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IWPR: Checkpoints: Baghdad's Russian Roulette

Author: IWPR Reporters
September 5, 2007



A report from the Institute of War and Peace Reporting that gives an Iraqi insider’s view of life in Baghdad where giving the wrong kind of name at a checkpoint can mean death. The report says that moving through the city is ‘like Russian roulette’; this is especially true for people whose names clearly identify them as belonging to a particular group, such as the typically Sunni Omar, or Ali, a common Shia name. As a result many people driving around Baghdad carry two sets of identification with them - their real ID and a fake one. One identifies them as Sunni, the other as Shia. Showing the right document can save their lives.


If there is one thing that has become the defining feature of everyday life in Baghdad, it is the checkpoint.

They may be a familiar sight in other regional states where tensions run high, such as Lebanon, Saudi ArabiaandTurkey, but checkpoints are nowhere as important as in Baghdad. The once-diverse Iraqi capital has become a patchwork of ethnic and sectarian divisions separated by concrete walls and countless checkpoints.

The number of official controls has skyrocketed since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003. Around 1,000 now exist in Baghdad, in addition to an unknown number of informal ones set up by various militias and outlawed insurgent groups.

The official checkpoints are run by the defence and interior ministries, and they are considerably better organised since the 2005 elections. Each government control is manned by five to ten soldiers or policemen armed with Kalashnikov rifles and equipped with armoured vehicles or four-wheel-drive cars. Some are permanent, while others are set up wherever the security situation requires.

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