Fri, Sep 14, 2007 - Page 9 News List

A wrong ID, a wrong turn, can mean death on Iraqi streets

By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad  /  THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

At a checkpoint leading on to the airport highway in west Baghdad on Monday, a policeman blocked the traffic. Dressed in a blue checked-uniform, Kevlar helmet, a Kalashnikov slung on his shoulder and a whistle in his hand, the last button of his uniform was missing, exposing a hairy stomach that hung over his military belt.

The sun was setting quickly and the policeman shouted, blew his whistle and pointed his gun at the line of impatient drivers ordering them to stay in line. Something was happening but none of the drivers of the dozens of cars waiting in the early evening heat knew what it was.

About 30 gunmen milled around the checkpoint. Two young men in Iraqi army uniforms sat on the front of an armored personnel carrier. Three men, wearing blue shirts and dark blue trousers stood next to a green SUV. A further dozen gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms, red berets and carrying the insignia on their shoulders of the Ministry of Interior commandos stood in the shade of concrete blast walls that make the checkpoints.

The commandos are accused of being nothing but a Shiite death squad, so when one of them, wearing weight-lifting wristbands, passed between cars looking at faces the drivers' heads sunk into their chests and they looked away. One driver suggested that others join him in driving on a parallel road that passed through west Baghdad neighborhoods, assuring others that the area had become safe.

CHECKPOINTS

"Ami [my uncle] do you want to kill us," one driver said, raising his two hands. "The roads are filled with fake checkpoints killing people on the haweya [ID card]."

"And what do you know about this checkpoint," answered the man and nodded toward the gunmen. "Look at them, they are militiamen."

In that exchange lies the lottery of life in Iraq today. A wrong turn, a wrong checkpoint, a wrong ID card can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

Baghdad was never a beautiful city but as cars whizz through its emptying streets negotiating their way around concrete blocks and checkpoints, the city looks more than ever like a battle zone. But despite those indicators of a city at war, the question many Iraqis have been asking is whether the surge of troops brought in to protect them has made any difference to their lives.

With that in mind the Guardian has spent two days traveling the city, gauging that mood.

In the Yarmouk district, like many areas, wrecks of trucks and cars mingle with collapsed metal and sand barriers by the sides of roads. Some people have improvised their own security plan by placing tree trunks in front of shops to stop suicide bombers parking their cars there.

"Of course, there has been progress," said Ahmad, a taxi driver from Qadissya in west Baghdad. "They [the Americans] are painting murals on the blast walls now."

Concrete walls and checkpoints have divided Baghdad into isolated neighborhoods ostensibly to prevent militia attacks. On the surface they appear to have brought some stability and better security. But in many neighborhoods it has come only through a process of sectarian cleansing -- Shiite driving out Sunni and Sunni driving out Shiite.

DANGEROUS STREETS

In Dora, in the south of Baghdad, Sunni extremists have fought street battles against Shiite militias and have now cleansed the area of its Shiite residents. The US security plan has divided the northern part of the district into fenced neighbourhoods with checkpoints at all the entrances.

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