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Colour Coded Society:
Iraqis Use Security Badges to Jump Queues, Gain Favours – And Smuggle Explosives

Mustafa Habib
Carrying the right coloured badge in Iraq can win you respect, privilege and preferential treatment at checkpoints and government departments. But now forgers and criminals are taking advantage of this.
27.08.2015  |  Baghdad
The aftermath of a car bomb in Baghdad. (photo: Ceerwan Aziz / Metrography)
The aftermath of a car bomb in Baghdad. (photo: Ceerwan Aziz / Metrography)

Iraq is a nation of badges. If an Iraqi carries an extra badge – often a coloured laminate that allows entry into certain buildings or offices - life goes very smoothly for him or her. If an Iraqi only has their personal identification, then life may not be quite as enjoyable anymore.

“Nobody can stand in the way of those holding badges,” complains one Baghdad-based construction worker who wished to be known only as Turki. “The badges belong mainly to government employees and members of the military. Nobody can hold them accountable and there is no equality between the Iraqis who have badges and those who don't,” he told NIQASH.

There are many different kinds of badges in Iraq - usually these are laminated cards with some personal details on them that indicate some sort of official position, membership of an organisation or permission to enter certain protected areas. Some badges are given to government employees, others are given to members of the military or security services and most recently, badges have been handed out to members of the volunteer militias, mostly made up of Shiite Muslim locals, who are engaged in the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

Some of the most valuable and important badges in Baghdad are still those related to the so-called Green Zone. This heavily fortified neighbourhood, created as the “International Zone” by the US military after 2003, houses government departments, senior politicians' homes and various international embassies including the US embassy. The US military created a system of badges ranked by colour; the colour originally indicated how much of a security clearance the holder had and how far into the Green Zone they were allowed.

And even back then there were problems with what one US officer described as “badge wasta”, wasta being an Arabic word that could be translated as “who you know, not what you know”.

Another correspondent, in Baghdad in 2008, wrote in the New York Times, that: “More than anything, a badge is a totem of exactly how important you are, of how close you are to the project... This colour of badge will get you to the head of the line (every Iraqi sits and waits). This colour of badge will get you through without a search (every Iraqi gets patted down). Badges are about who’s in charge and where”.

This hasn't changed as much as one might think over the intervening years because locals have adopted the system.

Currently the most valuable Green Zone badge is black – when the US army was in charge, this badge used to be blue. This badge is given to military commanders and government ministers. Family members of senior officials also carry this badge and it allows you to enter the Green Zone with a virtual convoy of vehicles and not have to undergo inspection.

On a lower tier there is a maroon coloured badge; the US military's version was green. This is given to the secretaries of ministers, senior-level employees and military commanders with a lower rank. It allows the badge holder to enter the Green Zone with three cars and passengers.

Finally there is a grey coloured badge – this used to be orange when the US military were in charge – and this denotes that the holder is an ordinary person with a right to enter the Green Zone. Often grey badge holders are employees that work in the Zone.

But obviously the badges in question are just supposed to be used to obtain entry to the Green Zone, not to elicit other privileges or preferential treatment. But of course, they are used for exactly that.

And this is a problem for the many locals who don't have badges. Badge holders are using their identification in ways that were not intended when the badges were distributed and that are possibly illegal.

If a security officer shows his badge at any checkpoint to those staffing it, they will usually allow the officer to pass, his vehicle un-inspected. Often those staffing check points are more junior and they don't dare to question the officer. Ordinary people, who only have their own personal identification, have to go through a far more complex procedure in order to make their way around Baghdad.

“Orders from the military say we should inspect all vehicles, without exception,” explains Ala al-Saadi, a police sergeant who works at a Baghdad checkpoint. “And in fact, senior officers are also told not to show their badges unless it is necessary and not to use them illegally. But many of them do, and so do government officials – which makes us afraid of inspecting their cars,” he admits.

And, al-Saadi adds, he knows that checkpoint staff have been punished after inspecting the vehicles belonging to more senior staff carrying badges.

And there are other potential problems with this. A major general in the Iraqi army, speaking anonymously because he was not supposed to comment on the matter, told NIQASH that forgers had been discovered making fake badges. These were being sold to ordinary people so that they could use the badges for their own ends as well as, possibly, sold to armed groups.

“Some investigations into bombings in Baghdad have revealed that people with badges supposedly issued by the government were involved in the transport of explosives in their cars,” the major general said. “They were not inspected at checkpoints.”

Iraq's Ministry of the Interior has confirmed that badges shouldn't be used for any purposes other than those for which they were distributed. In fact, the major general said, the Ministry had even sent out memos telling all staff to deal equally with everyone, regardless of any badges they may have shown. But apparently it hasn't helped.

Badge holders have also been known to use their identification to obtain better service when dealing with bureaucracy.

A local taxi driver, Qusay Hardi, told NIQASH about his recent trip to the traffic department where he had to change ownership papers for a new car. There were long queues and the service was slow and complex. But, Hardi says, government officials and members of the military and of militias were jumping the queue and getting lots of help from the staff. They also get a lot more respect from the bureaucrats.

“And all of their paper work was completed quickly,” Hardi says. “They made us feel as though we were second class citizens. They make use of their badges to get many privileges and the ordinary people have to suffer. All the usual laws are applied to us and not to them,” he says bitterly.

Meanwhile Qasim Turki, the construction worker, is thinking about trying to buy himself a fake badge. He has to pass through several checkpoints on his way to work every day and a badge would make his life so much easier, he explains. “Life in Iraq is difficult without a badge,” he tells NIQASH. “But on the other hand, I'm worried that if they catch me with a fake badge, I'll go to jail.”


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