In Iraq, having the wrong license plate can get you killed.
Ammar al-Taei works as a driver ferrying locals along the Karbala-Baghdad route. But recently he ran into problems. “I was taking one of passengers from the Mahmoudiya area in Baghdad to the Adel area but when I got the destination I was attacked on the main road by three people who live there,” the 35-year-old driver explains. “I was able to get out of there because other people came to my aid. But it was definitely an attack with sectarian motives - those guys saw my Karbala license plate.”
After the incident al-Taei swapped his license plates and his vehicle. It cost him an extra US$3,000 to get a car with Baghdad-registered license plates but he says it’s worth it. “I have a family I need to provide for,” he reasons.
Another driver, Amir Hamid, has had similar problems. He says guns were fired at him as he was delivering loads of sand in Mahaweel, in Babel province, and he believes this happened because his vehicle also had Karbala plates. Luckily his car body stopped the bullets.
“Security officers at a nearby checkpoint told me I was hit because of my license plate number. Mahaweel is one of the tensest parts of Babel at the moment,” Hamid explained to NIQASH. However Hamid has yet to change his license – the price of Baghdad license plates is going up and it’s going to cost 27-year-old Hamid around US$5,000 to change.
Having Karbala plates means that the car owner or driver is almost certainly a Shiite Muslim. Karbala is a centre of Shiite religion and religious learning and most locals there are from the Shia branch of Islam. However amid increased tensions and sectarian-motivated violence in Iraq, it is better not to reveal one’s sectarian allegiances quite so openly. Because Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, is well known as a melting pot, home to all manner of ethnicities and religions, having a Baghdad plate means that nobody can really tell what religion or ethnicity you are, or where you’re originally from, simply by looking at your license plate.
Baghdad plates would be considered neutral. In fact, many of the police and security officers deployed at checkpoints on the roads around Karbala say they feel much safer when they see Baghdad plates. The cars from Baghdad are less likely to arouse their suspicions whereas cars from other provinces are checked more thoroughly.
Haider al-Hasnawi is a car dealer based in Karbala. “I travel right around the country but recently I bought myself a Hyundai with a Baghdad license plate,” says al-Hasnawi, who has previously been targeted by gunmen in the Atheem area of Diyala province; the area is becoming known for kidnappings and murders with a sectarian motive.
“Today many people want to buy cars that carry Baghdad license plates so they can protect themselves against sectarian-motivated attacks,” Ayad al-Jashami, an automotive garage owner, explained. “And that’s why the prices for cars carrying those plates have risen. On average you pay about US$4,000 more for the same make and model car if it has Baghdad plates.”
And it’s not just passenger cars seeing this trend. “Vehicles used for commercial jobs like transporting sand or gravel from Karbala’s quarries also cost more if they have Baghdad plates,” says Safaa al-Moussawi, another Karbala garage owner. “That’s happening because of gunmen targeting cars and trucks with Karbala plates, especially on the roads during the night.”
In some cases, the difference in price between a commercial vehicle with Karbala plates and the same vehicle with Baghdad plates is as high as US$10,000. This kind of price difference is impacting on local dealers’ ability to sell commercial vehicles, al-Moussawi complained.
For example, Saad Idris owns a Toyota with Karbala plates and he’s planning to sell his car; he will only replace it with a car carrying Baghdad plates. “With my current license plate, I can’t really do my job because I might be killed,” he explains.
Meanwhile another Karbala local, Safaa al-Ghanimi, is looking on the bright side. He just bought a new car for US$30,400 and yes, it has Baghdad license plates. “I feel safer travelling around the country because cars with provincial plates often get into trouble, especially on roads outside their own province,” al-Ghanimi says. “And I know I can easily sell this car whenever I want because it has Baghdad plates.”