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IRAQ: Buckle up, Baghdad!

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When you ride in a taxi in Baghdad these days, you might be surprised to see that the cabdriver is wearing his seat belt. He may even ask you to buckle up.

For Iraqis, it’s a positive sign that laws are being enforced in Baghdad, where violators of the seat belt rule -- in effect for years but rarely, if ever, enforced -- face fines of $25 for going beltless. Traffic rules also prohibit the use of cellular phones while driving, ‘to reduce accidents and preserve people’s lives,’ as the website of the General Directorate of Traffic Police states. A violation of that rule also carries a $25 fine.

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In Baghdad, enforcement of such laws is seen as a means of bringing some calm to this chaotic city. In the Sadr City neighborhood of northeastern Baghdad, we’ve had masked men roaming around alleyways with machine guns while battling U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. Snipers have been firing at people from rooftops. U.S. helicopters have fired missiles into residential areas

On the western side of the city, people lock up their homes and public markets close by 5 p.m., so everyone can be assured of being inside before dark. Not a day passes in Baghdad without at least one bomb going off or a few unidentified bullet-riddled bodies being discovered.

Mohammed Yunis, an inspector with the traffic police in central Baghdad’s Karada district, said the seat belt rules began to be enforced a couple of days ago and that the response showed that Iraqis were eager to follow the law. ‘About 80% of the drivers have their seat belts on, so it’s not impossible to implement these laws here,’ he said.

Not everyone whom Yunis pulls over during his daily inspections is happy to comply. One driver worried about how he would escape if he were strapped into his seat and a roadside bomb or car bomb went off nearby. ‘How can I run away if my seat belt is on?’ the driver asked. ‘It’s safer to keep it off here in Baghdad.’

Yunis was stumped. ‘He did have a good argument,’ the traffic cop admitted.

Another driver challenged him to explain the purpose of enforcing seat belt rules when Baghdad has so many bigger problems to tackle.

But these drivers appear to be in the minority. In fact, seat belt enforcement is so popular now that even the security volunteers known as the Sons of Iraq are getting in on it. These are the security workers who guard checkpoints in cities and towns across Iraq and are paid about $10 a day by the U.S. military. The Sons of Iraq movement was designed to give police and soldiers an extra set of eyes to prevent insurgent activity, but now it’s also being used to enforce traffic rules.

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At a Sons of Iraq checkpoint in western Baghdad’s Mansour district recently, one of the security guards told a driver to put on his seat belt. The driver was surprised. ‘This isn’t your job,’ he told the guard. The guard replied, ‘No, it’s not my job, but if you don’t buckle up, I will report you to the traffic police.’

The driver drove away with a smile, and his seat belt on.

--Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad

Photos by Saad Khalaf

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