Surviving Those Checkpoints



March 8, 2007. Perhaps someone knows how many checkpoints there are in Baghdad these days, but all I know is that it's almost certainly in the thousands. Mostly we hear about these from our Iraqi staffers, who are scattered throughout the city in a fairly good cross-section of neighborhoods. Abu Besma was stuck in his house for two days this week, because it didn't make sense to go out in his mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood. Just to get out of the immediate half-dozen square blocks in his neighborhood on the western side of Baghdad would have taken him 45 minutes, thanks to repeated car searches by Iraqi police.

Abu Abdallah's Sunni neighborhood was better when he left for work, but he went through so many searches on the way in that he decided to stay with us overnight for a couple nights; his 13-year-old son was the oldest male at home to look after the womenfolk. Abu Mustafa lives in a Shia neighborhood, but to get home from his mother's house, on one street he had to go through a series of three checkpoints every 600 feet, with a complete search of car and person each time. It's not a neighborhood full of possible enemies, but it is rich in targets--or what Sunni extremists regard as targets, Shia civilians. (In the latest onslaught, attacks on Shiite pilgrims making their way to the holy city of Karbala for this weekend's Arbaeen celebration has left dozens dead.) "I wouldn't want to have been a Sunni at some of these police checkpoints," said Mustafa. One of our drivers, Abu Omar, left work headed home the day before yesterday and made it through two Iraqi police checkpoints, but at the third, they took a look at his car documents, and at his Iraqi agencija, or identity card. The car documents weren't in his name, because the car belongs to us, and the agencija had his very Sunni tribal name. He had done nothing wrong, of course, but the car documents gave the cops an excuse. "At first the policeman was very hostile," said Abu Omar. "He said he was going to turn me over to the [Shiite] Mahdi Army." That checkpoint earlier in the day was hit by a suicide bomber, killing seven policemen, the officer told him. Abu Omar showed him his ID, argued that as an employee of Americans, he was clearly a supporter of the government, as of course the Shia police are. The cop softened, and Abu Omar offered him 20,000 dinars, about 15 bucks, and he turned friendly. "He told me how I could get an agencija that doesn't show my Sunni name." And not a forged one, either, but a real one. That's what you call To Protect & To Serve. Before Abu Omar left, the policeman said, "Watch out, the next checkpoint could have Mahdi Army with it." Instead, Abu Omar turned around and came back to our place, preferring to sleep in our increasingly cramped staff barracks, rather than braving the streets. He still seems a bit shaky a couple days later. Mahdi Army militias are associated with the death squads, and while they've been a lot less active since the Baghdad Security Plan started, such killings have hardly ceased altogether.

More than three weeks into the Baghdad Security Plan, the city remains half-paralyzed by checkpoints; every trip anywhere becomes a major enterprise. And every encounter with a checkpoint, anywhere, is a possible encounter with death and disaster. Even with the right documents, things can go terribly wrong. A car bomber could attack the tailback that inevitably forms. Someone could make a false move, and a nervous soldier could open fire for fear of an attack. And then, the guys with the guns have complete power over anyone who passes by them. What would have happened had Abu Omar no provable connection to Americans and, by extension, the Shia government?

There have been security plans before, of course, but this one is different, bigger, and longer in duration. The commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, General David H. Petraeus, at his first press conference today, said the full surge of troops won't be in country until June. "It's just in its early stages," he said. "It will take months before all of the forces are on the ground." Other such operations have lasted days or a few weeks. Another difference: putting huge numbers of troops onto the streets in the past has at least temporarily managed to diminish terrorist attacks, and particularly car bombings. But in this instance, perhaps to make a point at a critical moment in the political debate, the insurgents seem to have redoubled their efforts and suicide bombings have been going on at an alarming pace--especially considering the proliferation of checkpoints. Putting up with the increased risks and the annoyances is hard to reconcile if the streets aren't actually less safe.

So far, knock wood, we haven't lost anyone. We have nearly a score of Iraqis working for us here, and some of them have had near misses, but none have been kidnapped, wounded or killed. Let's hope they all survive the many checkpoints ahead. People often ask us journalists, how can you work there? The better question is, how can they?