Iraqis do a first search, and then Americans perform the final checks and vet visitors' ID cards and badges. Then come the weapons-clearing chambers, sand barrels that you point the gun into while clearing any rounds from the chamber. On all sides are Alaskas and Tescos--contraptions of wire and sand of various styles--making for a grim landscape through which much of the population must pass at one time or another.
The whole point of the exercise, repeated thousands of times a day, is to prevent attacks, especially from suicide bombers, and to minimize the deaths of soldiers and protected persons. Letting others in with courtesy and efficiency is way down on the list of checkpoint priorities, as one cabinet member of the Iraqi government found out last week. Minister of State Adnan al-Janabi, an intimate of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, tells NEWSWEEK that he was so incensed by his treatment by American soldiers as he tried to enter the Green Zone to go to a cabinet meeting that he resigned in protest.
Probably no single aspect of the American presence in Iraq has so infuriated Iraqis as their treatment at these checkpoints. The lines are long, and as everyone in Iraq now knows, a long line is an invitation to a bombing. Tempers fray among Iraqis and the beleaguered soldiers--usually reservists, often on their second, extended tour in Iraq. Iraqis are convinced the Americans only care about protecting themselves, not them. Iraqi troops and police, who have been so aggressively targeted by insurgents for the past few months, have imitated the Americans' methods, which only heightens their sense of alienation from their own people. And as Iraq gears up for elections, checkpoint madness is multiplying around police stations, possible polling places, public places of every description.
There's good reason for all these checkpoints. In Baghdad, there were at least four and possibly five bombings on Wednesday alone: at a bank where police were lining up for their pay; at the Australian Embassy, killing a small child walking across the street to get his family's breakfast; at the airport, and outside a military base. That was only moderately unusual; most days there are at least one or two such attacks.
Still, Iraqis are understandably frustrated. An angry Al-Janabi not only resigned from the government, but is now denouncing the American military as an anti-Iraqi occupation army. He is hardly a raving anti-American. An insider since the days of the former Coalition Provisional Authority and one of the country's most prominent Sunnis as leader of the huge Janabi tribe, he was given the minister of state portfolio in Allawi's government. For a while he served as justice minister. And he remains the campaign chairman for Allawi's slate in the elections, the Iraqi List.
On Jan. 12, Al-Janabi was on his way to a cabinet meeting when he came to checkpoint 18 of the Green Zone, one of several that Iraqi VIPs use to vary their routes as they try to avoid assassination. He says he properly identified himself as a minister and showed his ID badges, but got into a dispute with the soldiers at the checkpoint. A lieutenant called over to adjudicate decided, Al-Janabi says, to place him under arrest and bound his hands in plasticuffs. "My hands were tied in the way they do it to terrorists. The lieutenant, he knew who I was. We are all under threat, any minister, we live every hour under the threat of being assassinated, and this is how they treat us."
Al-Janabi refused to say what led to the incident. "I don't care what the circumstances are," he says. "I'm a minister of a state that is supposed to be sovereign under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546 [which formally ended the occupation of Iraq and created the Iraqi Interim Government]. The forces of occupation have no respect for me."
A spokesman for the American military in Iraq called the incident regrettable and said an apology has been given to Al-Janabi. The military added that it was changing procedures at checkpoints to avoid similar incidents.
The minister's experience is hardly an isolated incident--nor even the worst example of it. Hachim al-Hassani, another minister, of industry and minerals, who was a long-time exile in the United States, has suffered two humiliating incidents. While in the Governing Council, he was denied entry on his way to an important meeting (Iraqi government offices, especially at the cabinet level, are nearly all in the American-controlled Green Zone). When he protested, a soldier lost his temper and punched him in the face, according to Al-Janabi. Al-Hassani confirmed the story, saying, "Yes, I was punched by a soldier. I was very calm with him. I just kept talking to him. He kept punching me, and I kept talking to him. The situation was very dangerous. We handled it very wisely at that time. I kept thinking I still have major things to do for my country. I was thinking about the [Iraqi Islamic] party. I was thinking about my country. It could have been much worse."
As someone who lived for many years in Detroit, Al-Hassani is hardly someone who doesn't understand or communicate well with Americans. It's even harder for the many Iraqis who show up at checkpoints with no English, no badges and no clear idea of what's going on. "The problem is probably that the soldier wanted to go home. I think he wanted to create some situation where he would be sent home," Al-Hassani said. "I asked that he should get court-martialed but I never followed up. I forgot about it. I hope he's back in his country."
Al-Hassani is a lot more forgiving than many would be. A month ago, as an interim government minister, he had a similar problem. He entered by checkpoint 2, one of three favorite Green Zone entrances for suicide bombers to attack, so traffic is channeled with one lane for VIPs, military, embassy traffic--to prevent congestion and tailback into the Baghdad streets where vehicles are especially vulnerable--and the other lane for everyone else. As a minister, he's entitled to the VIP lane, but a young soldier told him to go back. When he tried to tell them who he was, says an aide, "They just laughed at him. Go back in line Mr. F------ Minister." Al-Hassani, who served as a government negotiator in Fallujah, and who is now in charge of rebuilding that city, has escaped numerous assassination attempts, so his place in line isn't just a matter of insisting on perks. In that incident, the military wrote him a letter of apology, according to an aide.
"Every single minister has been treated in an unacceptable way by soldiers," Al-Janabi says. At every cabinet meeting, he says, there would be at least one minister who arrived late, and hopping mad at his treatment outside.
While Al-Janabi may have resigned from office, he has no intention of not running for the National Assembly and continuing to chair Allawi's campaign. "Every government we've had in various degrees has been imperfect but better than what was before it--Bremer, the Governing Council, [the] Interim Government, these are all stages of better and higher representation." One of his key platform planks will be a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, something the Americans have so far refused to provide. It's a strange demand, coming from an associate of Allawi, who has said timetables play into the insurgents' hands. "We don't have to be terrorists to be against the Americans," Al-Janabi explains. "It's just representing how Iraqis feel."