“I feel like a Palestinian standing at an Israeli checkpoint,” Saleh al-Talaqani says, while looking helplessly at his sick daughter. “I feel like I am not even in Karbala right now.”
Al-Talaqani was waiting at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Karbala’s old city, the historic centre of the southern Iraqi city. His daughter, who had recently had surgery, was in pain and he was on his way to a doctor with her and her baby when he was stopped at the checkpoint. There he was told he couldn’t go further in a vehicle because of a ban on vehicles inside this part of the city. And that his daughter’s ill health wasn’t enough to exempt al-Talaqani and his car from this ban.
Seeing his daughter in such pain, and unable to walk, the Karbala man began to curse. He began swearing at the policemen and asked them: “Should I carry my daughter and her baby on my back? Should I take them back home? She cannot walk!” he cried angrily.
This is not a rare incident. Karbala houses some of the sites considered most holy for Shiite Muslims and as such, it is a major destination for religious tourists. In 2008 several bomb attacks in the crowded streets of the old city near popular shrines – including one where a female suicide bomber killed at least 42 and injured 58 – led police to erect concrete security barriers and secure entrance roads to the area where several holy sites are located.
Some gates were left open for pedestrian traffic and others were reserved for vehicles with special permits allowing them to enter the old city. Now many locals and visitors complain they have to walk as far as two kilometres to enter the old city, which is not just a religious destination but also Karbala’s economic centre.
The old city contains several neighbourhoods and according to statistics from 2007, about half a million people live there. Meanwhile the real estate prices here are some of the highest in Iraq, mostly thanks to ever-increasing tourism – this has also led to hotels and luxury retailers building inside the old city.
And ordinary people like al-Talaqani have become victims of what they say is an opaque and unfair process at the checkpoints into the old city.
“Patients [like my daughter] are victims of this,” al-Talaqani says. “The Karbala health services provide an ambulance so that the sick can be brought out of the old city. But there’s no service for the sick if they want to go back to the doctor.”
There were buses which travelled to the holy sites inside the secure area,” al-Talaqani explained. “But these have certain routes and a fixed schedule.”
The Karbala authorities have given out vehicular permits to some government officials and also to certain religious figures; hotel owners and businessmen living in the city also have permits. But the process of granting the permits seems random and confusing to most locals; they also claim the process is tainted by corruption and favouritism.
“I watch the cars of the wealthy and of influential officials go in and out of the city as if they are first class citizens,” al-Talaqani complains, stuck at the checkpoint with his sick daughter. “But the rest of the people of Karbala have to walk as if they are third or fourth class citizens.”
Inner city resident Ali Hussein Obaid thinks al-Talaqani has a point. “Officials, influential people and their relatives can enter the city with their cars easily and they are treated with the utmost respect,” Obaid says. “They can tour the city any time they want, in air-conditioned and fortified cars, because they have these permits. The rest of us can’t even bring our sick, or injured, relatives into the city. You can’t even bring your furniture into the city, if you need to, without getting a permit that takes days to be issued,” he says.
Obaid knows this from experience. He lives in the old city and desperately tried to get a permit to enter the security zone in his car. But he was unable to. “Yet other people get these permits without any effort at all,” he notes.
And, according to some locals, the distinctions appear to go deeper than just vehicular permits. Abdel-Halim Yasser, who lives in the working class neighbourhood of Ghadeer in Karbala, well outside the old city, believes that when it comes to security issues, Karbala’s authorities think the people inside the old city are more important than those outside of it.
“The strict security measures are motivated by a sense of superiority and class distinction,” argues Yasser, who heads an artistic association in Karbala. “If we all agree that there are serious threats to the security of the people of Karbala, then why do officials provide protection to certain parts of the city and leave other parts without any protection? Do they think that somehow those who live outside the old city will be protected from terrorist attacks by angels?” he asks angrily.
Some locals have tried to fight the authorities on this issue. One community leader, who preferred not to give his name, told NIQASH how he and some other citizens had gathered a petition asking for the removal of some of the concrete barriers from within their neighbourhood. Due to better security conditions, they were no longer needed, he said, and they were making life unnecessarily hard and difficult for everyone.
“The response we got was shocking,” he says. “The official [we spoke with] said: if we remove these barriers, would you like to be held responsible for any future attacks? You could be held liable and put in prison, he told us.”
The community leader also speculated on some of motivations behind maintaining the security status quo and keeping the barriers up. As shop owners, who didn’t get vehicle permits or whose customers found it too difficult to reach them, were being forced out of their stores, others were able to move in and make a profit. “It’s like forced displacement,” the community leader says, noting the high real estate prices.
This was confirmed by Atheer Majid, a wholesaler at a market located inside the old city. “Our customers don’t come here anymore and it has become so difficult for us to transport our goods,” Majid explains, adding that, along with many other local merchants, he had been forced to open another branch outside of the old city. “Only tourists visit the market now and we’ve incurred huge financial losses because of the siege on this city. I’m seriously considering closing my shop if this goes on.”