“Respect - if you want to be respected.” That is the slogan most commonly found on checkpoints in the city of Basra in southern Iraq. And although it sounds good, local taxi driver Hussam al-Mohammedawi, who boasts that he knows almost all the streets in Basra like the back of his hand, doesn’t like it.
“I read this slogan every day and it scares me,” he says. “Somehow it has a threatening tone. Of course we should respect laws,” he argues. “That’s our duty. But what if the people on the checkpoints don’t respect the law? What if they don’t respect the ordinary people?”
The city of Basra is full of checkpoints, many of them stemming from a major 2008 initiative to bring peace to the now-relatively-prosperous city. At first the locals welcomed the checkpoints because of the potential they had to enforce the law, prevent terrorist attacks and uphold peace. But now the checkpoints are just one more sign of the imbalance of power and lack of trust between local security forces and Basra’s people.
Al-Mohammedawi tells NIQASH the story of how he was stopped at one checkpoint because his car looked too new and too much like the cars the local police drove themselves. He says he was dragged out of his vehicle, blindfolded, insulted and beaten before checkpoint staff searched his car and eventually let him go.
“I will never forget this very disturbing incident,” he says.
And this is just one of many examples that indicate the level of mistrust locals in Basra have toward their security forces.
Local women have their own tales to tell. They believe they’re often harassed by the men at checkpoints. “They always find ways to harass us,” local school teacher Mariam Abdul-Hamid complains. “They start by searching the cars driven by women, then they sometimes say indecent things.”
“There’s a big gap between the people and the security forces,” Adel Aziz, the head of Basra’s security, agrees. “It’s because of the way that everyone used to feel about the security forces [under Saddam Hussein]. There’s a deep rooted perception that the role of security forces must be negative.”
“Citizens are still afraid of the police,” he adds. “That’s why the two groups just don’t cooperate. I don’t think it’s possible to change that, and to build bridges between the two groups, without some sort of re-education campaign where both the public and the police learn about their rights and their duties.”
Something like this did start to happen in 2005 with what was described as a community policing project. It was an attempt to form a more informal kind of police force made up of members of the local community, with members drawn from local colleges and universities. It was supposed to see citizens participate in the process of law enforcement so that they could help resolve their own problems.
The project only really began properly in 2011 but was suspended quickly by local council in Basra because the members had no real legal authority and because the real police said that the community police were interfering in their work.
Aziz confirmed that the project had been suspended because it was considered to overlap with the work done by neighbourhood or tribal authorities.
What Basra really needs more of, Aziz says, is “vice squads that deal with people in a highly professional way and which can coordinate with provincial councils to strengthen the security apparatus.”
However, he did add that the project had been good for building trust between locals and security forces and that he would be requesting that it be reinstated.
However it’s also clear that “creating confidence” between these two parties requires a balanced relationship – and that is something that can only be achieved by mutual respect for the law and for each other. This could be difficult especially because community leaders remain opposed to the idea.
“The decision to create these forces was illegal because it was not ratified by the provincial council,” a community leader on the Ashar local authority, Hussein al-Mayah, said. “That’s why the council suspended the project.”
“It is the duty of the provincial councils and the heads of villages and neighbourhoods to follow up on the needs of different areas and individuals,” al-Mayah explained. “We don’t need to have spying eyes on us all the time like we used to, during the days of Saddam Hussein.”
Local policemen have also talked about how hard it is to do their jobs because of mutual distrust.
One policeman who wished to be known only as Ahmed told the story of how he had spotted a veiled woman shoplifting at the local market.
“I tried to stop her but she started to shout at me and she threatened to accuse me of sexual harassment,” he explains. “So I couldn’t do anything. I had to let her go. Our society’s tribal and social norms put me in a position where I couldn’t arrest her. And the Iraqi law wouldn’t actually protect me if she did make those kinds of accusations.”
“Sometimes we’re just forced to deal with people in this way,” he added, shrugging.
Tribal traditions, which come with their own legal code and ways to resolve criminal issues, also prevent policemen from doing their jobs.
“Security forces are afraid of enforcing the law because of tribal customs. That’s why it’s so difficult to uphold the law,” Khalaf Tharb, a community leader in Zubair, west of Basra, agreed.
And in the meantime, the people of Basra will still have one question in mind every time they approach a checkpoint: Enemy or friend?
This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq. The mentor for this story was Ahmad Waheed.