Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Perspective: A wrong turn, a wrong checkpoint, a wrong ID card can mean death

Above: A member of the Iraqi security forces at a checkpoint in Baghdad.

At a checkpoint leading on to the airport highway in west Baghdad yesterday, a policeman blocked the traffic. Dressed in a blue checked-uniform, Kevlar helmet, a Kalashnikov slung on his shoulder and a whistle in his hand, the last button of his uniform was missing, exposing a hairy stomach that hung over his military belt.

The sun was setting quickly and the policeman shouted, blew his whistle and pointed his gun at a queue of impatient drivers ordering them to stay in line.

Something was happening but none of the drivers of the dozens of cars waiting in the early evening heat knew what it was.

About 30 gunmen milled around the checkpoint. Two young men in Iraqi army uniforms sat on the front of an armoured personnel carrier. Three men, wearing blue shirts and dark blue trousers stood next to a green SUV.

A further dozen gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms, red berets and carrying the insignia on their shoulders of the Ministry of Interior commandos stood in the shade of concrete blast walls that make the checkpoints.

The commandos are accused of being nothing but a Shia death squad, so when one of them, wearing weight-lifting wristbands, passed between cars looking at faces the drivers' heads sunk into their chests and they looked away.

One driver suggested that others join him in driving on a parallel road that passed through west Baghdad neighbourhoods, assuring others that the area had become safe.

"Ami [my uncle] do you want to kill us," one driver said, raising his two hands. "The roads are filled with fake checkpoints killing people on the haweya [ID card]."

"And what do you know about this checkpoint," answered the man and nodded towards the gunmen. "Look at them, they are militiamen."

In that exchange lies the lottery of life in Iraq today. A wrong turn, a wrong checkpoint, a wrong ID card can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

Read the rest at the Guardian