Directing traffic while dodging bullets in Baghdad
Baghdad’s traffic police have a hard enough job as it is, what with blistering summer temperatures and the generally unruly behavior of motorists in Iraq’s often-gridlocked capital.
Their job has just become a lot harder.
In the last week, 11 of their number have been killed and more than two dozen injured in a sudden surge of attacks in different parts of the city, making it clear that traffic police are being deliberately targeted.
Some have been mown down in drive-by shootings. Others have been blown up as they drive to and from work by “sticky bombs” attached to the underside of their vehicles. Improvised bombs have destroyed the little work cabins in which they take shelter. Hand grenades have been tossed at their mobile patrols. And bombs have exploded at two traffic directorates.
In the latest attack Monday, a traffic policeman was badly injured when a sticky bomb blew up his car as he arrived for work.
“This is the new strategy — to target the traffic police, who represent law, order and civilization,” said Dhia Subhi Rahman, a traffic policeman at one major intersection. “But people measure the civilization of any country by its traffic, so we will never stop doing our job.”
Nobody knows for sure who is carrying out the attacks, although many point at Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is suspected of attempting a comeback as U.S. troops draw down and the political deadlock over the formation of a new government drags on.
“We think it’s Al Qaeda,” said Army Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. “We think they are trying to improve their freedom of movement in the city.”
Though traffic police have long been more exposed than most citizens to the dangers of random roadside bombings, this is the first time they have been singled out for such a persistent assault.
“Now we have a new worry, because we don’t know which car will open fire at us,” said Ali Mohammed Abdul Rahman, 41, a 19-year veteran.
The government has announced plans to distribute bulletproof vests and AK-47 assault rifles to traffic police to help them defend themselves. Some traffic police were carrying the weapons Monday, using them to wave at motorists as they directed traffic flow.
The attacks are inevitably taking a toll. Though most traffic police appear to have remained on the job, one major traffic circle in western Baghdad was jammed with cars. None of the police normally on duty were in sight.
Traffic policeman Qaiser Abdul Hussein has been showing up for work on the eastern side of town, but he said he has been deeply affected by the loss of his cabin, blown up in an attack last week, leaving him with nowhere to take rests, eat snacks or keep his clothes.
“I felt so sad and sorry for it. I felt my house was destroyed. Now, without it, we feel as if we are in a desert,” he said. “I started to be afraid indeed, and I don’t have that enthusiasm to work like before.”
Most of the traffic police interviewed, however, vowed they would not be deterred from their mission to bring at least a semblance of order to Baghdad’s streets.
“We know what are the intentions of the terrorists who want our country to live in chaos,” said Arkan Salim Hatim as he paused from directing traffic at another major intersection. “They want to create unrest, disorder and mayhem in the streets so that they can be in control.
“But let them do what they can. We will never stop our work,” he said. “Let them kill us, and others will come instead of us.”
Salman is a Times staff writer.