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Baghdad’s Beacons of Civility

Times Staff Writer

Death squads move with impunity after curfew. Abductions are rampant, but kidnappers are rarely caught. Corruption has poisoned every layer of government, yet few have faced criminal charges.

Double-park a car on a Baghdad street, however, and you can be sure of this: The law will hunt you down.

Abdel Nasser, a 32-year-old traffic officer, describes himself as a “mujahid,” or holy warrior, battling evildoers in a city without signs, traffic lights or speed limits. In this pandemonium of sputtering wrecks and speeding U.S. military Humvees, directing the flow of traffic is a religious duty, he said.

Nasser and his colleagues are beacons of civility in the choppy waters of Baghdad traffic, where the term “riding shotgun” is taken quite literally. Until recently, they valiantly defended deadly intersections with only a whistle. Now they have a handgun too.

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“Despite the danger, we feel we are securing our country,” said Nasser, a police officer who was reassigned after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Although his previous job was gratifying because it gave him authority, his present duties give him a sense of well-being, he said.

“I go home feeling proud,” he said. “Other officers serve the government. But we serve the people.”

Iraqis may complain of corrupt clerics, greedy politicians and murderous security forces, but for the most part they remain devoted to this cadre of stoic traffic wardens, who even during the Saddam Hussein years had a reputation for integrity.

“The traffic law is the only thing nowadays that functions correctly,” said Mustafa Hatim, a 32-year-old electrical engineer. Hatim said he got into trouble with the law only once. He had parked outside a downtown ice cream parlor and returned to find a $12 ticket on the windshield. The offense: a sloppy parking job.

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“They work hard doing their job, and I thank them,” said minibus driver Khamis Yousif, 51. “They are committed to their duties, and they deal with us as brothers.”

Munir Nouri, a 43-year-old used-car-parts salesman, commended them for their good manners. They “talk to you before ticketing you,” he said.

Wearing neat blue-and-white uniforms with matching blue hats, nearly 3,500 traffic officers labor on the streets of the capital, working seven-hour shifts in 120-degree heat.

From a small concrete shelter, Nasser watches vehicles flow through a flag-decorated traffic circle in the city’s Karada district, near a bridge to the fortified Green Zone. Black funeral banners are draped on a wall behind him. Across the street, sheep munch on weeds and garbage as boys play football in the dust nearby. Key Baghdad arteries come together in this intersection, and Nasser controls his fiefdom with discreet, tightly choreographed movements.

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Nasser is fastidious about his uniform. His shoes are brushed and his shirt is ironed every day. The hat and the three stripes on his shoulders keep his back straight and his gaze steady.

Although his job is meaningful, it is also increasingly dangerous, he said. Bombings and gunfights make Baghdad streets the meanest in the world, and dozens of his colleagues have died on the job. A few days ago, one of his friends was shot and killed while guarding an intersection near Nasser’s corner. The bilingual website for Iraq’s traffic police, www.iptraffic.org, includes a page with pictures of slain traffic police officers.

Drivers are armed and edgy, and road rage is common.

Once, Nasser stopped a man who wanted to drive through the intersection before his turn.

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“He said he was late for work,” Nasser recalled. “I told him, ‘It’ll just take two minutes.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not waiting.’ He got out of his car, and we started boxing each other.” After five days in jail, the driver apologized.

Politicians, soldiers and police officers are the biggest scofflaws, drivers and traffic officers say.

“They drive very fast, pay no attention to traffic regulations and expect others to give them way, regardless of the conditions of the street,” said Ammar Abbas, 30, a taxi driver with a university degree in physics. “If other drivers don’t make way immediately, they hit cars or shoot randomly.”

Shiite Muslim militias also ignore the rules of the road, said traffic officer Husham Hassan, 25. “Those people don’t respect us.”

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During Hussein’s rule, there was less anarchy -- and fewer cars -- on the streets. Then, Iraqis mostly drove Russian Ladas, Brazilian-made Volkswagens and beat-up Chevrolets. Today, big BMWs, large Toyota pickups and huge GMC SUVs, most of them owned by foreigners, drive bumper to bumper with beat-up wrecks steered by Iraqis.

The red double-decker buses from London, once ubiquitous, have all but disappeared. A few remaining buses are covered with large ads for Iraqi cellphone companies and French cigarettes.

The American-led invasion also brought Humvees, tanks and checkpoints to Baghdad, transforming the ancient capital into a maze of concrete and concertina wire. And the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority overhauled the Iraqi traffic code, making it illegal to make reckless U-turns or to drive cars with “microphones that play sounds of animals,” according to the rules posted on the traffic police website.

Some Iraqis, however, have sought counsel from their religious leaders.

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“Is it permissible to violate the red traffic light when all side streets are completely empty from traffic, and there is no danger?” was one question posed to the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, on his website.

“It is not allowed to violate these laws,” was the cleric’s response.

“Is it a must to follow the traffic law?” read another question.

“It must be followed,” was the reply.

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Still, even clerics do not wear seat belts in Baghdad, a transgression that carries a $10 fine but which is rarely enforced.

The most common offense is driving on the wrong day. Because of chronic gas shortages, the government last year enacted a law allowing Iraqis to drive in Baghdad only every other day, according to the license plate number.

Salah Mehdi, a successful car dealer who lives in a middle-class Shiite neighborhood, was recently ticketed 30,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $20, for driving his car on the wrong day of the week.

“I tried to bribe him,” said the 24-year-old, happily acknowledging his own unprincipled ways. The officer rejected the bribe. “But he did not get angry,” Mehdi said with admiration.

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Mustafa Mukhtar, a computer engineer, tells a cautionary traffic tale. Recently, Mukhtar, 28, and a friend double-parked on Sinaa Street but didn’t pay the fine immediately.

After a month, Mukhtar checked the website, which provides users up-to-date information about the status of their tickets. The fine had doubled.

Mukhtar now logs on to the traffic police website regularly to see whether he has outstanding tickets, and has taught his friends to do the same. Even though there’s no collection effort as yet, you can’t sell the car unless you pay your ticket.

“Driving in Baghdad is very hard,” he said, offering his best advice for anyone getting behind the wheel in the capital: Check all mirrors and “expect the unexpected.”

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louise.roug@latimes.com

Saif Rasheed and Shamil Aziz of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.


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