Page last updated at 16:02 GMT, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Viewpoint: Law and order Iraqi style

Traffic police in central Baghdad - February 2009
Back on the scene - traffic police return to bring lawbreakers to book

An Iraqi member of staff at the BBC Baghdad bureau reflects on the return of traffic police and some semblance of order to Baghdad's streets. For security reasons, the author's name is not being published.

Iraq, Mesopotamia as it used to be known, is famous for being the cradle of civilization. It was here that some of the earliest writing was discovered, and here that the earliest laws were made.

With such a legacy, you might imagine that legal precision and obedience were second-nature to Iraqis.

You might pull over at the sound of an ambulance siren, only to find that someone had rigged one to a donkey cart

Well, not quite so. If you want to know the true meaning of the word chaos, the streets of Baghdad are a good place to start.

Law and order broke down straight after the US-led invasion in March 2003.

For many Iraqis, "democracy" meant doing exactly what you felt like, when you felt like it - including behind the wheel of a car.

The few traffic police who dared remain on duty did not dare to stop drivers. It could be anyone at all in the driver's seat, and he'd certainly have a gun. Many traffic policemen lost their lives at the hands of militants, or were blown up by roadside bombs.

Dead language

Traffic signals and direction signs became museum pieces, fragments of a dead language.

You might see a 13-year-old boy driving a pick-up at high speed in the wrong lane, or a driver stopping his car in the middle of the road to chat to a friend.

An Iraqi traffic police officer inspects a driver's vehicle registration papers at a checkpoint in central Baghdad  July 2008
Some motorists say the law is not being evenly imposed

Or you might pull over at the sound of an ambulance siren, only to find that someone had rigged one to a donkey cart.

Of course, senior officials travelled in convoys at top speed in the wrong direction - and would be followed by a trail of madcap drivers trying to keep open this temporary gap in the congestion.

Baghdad has no parking restrictions. You could just pull up your car wherever you like. Something the car bombers used to good effect - you could drive right up to your target and no-one would stop you.

Breaking the law

But today, with the improvements in security, the traffic policemen have begun to regain some of their power and pre-war prestige. Detachments are fanning out across the city and holding offenders to account.

Of whom I became one of the first.

There's always been a law about wearing a seatbelt. Even when nobody cared, I would wear mine, despite the derision of my friends, who thought I was either a coward or was affecting a "western" style behind the wheel.


The other day I was driving to work and my mobile phone rang. I don't answer the phone when driving, but the caller was persistent and I was struggling to concentrate on the road.

To divert the call, however, I needed to undo my seatbelt for a moment. And the next thing I knew, two traffic policemen were flagging me down.

As the young man started writing out the paperwork for my fine, I asked him why he stopped me when it was plain to see that virtually every other driver wasn't wearing a seatbelt.

He ignored me, but then waved for another driver to stop. That driver showed the policemen some identity papers, they got chatting in a friendly way, and he drove off again. Without being fined at all!

I was outraged: isn't the law supposed to apply equally, to all citizens, I fumed.

The traffic policemen said that it's his decision to fine whomever he chooses. And then he added that since the other car was new it didn't have a registration plate it would be difficult to fine and trace the driver.

'Utter corruption'

Well, I had mixed feelings as eventually set off again on my journey to work. On the one hand, thank God some measure of order is returning to the streets. On the other… why start with me?

Baghdad traffic jam - Feb 2005
Baghdad traffic: A definition of chaos

The problems run so deeply. Laws are being made, but on broken foundations. And they're being enforced in an atmosphere of utter corruption.

Television reports keep telling us of gigantic projects that are just about to be launched at astronomical cost. But our city isn't getting any prettier.

Our prime minister recently decreed that government convoys could no longer travel against the traffic flow, firing guns to clear the way. But they still do. Their sirens still mix with the muezzin's call to prayer as the characteristic soundtrack to the city.

When Saddam Hussein was in power, the military used to complain about their rations, and that sewer water was cleaner than the drinking water they were issued with.

Now, a friend of mine who owns a supermarket here says his supplies of bottled water come from an Iraqi army brigade that would rather have a few extra dollars in their pockets than drink healthy water.

Bribery, corruption, greed - it takes more than the law to halt them.

We have plenty of laws here. But nothing is impossible in Iraq, so long as there's money to pay and the bottomless pockets to swallow it.

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