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
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.