An army checkpoint in action in one of Baghdad's northern suburbs. (Source: Iraqi Ministry of Defence) (photo: وزارة الدفاع العراقية)
Like many residents of Baghdad, Ala Abdul-Sahib gets a little anxious whenever he drives toward a checkpoint. The capital city is filled with checkpoints manned by police and military at which security personnel are supposed to stop and check vehicles to see if they might be carrying explosives or other dangers.
However, over the past few years, the Iraqi capital’s checkpoints have also become dangerous places: Ideal spots for extremists to catch as many locals in one place as possible, in a city where many residents avoid crowds for exactly that reason.
Abdul-Sahib has more reason than many to be scared of check points. He once survived an explosion at a checkpoint and still remembers it well.
“I saw death with my own eyes and every time I come close to a checkpoint, I feel like I am seeing it again,” he explains.
His fears may well be justified. An increasing number of checkpoints have become targets for extremist bombings. Just last month, three out of four major bombings in Baghdad happened at checkpoints in the neighbourhoods of Rashidiya, Shaab and Kadhimiya. Many locals also remember Ahmad al-Khafaji, an MP who was killed at a checkpoint in the Kadhimiya neighbourhood.
Local authorities in Baghdad acknowledge the dilemma that checkpoints present. On one hand, these stops are necessary to stop car bombs. On the other hand, they themselves are becoming targets.
“The checkpoints are a big problem,” confirms Saad al-Matlabi, a member of the security committee in Baghdad's provincial council. “The Islamic State group is often targeting them and they have become a trap for the people who have to gather around them.”
Al-Matlabi admits that nobody has really come up with a solution to this dilemma yet. The only thing he suggests is that Baghdad – and the Iraqi security forces in general – need better intelligence. Most other analysts agree.
In the past, the mukhtar - Arabic for community leader - of any given neighbourhood was aware of who all of the residents were and various comings and goings.
Security expert Mustafa al-Taie suggests that Baghdad needs this again. “When it comes to factors like suicide bombers or car bombs, this would help to control suspicious activities,” he told NIQASH.
Iraqi security forces have said they are working on a number of different solutions. One is the Baghdad security barrier, which was to involve kilometres of concrete barriers surrounding the city, and another was the Saqr Baghdad system, which was to see vehicles in Baghdad registered and fitted with electronic tags. Al-Taie also mentions the so-called Roboscan system, which would see large scanners patrolling the roads and randomly scanning vehicles for contraband, weapons or bombs.
Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has also talked about measures that should be undertaken after the tragic bombing of a shopping mall in the Karrada neighbourhood in early July, which resulted in over 300 dead.
However no moves appear to have been made on any of these measures because of corruption and political stalling. Which means that checkpoints remain Baghdad’s most common, and increasingly dangerous, landmark. And in fact at many of the checkpoints personnel are still using the erroneously named “magic wand” bomb detectors that were proven useless long ago.
For obvious reasons locals have been upset and disappointed that no alternative to the checkpoints has been found and that officials are insisting on maintaining them. One of the things al-Abadi said he would do is remove more of them. But apparently he has been under political pressure not to do so, until a viable alternative is found.
The country’s Minister of the Interior, Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, actually said that this was one of the main reasons he resigned after the Karrada bombing. He had tried to convince his colleagues that checkpoints were useless and possibly even worse than useless. His frustration on this topic and his inability to change the situation on the ground was one of the reasons he had to resign, he said. This saw al-Ghabban become the first very senior official figure to comment on this.
There have been some ingenious suggestions made. One comes from a local engineering company.
“The idea is to scan every car in Baghdad once a day in a pre-set geometric pattern,” Khamis al-Shammari, a company representative, explained. “This could be done in a way that doesn’t disrupt traffic or cause cars and people to crowd together in one place.”
“What would be most preferable though would be to strengthen intelligence efforts, using surveillance cameras,” says al-Shammari, whose company’s plans have been rejected by local authorities. “These could detect where the car bombers are coming from as well as suicide bombers and that would deter those who manufacture the devices inside the city.”
Al-Shammari says he is continually surprised that Baghdad still has so many checkpoints. Like most residents of the city, he thinks there must be some better alternative.