Stability Coming Back to Streets of Baghdad
Inspector Adnan Kadhum of the Baghdad traffic police says he noticed the change about 10 days ago: The city’s notoriously unruly drivers suddenly started obeying his commands. They stopped when he signaled for them to stop; they went when he signaled for them to go. “Before, you found hardly anyone listening to you,” the 27-year police force veteran says. Kadhum, 48, spent his days flailing around in 105-degree heat, sometimes waving his pistol in a futile attempt to make motorists follow his commands. “Now, by barely moving my hand, I get respect.”
Iraq’s interim government, which began exerting influence even before it officially took political power last week, seems to be restoring a semblance of order to Baghdad’s lawless streets. It’s unclear how much the new respect for authority reflects Iraqi pride in getting their government back from U.S. occupation forces and how much it reflects fear of the new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, and his beefed-up security forces.
Either way, the difference is visible. Iraqi police patrols are roaming the city in brand-new Toyota Land Cruisers. Baghdad’s streets are still chaotic by any reasonable standard. But there are noticeably fewer cars moving at high speeds, weaving in and out of traffic or careening the wrong way down city boulevards. Most of all, more than a week went by without a major insurgent attack in the city Ã¢€” until a gunbattle broke out Wednesday in central Baghdad.
This is a much more impressive achievement than it sounds like to most Westerners. Not to get overly Thomas Friedman on you, but during the month I spent in Egypt in 2001 or the time I spent in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq in 1990-91, hardly anyone seemed to take traffic signals or traffic cops seriously.
All’s not wine and roses, however:
But the government’s efforts to exert authority also are threatening a freewheeling, post-Saddam Hussein atmosphere that some Iraqis had come to enjoy and others to depend upon. “There is a lot of bureaucracy and red tape,” says Sadeq Rahim, 32, a reporter with the independent Baghdad newspaper Azzaman (The Times). “You need to win the lottery to get an interview with a minister” in the interim government. Rahim says the U.S. occupation government was much more cooperative with Iraqi journalists.
For other Iraqis, government efforts to restore order after a yearlong free-for-all are more threatening than frustrating: They say their livelihoods are at stake. In May 2003, three twentysomething friends from the al-Mansour district in west Baghdad Ã¢€” Iraqi army Sgt. Zahir Majeed, law student Mohammed Adnan and waiter Mohammed al-Tamimi Ã¢€” pooled $2,000 to open a roadside stall. For more than a year, they have been selling soft drinks, candy bars, cigarettes, canned goods, jars of jam and ketchup, whatever passing motorists and pedestrians might want under a blue awning supported by metal poles. “Thanks to the Lord, we made a good living,” says Adnan, 21. But the roadside spot they picked for their stall turned out to be government property. For a year, amid the chaos that followed the collapse of Saddam’s regime, it didn’t matter. Local authorities had bigger problems to deal with than a few wayward merchants. But a month ago, the city government informed them that they were breaking the law. They paid one corrupt city official $500 for what turned out to be a bogus business license; it did nothing to get the bureaucrats off their backs.
Two weeks ago, two more officials showed up with an earthmover and what the men call “a whole army” of police to tear down their stall and the stalls of some vegetable merchants down the road. A melee ensued. Local residents swarmed into the street to support the merchants. “It was a war between the people, the store owners and the government,” al-Tamimi says. The vegetable dealers fired their AK-47s into the air. The police dispersed. But on Monday, the three men received another notice: a final warning to close their shop. Around the corner, merchant Walid Abdulmajid Ahmed, 60, says officials are trying to shut down his stand, on which he displays eggplants, tomatoes, grapes, oranges, plums and other fruits. He was told the stall is illegal because it is too close to the street. “We are doing clean business,” Ahmed says. “Why are they pushing us to join the insurgents or the thieves?”
Perhaps too much order, imposed all at once, is too much. And, certainly, they don’t want to reach quite the level of bureaucracy that has become the norm in urban areas in the West any time soon.