Queues stretch kilometres in either direction at the Al Soqour checkpoint. (photo: نقاش)
Ramadi doctor Raed Samir is seriously considering moving out of the central Iraqi province of Anbar. But it’s not because of the security or the economy there. It’s because of the hassles he faces so often at a military checkpoint on the road going between Anbar and the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
The much-criticised checkpoint, called the Al Soqour checkpoint, which in English translates to the falcon’s checkpoint, often keeps cars waiting for up to six hours. Those who abandon their vehicles to get out and walk must hike several kilometres in the 50-degree Centigrade summer heat before they can catch a taxi and continue their journey into the capital.
The amounts of money I am spending on cabs is about the same amount of money I was spending to pay rent while we were displaced.
The process of checks at the station, around 22 kilometres southeast of Fallujah, has been criticized as unnecessarily long and painful. “The humiliation I see there and the way people are deprived of their rights makes me confident that there are other agendas at work here,” Samir told NIQASH. “They are trying to punish the province. They want to keep the province empty and they are pressuring well-qualified people, teachers, and doctors, so they don’t want to return to Anbar. In fact, a lot of local people won’t return to Anbar, they have moved elsewhere - to Baghdad or to Iraqi Kurdistan to escape this harassment. All the local people from Anbar are treated as suspects at this checkpoint. It makes us feel as though all of Anbar is a prison.”
Anbar is a Sunni-majority province and during the security crisis, major swathes of the province were taken over by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which bases its radical ideology on a form of Sunni Islam. There were fears that, even after the Islamic State, or IS, group were pushed out of Anbar they would continue to mount attacks on Baghdad by basing themselves in the neighbouring province.
But many locals believe that the Al Soqour checkpoint takes things too far. The checkpoint, located in the Abu Ghraib area, opens at 7 in the morning and closes at 7 at night. Queues of vehicles waiting to pass stretch several kilometres on either side. And many locals from Anbar, who must cross here regularly, believe the measures taken constitute collective punishment.
The trip now takes so long that some enterprising locals are doing great business selling food and water to those who must wait so long. Taxi and truck drivers who cross here have had to increase their prices because of the potential delay; they say they often have to stay overnight on one side or other of the checkpoint because it is impossible to cross it twice in one day.
Omar al-Ani works at a government-run bank in Baghdad but lives in Fallujah. To get to work on time he has had to leave his own car at home and he walks around six kilometres daily in order to cross the checkpoint and get to his desk punctually.
“We didn’t realise that returning home to our city [Fallujah] would cause so many problems,” al-Ani told NIQASH. “The amounts of money I am spending on cabs is about the same amount of money I was spending to pay rent while we were displaced. It’s ridiculous. All this walking in the high temperatures is also so bad for me.”
The worst thing about the checkpoint is what happens when one finally arrives at what appears to be a bottleneck: the section where a sonar device and sniffer dogs check the car for possible explosives. Everyone in the queue for the first time thinks something special is happening at this section of the checkpoint. But it turns out to be just routine, al-Ani says.
“The security men are stationed there to check identity cards and we find out they’re only doing what all other checkpoints do,” al-Ani notes angrily. “It seems clear this is a deliberate thing, to exert pressure on the people of Anbar.”
Visiting the checkpoint is a little intimidating: The site is run by a force made up of men from the Baghdad operations command, which looks after the city’s security, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of the Interior and some members of the Shiite Muslim militias.
All of the security staff here have military uniforms and often they wear face masks too. None of them are friendly and using a gruff tone of voice, they do not distinguish between men, women, the children or elderly. Everyone is treated with equal rudeness. Those who cross often say whether you get through or not may also come down to the mood of the guards, no matter what documentation you have or the purpose of your trip.
The other problem at the Al Soqour checkpoint is its frequent closures. It has been shut down on holidays and special occasions several times.
All of this has caused Anbar locals to send many complaints to their local representatives. It is clear that Baghdad needs to keep out extremists carrying car bombs; but the situation has become untenable and is impacting too much on local people’s lives, especially if they’re originally from Anbar, they say. There have been several delegations of politicians visiting the checkpoint in person and they often leave after extracting promises and proposals to ease the queues. But the situation never changes and in fact, some locals say, it is getting worse.
“Every time I go to Baghdad I have to carry so many papers to verify I am not a wanted criminal nor am I the relative of any wanted criminals,” complains Abdul Rahman al-Jumaili, an elderly man who lives in Fallujah but who must journey to Baghdad’s hospitals regularly.
What made al-Jumaili particularly angry one day happened after he entered into conversation with one of the security staffers, telling him that surely it would be better to help people cross at the checkpoint and thus win the sympathy of locals, rather than aggravating them.
“Then I was surprised to be informed that today I would not be allowed to enter Baghdad because the road was closed and only locals and those with jobs in the city were allowed to enter,” al-Jumaili says.