Baghdad by checkpost

Checkposts are a fact of life in the city, and as long as they are, they will be run by the rules Iraqi forces see fit.

I’ve lost count of the amount of checkposts that I’ve had to cross just getting around Baghdad.

They look menacing. The crossings are manned either by police ‎or the army, but whoever controls them the only real difference is the colour of the uniforms.

The men who stand guard have the same intense but oddly bored look on their faces. The Oakley sunglasses and flak jackets give them a muscular look and Iraqis often joke that the only thing the Americans really left behind was a clone army: Iraqi at heart but US in dress.

The checkposts have been a frustrating part of life in the capital for years now, and people hate them for how they foul up the traffic and how they can sit waiting, in some cases for an hour at a time, in packed cars to drive through.

That complaint hasn’t gone unnoticed by Iraq’s government, which issued a decree demanding that the commanders of the checkposts let people through quicker in order to ease the traffic burden. But these men have a dangerous job. Drive by shootings targeting checkpost soldiers are not uncommon and car bombs often explode.

It’s incredibly difficult to defend yourself against a suicide bomber. They have nothing to lose. Detecting car bombs is also difficult. According to a report in the local media, bombmakers here have come up with ways of masking explosives to make them even more difficult to find.

They can place the explosive in the fuel tank of the vehicle and direct the fuel into the engine via the windscreen wiper fluid case.  It takes some basic engineering but it can be achieved easily. Because the windscreen wiper fluid case holds little liquid the car has to be driven slowly and filled regularly by the driver.

This kind of behaviour is what ‎Iraqi security forces are looking for now. Anything that marks a vehicle out as being suspicious. Despite that, the car bombs continue to explode and the attacks are getting bolder and bolder.

In the past 24 hours, al-Qaeda-linked fighters have mounted ambush attacks on the Iraqi army, driven car bombs directly at checkposts and – in one case – destroyed a key bridge linking the north of the city to other provinces by driving a truck bomb onto the middle of the crossing.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant, believe that the army and police force are Shia dominated and are bent on destroying Sunni Muslims in the country. The government has long publicly denied this and claims it is representing all sides. 

The checkpost commanders are jittery as a result of such attacks. We speak to the commanders on a regular basis trying to get permission to film them at work. You can take hours trying to do so, and it’s often refused.

You get the feeling that these  men can sometimes act as if the post under their command is a personal fiefdom and can be very defensive over anyone lingering too long or wanting something they are not willing to give like filming permission.

But here is the question. Can you, when you’re the frontline force, afford to be lax or even less stringent in your vigilance knowing your colleagues die every other day as the car bombs continue? 

That’s really the crux of the matter. The people of Baghdad may hate these checkposts. Security experts may question how effective they are. I may get frustrated at not being able to film them at work, but they are a fact of life, and as long as they are, they will be run according to rules the Iraqi forces see fit to enforce.

As I write this, I’m informed that our permission to film has been declined. So off we go to find somewhere we can film these frontline forces who have one of the most dangerous traffic policing jobs in the world.

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