Dispatch: Checking points

Green Zone checkpoint. Photo by Iraq.ir.

One of my first days back in Baghdad, I tagged along with a 
photographer to go cover the handover of a small base from the 
Americans to the Iraqis up in northeast Baghdad.

I’d been in the neighborhood years ago on an embed and I was curious 
how it might have changed, and of course it was a chance to get out of 
the bureau and cruise a bit more around Baghdad.

We never made it.

Our two cars were stopped at a checkpoint outside Sadr City, the 
officer there claimed our weapons permits weren’t in order and we had 
to turn back, while meanwhile dozens of other cars sailed right through.

I later was told that the checkpoints can be a bit nasty to people 
escorted by security companies and riding in armored cars – like we 
were – which unfortunately have their own orange license plates.

It’s mostly a hangover from the bad old Blackwater days and some well 
justified animosity towards private security contractors. Apparently 
it helped not to ride in the armored cars, the “soft cars” tended to 
get pulled over less often.

I was little less tolerant of the whole checkpoint phenomenon after 
heading down to Najaf about a week later. The roads through the south 
are just rotten with checkpoints. Most of the time they just wave you 
through, but entering a major city can be a bit of problem.

We’d called ahead to Najaf and our names were supposed to be on a list 
at the checkpoint, butof course they weren’t. Once they figured we 
had weapons, we were pulled over and there was a great deal of paper 
checking, calls on cell phones and earnest discussions with the police.

Meanwhile, trucks piled high with suspicious boxes, taxis crammed with 
people and microbuses carrying coffins sailed right through unchecked.

“They always check the wrong people, who knows what that guy is 
carrying,” said one of the Iraqis with me. You always see lots of 
coffins on the way to Najaf, it’s where the big cemetery is.

We eventually made it through, and a few hours later found out that 
the checkpoints had missed something. Something huge.

The final toll for the day was 119 in 10 cities across the country, 
but most of the dead were in two southern cities: Basra, in the 
deepest south near Kuwait where bombs killed 30. And in Hillah, where 
a diabolically sequence of blasts killed 50.

Hillah. I’d been there last week to check out the nearby ruins of 
Babylon. Actually, I’d just been there two hours earlier, it was on 
the way to Najaf. It was also on the way home.

To get inside Hillah or drive the hundreds of kilometers down to 
Basra, the bombers would have had to pass through dozens and dozens of 
checkpoints. They must not have had orange license plates.

At nearly every checkpoint, there’s someone with a “bomb detector.” 
The New York Times and others have already done stories exposing this 
swindle, but they’re still being used and every time I see them it 
fills me with frustrated rage.

Basically, they look like a plastic pistol grip with a radio antenna 
sticking out and a coaxial cable running from the handle to a pouch on 
the belt. The officer must walk forward and wave it back and forth and 
it supposedly detects bombs and explosives.

Except it doesn’t, at all. It has no power source. It’s a fraud. They 
cost more than $10,000 each and have a big “made in UK” written on the 
side as though that’s a seal of quality. It’s basically a ruthless con 
on a struggling developing country seeking a silver bullet to their 
runaway bomb problem.

The British government is trying to get them banned from being 
exported. And they are everywhere.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t stop the blasts that day. We were coming 
back from the Najaf when we found out, sitting in a roadside 
restaurant, watching the images flash across the TV screens.

The bombs had gone off just 45 minutes away, the TV crew with us 
immediately headed off to go cover the aftermath, but my security team 
said, looks like we’re going to have to find a way to bypass Hillah. 
And my thought was, should I be bypassing the news? Shouldn’t we be 
heading to the bomb scene to report?

But I was actually ok with it.

So we decided to swing through Karbala and head up north from there, 
until we smacked into the Karbala checkpoint, where they promptly 
pulled us over because we were carrying weapons.

And they wouldn’t let us pass. We had the permits, we had the passes 
identifying us as journalists. They could see I was a foreigner, but 
it was nothing doing. Alert levels were high, we were not allowed into 
their city. Nevermind the fact that a bunch of journalists, a 
foreigner, and their registered security were not exactly the standard 
profile for a suicide bomb squad.

After an hour of negotiations, arguments and pleading later, we gave 
up, turned back to try to find another way home. Just then the phone 
rang and it was our stringer in Karbala, whom we’d call earlier for 
help.

He said it was ok, he knew someone in the city’s operations center, 
had made a phone call and we could go through. And sure enough we 
could. Some guy, sight unseen, had made a phone call, and now we were 
ok, after they had categorically refused as passage for an hour.

Fuming, we drove on, while one of Iraqi security guys just kept 
sputtering that the whole country was “fashel,” a failure. It didn’t 
help his mood much when we were stopped and pulled over at another 
checkpoint shortly afterwards in some tiny village.

We made it out 20 minutes later. Only to be stopped a few villages 
later, in this case the delay was because one of the police officers 
had a bet with another about how the ammo slide on a 9mm pistol worked 
and one of our guys was carrying one.

By this time, the guys were just beside themselves. It was almost more 
infuriating when the checkpoints no longer stopped us as we got closer 
to Baghdad. Why not? Why not now? Why were we so dangerous to the 
others but not anymore?

And always with the blasted, stupid bomb detector giving them a false 
sense of safety and achievement. At one checkpoint policemen at a 
checkpoint had made his own detector with an antenna and a piece of 
metal – a crude copy of a fraud.

Finally back in Baghdad, what a relief. A three hour journey had taken 
4.5 hours and it was dark and we just wanted to get home. Just 10 
minutes from the office, we sail through another checkpoint when the 
policeman knocks on the window to stop the car.

He wants to know who I am. “He doesn’t look Iraqi.” No I don’t. But 
that doesn’t mean you should stop the car. Especially if it’s just 
curiosity. The others sorted it out, I stayed quiet, too tired and 
angry to speak.

They were checking all the wrong points. They had built a system of 
checkpoints that couldn’t stop the bombs, but instead focused on all 
the wrong people.

That morning, unbeknownst to us, 10 policemen were shot dead at 
checkpoints around the city. Men disguised in janitors’ overalls 
pulled up and killed them with submachine guns fitted with silencers. 
Many were killed while they slept.

As we arrived home, one of my companions turned to me and said, what 
do you expect? Who would want to be a policeman in this country? Only 
the least educated and the most desperate.