Baghdad today: safer, unstable and corrupt
What is life like in Iraq seven years after the beginning of the war? Parliamentary elections have been held and US troops have withdrawn from the streets. Part one in a series on Iraq: Baghdad through the eyes of a police officer.
Government official or suicide bomber, they will have to get past him first: officer Mohammed Abdullah, a 36-year-old father of eight, checkpoint guard at the ministry of oil in Baghdad. Some may consider him cannon fodder.
All the roads around this contemporary fortress of armoured watchtowers, this maze of concrete blast walls raised in protection against the bombers, lead to him. He stops the cars, searches them, and, with a quiet wave, approves passage. Ministers, diplomats, oil barons; the new Iraq goes through his hands.
A fortnight after Iraq’s second parliamentary election on March 7 and less than six months prior to the withdrawal of US armed forces, this was Mohammed’s perspective on his country: it is safer than it has ever been in the past seven years, but politically unstable and corrupt.
Security in the hands of locals
"I observe those who race for the oil contracts," Mohammed said. "The Chinese are the winners; the Turks are working their way in. The Americans now have seven contracts, including three handed to the company of the outgoing ambassador. I see it all happen before my eyes," said the guard in front of what is still commonly referred to as the 'Ministry of Greed' or Wazaret al-Lafad. After Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, this was the only ministry the US troops guarded when Baghdad was looted.
Today, no Americans can be seen in the streets. Tanks and soldiers hardly leave the army base near the airport, Camp Victory, from which they should start withdrawing by the end of August. The US armed forces are only visible in their giant helicopters gunships, or while escorting diplomats, ramming through the city in their armoured Chevrolets.
Iraq’s security is now in the hands of locals such as Mohammed. This week, he received yet another training certificate from the police academy. He learned to operate the latest gadget in bomb detection technology. Iraqis have been equipping all the city’s roadblocks with these ADE651s. It is a gun shaped device with an antenna that is supposed to detect explosives such as C4 and Semtex. It was also the subject of a major scandal when reports revealed that at least half of the devices, sold by a British company, didn’t work. But Mohammed swears by it. “It works, I actually saw it myself,” he said. In Baghdad, safety is all about perception.
Profession for sale
Take the job of police officer, for example. They are responsible for security at large. The public position is for sale, and Mohammed knows its price. “For 2,000 US dollars, you’re in. With the guarantee to get reimbursed in case you fail the test.” To a Westerner’s eye this may look like corruption, but Mohammed thinks it shows progress. “When I became an officer six years ago, everybody thought I was crazy. It was the most dangerous job in the world. That has changed. Now people even want to pay for this job.”
Mohammed lives in Sadr City, home of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose militia, the Mahdi Army, as well as other extremists used to chase officers like him. Policemen were considered a symbol of the progress that had to be stopped. "I never came home, I slept at the police station,” Mohammed recalled. “Once a month, at most, I crept into my house to give money to my wife and children. I didn’t even dare to have my clothes washed at home, because someone might see my uniform hanging out to dry. We would have been killed."
Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the police itself fought in the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. Government arms were used in a series of executions. Some of the victims were found tied in police handcuffs. "Officers, too, are made of flesh and blood. They have fears, they feel love and hatred,” Mohammed said. "Sometimes we would rat on each other. If a group of Sunni colleagues were on their way to a specific area, other colleagues would tell terrorist groups to finish them off. But those days are over. Now, we patrol side by side - Sunnis and Shiites."
The Iraqi army has regained control of Sadr City. Thousands of militants have been arrested and Mohammed was able to return to his wife and children. Once a week, his uniform hangs on the clothesline.
No majority rule
Life in Sadr City is still not easy. Power cuts are a recurrent issue. As in most of the districts in Baghdad, electricity cables dangle in front of the houses like strands of spaghetti. “It is four against one,” Mohammed joked, explaining that for each hour the power is on, it is off for another four.
Five of his children go to school; the other three are still too young. Teachers have been returning to Baghdad after they had been the target in threats, kidnappings and killings between 2005 and 2007.
Iraq is far from finished, Mohammed affirmed. The coming months will be crucial. After the recent election, neither the incumbent Shia prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, nor his predecessor Iyad Allawi, a Shiite who works with Sunni politicians, has enough support for a majority rule. A coalition will have to be formed, maybe even one including Moqtada Sadr.
Mohammed hopes Maliki will be in charge again. Iraq is safer now than it has been for years because of the prime minister, the devout Shiite said. In his opinion, the mortar shells launched at polling stations on election day only proved that enemies of democratic politics are the enemies of Iraq. “We need to work together again. The only alternative is the revival of conflict.”
But even if that were to happen, Mohammed would still be standing guard at the oil ministry.