Escalating violence in Iraq has seen increased security measures instituted in the capital Baghdad. Today locals are not always able to move freely from one area to another. To enter neighbourhoods that are not necessarily their own, they have to show a special card verifying their place of residency, be accompanied by someone from that neighbourhood with such a card or take an oath at a security checkpoint promising that this is indeed where they live and that they are not a terrorist.
It has gotten to the stage now where locals have started making fun of the procedures. One oft-told joke is about the “indulgence” that must be granted before anyone can get into their own home. Indulgences were given out by the Catholic Church to parishioners if a sin had been forgiven.
Joking aside, many people in Baghdad believe the new security measures are only adding to the conflict, causing further divisions between various sections of the city and fuelling feelings of sectarian conflict.
For example, Yassin Mohammed lives in Baghdad\'s central Karrada neighbourhood. Last week he went to visit a sick uncle who lives in the Amiriyah neighbourhood, in the west of the city. Much to his surprise, security personnel at a checkpoint in Amiriyah declined to let him enter. “They told me they had strict instructions not to let anyone enter, who did not live there,” Mohammed says.
After an hour and a half, the security staff finally told him they would let him enter if he could get one of his cousins to come out and get him. That person would then be able to bring him into the neighbourhood. Mohammed did as he was told and was eventually able to visit his uncle.
And Amiriyah is just one of the suburbs where these orders were issued. About a month ago similar orders were issued to security personnel in Ghazaliyah, Adel, Athamiyah and Dawra too. But those restrictions have not only been annoying for strangers like Mohammed; locals are also suffering.
Another Baghdad man, Safaa Hadi, lives in Adel and one day, upon returning home, he wasn’t allowed back into his own home. Security forces asked to see his residency permit before they would allow him in. This is an official document issued by Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior to all households in the country, usually containing the full name and address of the head of the household.
Hadi’s problem was that he lived in a household of five – his father, his brother and his three sons. They all work outside Adel but they only have one residency permit between them. “We weren’t sure who should get this document,” Hadi explains. “So we agreed that the one who finishes work first should keep the permit with him. Then he could pick up all the others on the way back from work – and so on, and so on, until we all got home. But it’s far from easy,” Hadi complains. And on that particular day, the cunning plan didn’t really work at all.
A local taxi driver, Omar Naji, tells the story of one of his recent fares: he was taking an older woman and her three daughters from Amiriyah to Dawra to visit the family’s son. On the outskirts of Dawra he was told he had to drop his passengers off because he was not a resident. However neither were his passengers.
After a heated argument security staff told the woman she would have to contact her son and get him to come and collect the family. “The officer reacted very violently,” Naji says. “He said, ‘how can I tell if you are a terrorist or not? I can’t let you go in here. I have orders not to allow anyone who is not a resident in here!’”
Happily the incident ended well and the woman and daughters were allowed in when the son turned up.
NIQASH contacted the Interior Ministry in Baghdad to enquire if they had had any complaints from Baghdad locals about the new security measures. Nobody wanted to give an official statement but one senior administrator, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained that the measures had been introduced to better protect citizens because they found that most of the attacks were organised by extremists outside their own neighbourhoods.
The official admitted he wasn’t completely convinced by the new security measures. But he also said that as civil servants they had no choice but to institute the orders given them.
“Investigations into various bombings have shown that often they’re carried out by strangers, far from their own homes,” confirms the spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, Saad Maan. “And the recent escalation of violence has forced us to take these measures.”
Not everyone in the Iraqi government agrees though. “These procedures are simply illegal,” Kurdish MP, Hassan Jihad, a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence, told NIQASH. The committee considers the new security measures unacceptable. “Restricting the freedom of movement of Baghdad’s people is a violation of their rights. These measures need to be reassessed.”
But that may take some time. And in the meantime the people of Baghdad must continue to wait.
As they are doing in the Saidiya district, in Baghdad’s south, where there’s a long queue of pedestrians waiting to be scanned to enter the district.
Amjad Jalil is one of these, waiting somewhat impatiently in the heat of the sun.
“The security men ask us to show our residency cards to check whether we live here,” Jalil told NIQASH. “But they do actually allow people without cards to enter sometimes, if they take an oath saying they are a resident.”
Meanwhile at least one Baghdadi in the queue has come up with a solution. A man, who wanted to be known only as Dawoud says he has simply decided not to visit any of his relatives in the Ghazaliyah area anymore. It’s just too time consuming and frustrating, he says.
“These days visiting relatives is a dangerous pastime,” he said. “Locals here have gotten used to all sorts of strange security measures,” he added. “But I doubt we will ever get used to these.”