Like many Iraqis after 2003, he was happy and proud to finally own a car, a luxury many could not afford during Saddam’s time of high import taxes and low incomes.

But the joy did not last long. In the first years after the regime fell, more than a million mainly used cars were imported into the country. Soon traffic jams became a common sight in Iraqi cities.

The demand for fuel increased while the capacity of refineries dwindled due to sabotage and the slow pace at which outdated and destroyed facilities were replaced and repaired. As a result, queues at fuel stations have become endless.

On top of that, the deteriorating security situation has left Baghdad looking like a huge open-air prison. High concrete barriers and checkpoints force drivers to take long detours to get from one part of the city to another.

The roadblocks often change from day to day so even drivers who know Baghdad well get confused and don’t know their way around.

All of this aggravation put Sahib off driving a car. He replaced the Kia with a small blue motorcycle he bought for 250 US dollars.

Now he speedily zigzags through the streets of the capital, his headscarf and his dishdasha, the Arabic tunic, blowing in the wind. He easily passes the long lines at the frequent checkpoints that strangle the traffic and gets to his home in Za'afaraniya, south of Baghdad, much quicker than before.

A trip from al-Sha'ab in northern Baghdad to Bab al-Sharji in the city centre that these days would require a tense hour-long journey by car takes about 15 minutes on a motorbike, he says.

The traffic chaos and the constant fuel crisis are driving a fast-growing motorcycle market in Baghdad. Demand for new models is high, but trading in second-hand ones is also becoming quite lucrative. Much of the latter takes place in the al-Fadhil market in the centre of Baghdad. There, Ali Thamir, 29, sells used motorcycles for between 250 and 900 US dollars. “We make perfect profit,” he said.

The traffic police authorities say they do not have a figure for how many motorcycles have been imported. And since April 2003, there have been no regulations for riders, while license plates are not issued anymore.

No special driver’s license is required, and in Baghdad even children can be seen zooming around, making risky and reckless moves while the police just stand by watching.

Sabir Salim, 38, a traffic policeman, said officers tend to excuse many infringements because life for Iraqis is tough enough as it is. His colleague, Nasir Salim, 26, agreed, “ Me and many of my colleagues never stop or punish motorcyclists.”

Many hold the view that they’re safer than taking a bus or a taxi, since both the latter are regularly targeted by insurgents.

“I want to avoid buses,” said Sa'ad Saif, 36, a technician who used to ride the bus to work but now drives a small, nimble motorcycle, a red box with a watermelon perched on the luggage rack behind him.

Unfortunately, it is not only ordinary Iraqis who have discovered the benefits of motorcycles. They’re often used by burglars and suicide bombers - and insurgents are also known to pack them with explosives and detonate them by remote control.

A policeman on duty in a Baghdad street, who asked that his name not be used, said that two months ago his patrol in the al-Sayidiya neighborhood was targeted by a “motorcycle bomb”. He was injured and a friend was killed.

“I am suspicious about any motorcycle approaching our checkpoint now,” he said.

Duraed Salman is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.

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