Published September 11, 2013
BAGHDAD – Iraqi authorities are resorting to desperate measures to quell rising violence, ordering huge numbers of cars off the roads, bulldozing soccer fields and even building a medieval-style moat around one city in an effort to keep car bombs out.
Many Iraqis question the security benefits of the heavy-handed efforts, lampooning them online and complaining that they only add to the daily struggle of living in a country weathering its worst bout of bloodshed in half a decade.
Over the weekend, authorities began banning several hundred thousand vehicles from Baghdad streets each day in a bid to stop the increasing number of car bombings. Cars with license plates ending in odd numbers are allowed on the streets one day, followed by cars with even-numbered plates the next. Government cars, taxis, trucks and a few other categories of vehicles are exempted from the policy.
"Easing the traffic load on checkpoints will make it easier for security forces to search vehicles without causing long lines," an Interior Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. Big backlogs of cars, he said, "put pressure on the security forces to do hasty searches."
Deadly violence, much of it caused by car bombs, has spiked in recent months as insurgents capitalize on rising sectarian and ethnic tensions. The scale of the bloodshed has reached levels not seen since 2008. More than 4,000 people have been killed over the past five months alone, according to U.N. figures.
Still, many Iraqis think the license plate policy is a step too far.
"Our genius security officials have turned license plates into the sole solution for all of Baghdad's security problems," said Haider Muhsin, a government employee and father of three. He fears he'll lose out on a good chunk of the $400 in cash he earned on the side each month by shuttling colleagues to work, and won't be able to take his children to school on certain days.
Another Baghdad resident, Qais Issa, is now spending much more on taxis on days he can't drive.
"Once again, the leaders of this country are failing. They keep coming up with primitive and useless solutions that add more problems to our life," he said.
The new policy has become a big topic among Iraqis on social media sites like Facebook.
Many posts ridiculed the decision, with some joking that the government will next allow people to go out only according to the first letter in their names. Underneath a photo showing Britain's Queen Elizabeth II getting off a bus, someone quipped that her plate number must end in an even number on an odd-number day.
The al-Sharqiya television channel, which known for its anti-government stance, has launched what it's calling the "Pedal It" initiative, offering more than 2,000 bicycles to Baghdad residents hurt by the license plate limits. It started handing out the first batch of bikes this week.
In June, authorities in Baghdad temporarily banned all cars with temporary black license plates. Those cars made up a large percentage of older vehicles on the roads, but their ownership history is difficult to trace, and authorities feared they were more likely to be used in car bombings. Now only black-plated cars from outside Baghdad are banned.
Earlier this year, authorities ordered the closure of Iraq's border crossing with Jordan, plugging up one of the country's most vital economic lifelines. Officials cited unspecified security concerns, but many residents in the western, Sunni-dominated Anbar province where the crossing is located saw the move as collective punishment for anti-government protests. It was eventually reopened.
In the volatile province of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, the local government recently launched a campaign to bulldoze several soccer fields after a series of deadly bombings during games killed or wounded dozens of spectators.
The head of the local soccer federation, Salah Kamal, said more than 20 soccer fields have been razed, causing the cancellation of several matches and angering young people who have few options for leisure activities.
"The solution should have been providing better security at the fields instead of punishing the youth," he said. Police turned down earlier requests for extra protection, he added.
Authorities in the province have also urged residents to avoid holding large funerals after a series of deadly attacks on mourners.
And north of the capital, authorities have completed more than 70 percent of a medieval-style dry moat around much of the city of Kirkuk, home to an ethnic mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen who all have competing claims to the oil-rich area.
The 57 kilometer (35 mile) -long trench will surround much of the city, according to Rakan al-Jubouri, the deputy Kirkuk governor.
Al-Jubouri said the project will be finished by the end of the year at a cost of $2.7 million, and will significantly improve the security of the city by keeping many car bombs out.
But many Arab and Turkomen residents fear the real goal is to tie Kirkuk more closely to Kurdish regions to the north. The Kurds want to incorporate Kirkuk into their self-rule northern region. The city is hit frequently by attacks on mosques, commercial streets and security forces.