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a necessary evil
baghdad’s security checkpoints bringing city to halt

Mustafa Habib
With an increasing number of checkpoints in Baghdad making an already stilted traffic flow even worse, it feels as if the capital’s road network is at breaking point. Stressed and unable to get anywhere on…
19.12.2013  |  Baghdad
On an Iraqi street: They are not checkpoints, they are delay points, one Baghdad driver says.
On an Iraqi street: They are not checkpoints, they are delay points, one Baghdad driver says.

Iraqi man Othman Mohammed left Iraq 15 years ago and now he’s a very well travelled world citizen. Only a few hours after his arrival back into Baghdad though, he was already proclaiming that the capital’s traffic jams were the worst in the world.

As for the taxis and the way they plied their trade, this was even more upsetting, Mohammed said. “The fares charged here are unlike any others in the world,” the disgruntled traveller said. “Here the fares may increase during the trip, depending on the traffic.”

Mohammed is not the only person to complain about traffic in Baghdad. Because even though it’s never been pretty – the same situation as in many other capital cities around the world – now it seems to be going beyond what even the locals can stand. One of the major reasons for the continuously problematic traffic is the presence of military checkpoints on Baghdad roads – these have been deployed at the entrances to neighbourhoods, near bridges and on main arteries since 2006, and the start of sectarian violence that almost led to a civil war in Iraq. But their numbers seem to keep increasing. There are currently thought to be around 200 checkpoints in central Baghdad and many drivers go through more than three a day.

The situation is getting so bad that on Monday this week, the Ministry of the Interior issued a statement saying that it had held a meeting to bring together security leaders and traffic officers to discuss the situation.

The result was a number of recommendations such as a committee to follow up on checkpoints’ work and the replacement of heavy concrete barriers with plastic barriers, in order to ease the flow of vehicles. Those manning the checkpoints were also exhorted to work harder to process more cars during peak flows.

The latest estimates say there are well over 1 million cars on Baghdad’s streets, consuming about US$2.68 million worth of petrol daily (as based on local fuel prices, per litre). Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad says that his Ministry distributes 15 million litres a day across the whole nation with about half of that going to Baghdad. “But cars here use more fuel than they should because they move so slowly,” Jihad notes.

As news website Middle East Online reported recently in a story on plans to reduce Baghdad’s traffic jams: “The six million-odd residents of Baghdad are heavily dependent on their personal cars, with little in the way of public transport aside from minibuses and taxis”.

Taxi driver Abbas Jassim said that in 20 years on Baghdad’s roads he had never really minded the congestion. It was the checkpoints that made his life so difficult.

“They are not checkpoints,” he fumed. “They are delay points! Sometimes the security forces just stand in the middle of the street and don’t inspect any cars. But still they force all the cars to go through, one by one.”

Another taxi driver, Hamid Qassim, explains why the cabbies have to charge fares the way they do. The checkpoints are to blame, he says. “It depends on how long a trip takes. If it takes more than half an hour we need to increase the price,” he told NIQASH.

It has become very difficult for locals to get to any appointments on time. So much so that, if you ask around, it’s hard to find anyone getting anywhere punctually.

“I have to leave my house at 6:30am in order to get to the office on time, at 8:30am,” says Maysa Sabah, a member of staff at the Ministry of Culture. “I have to pass through seven checkpoints and many traffic intersections. I actually prefer to take a taxi earlier in the week. It makes me really tired.”

Although it’s obviously hard to prove, some locals now say that the traffic jams are having an impact on Baghdadis’ mental and physical health. Queuing for hours causes tension, stress, high blood pressure and heart disease, they say. It’s quite common to see people getting involved in fist fights on the streets too, next to their cars near checkpoints.

"Being stuck in traffic can cause all sorts of health problems,” agrees Baghdad doctor, Salam al-Khafaji. “The main reason though is the environmental pollution – you’re breathing in exhaust fumes for longer.”

A spokesman for Baghdad’s traffic police, Najm Abdullah Jaber, was quick to admit that the checkpoints and various road closures were causing big problems in the city. “It’s become a real problem,” Jaber told NIQASH. “But we can’t sacrifice security by removing the checkpoints.”

But it’s not all about the checkpoints either. “There are an estimated 1.5 million cars in Baghdad,” Jaber added, “and the city wasn’t built to cope with that many vehicles. There is also a need for more roads and bridges.”

Meanwhile MP Mathhar al-Janabi, who is a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence, was demanding that some of the security checkpoints be dismantled and removed. He – and doubtless many other Baghdadis – think they may only be slightly better than useless; they don’t seem to have prevented the recent rash of violence, which has included car bombings, in the city. They also use outdated and arbitrary methods of inspection.

“The explosions haven’t stopped which is enough evidence of the checkpoints’ ineffectiveness for me,” al-Janabi told NIQASH. “The checkpoints only delay our people, they do not protect them.”