Wed, Aug 06, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Baghdad traffic is a mess due to a lack of controls


Sergeant Suhail Naji is not having a good day. He has got a whistle in his mouth and is blowing on it for all he's worth, but the yellow and green truck making its way towards him clearly has no intention of stopping. Neither has the taxi coming from the other direction -- nor, for that matter, has the line of traffic bearing down from the left.

Before long the intersection on Bab al-Sharqi, one of Baghdad's main thoroughfares, is a stationary mass of vehicles each playing a part in a deafening symphony of tooting horns, screaming drivers and revving engines.

It is a familiar scene in post-Saddam Baghdad. Even by the low standards of other Middle Eastern cities, the traffic in the Iraqi capital is off the scale. Everyone ignores the traffic lights; roundabouts are driven around according to whichever route seems quickest and the lane markings might as well not exist.

A few blocks away from where Sergeant Naji is fighting his losing battle, Rashid Hamid, also a sergeant, has given up and is hiding from the punishing glare of the afternoon sun in a shelter. Next to him sits a white Suzuki motorcycle which he once used to chase traffic offenders. He doesn't bother with that any more.

Most of all Sergeant Hamid, who has been a traffic policeman for 18 years, wanted his gun back -- which the US authorities in Iraq will not allow.

"How will people take us seriously unless we have a gun?" he said.

According to him some of the drivers causing mayhem on Baghdad's roads probably do not even know they are breaking the law. The Directorate of Traffic was looted during the conflict, and driving licences can now be bought on any street corner for a few dinars.

"The traffic police, there are not enough of them. And they all go home early -- if they turn up at all," Walid Kadem, who has been a taxi driver in Baghdad for 10 years, said.

Kadem also claimed to be the only driver in Baghdad who never jumped the traffic lights -- except perhaps in some circumstances.

"Sometimes with the sunlight," he said, pointing at the sky, "it is difficult to see if the lights are working. Then, what can you do?"

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