Baghdad Dispatch: Checkpoint (In)Security

FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith (Gangs of Iraq, Private Warriors, Beyond Baghdad, Truth War and Consequences) is in Baghdad, working on a film about Iraq’s current crisis with cameraman Scott Anger and second camera/soundwoman Sachi Cunningham. Read Smith’s earlier dispatch on his return to Baghdad.

More than 10 years after the fall of Saddam, the people of Baghdad might reasonably have hoped that they could drive about their city without worrying about kidnappings and bombings. But today getting around Baghdad is a tense chore, and now that Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, has fallen to ISIS militants, it’s worse.

There are more than 100 security checkpoints set up within and around Baghdad. Some are run by local police; others by federal police, the army, or various militia groups. They are a major headache. They clog traffic and can even be an attractive target for suicide bombers, the very people they are trying to stop from transporting explosives into the city.

WATCH: Losing Iraq, FRONTLINE’s in-depth look at what went wrong in Iraq and how we arrived at the current chaos.

Last week, we decided we needed to film the checkpoints, but the soldiers or policemen who run them are touchy. It is understood that you don’t point cameras and take pictures. For that you need permission.

So, we arrange to meet a Baghdad precinct police commander. It had been a long day, and we are tired when we pull off a highway into a grove of date palms, mildly cooler than the hot streets. We clear security at the gate, park and walk a winding path amidst small, low buildings between the palms and are ushered up some steps into a small office. Eight to 10 Iraqi police officers hover around the door, and we are asked to sit down and wait.

After a while, we are taken to another building and what is clearly the office of someone important, the commander. He is not there. But there are more couches and a coffee table loaded with dates rolled in sesame seeds, nuts, lots of fruit and a tea service.

The commander then emerges from a back room in a dishdasha, the ankle-length garment men commonly wear in Iraq and the Gulf countries. I introduce us and make our request. He replies, but I don’t get a proper translation. Instead, he spends an hour telling us about how strong all state security forces are. How ISIS is being defeated handily. How he and his men fought heroically against insurgents in years past.

“We can take care of ISIS.”

In the middle of all this, he gets up and without explanation retreats into the back room. Ten minutes later he re-emerges in full uniform. I think he must have realized he wasn’t really dressed for visitors. Then more stories and finally: “OK, come back on Wednesday and my men will take you around.”

On the drive home, traffic is snarled by several checkpoints, so that by the time we get back it is late, we skip dinner and go to bed. I read about several bombs going off in other Baghdad neighborhoods.

A few days later, when we show up at the entrance to police HQ again, no one has any idea who we are or why we’ve returned. We’re told the commander is in a meeting. After a half an hour, I suggest we call the commander directly. He answers. He says he’s not in a meeting, and no one told him we were here. It turns out he can’t see us because he has to go to “a conference.” But, he clears our vehicle past security and we park under some palms.

Eventually, we’re met by a pickup truck with a gun mount and two policemen standing in the back. I ask Scott Anger, our cameraman, to go with them. We’ll follow.

We pull up to a checkpoint on the western side of the city, near Baghdad’s Jihad neighborhood. I wait off to the side to stay out of the way, when a convoy of five yellow Saipas (an Iranian-made compact car) pulls up. Each car holds four men.

“Look,” says Mohammed, my translator and fixer, “they are Shia militia. They always drive those Iranian cars.” “They are Iraqis?” I ask. “Yes, but many of them get their training in Iran. Don’t take a picture.” I put down my phone. “They do most of the frontline fighting and then turn over secured areas to the Iraqi security forces.” “Which secured areas?” I think to myself. They get through security pretty quickly, I notice.

Scott comes back to the car to change a lens and I ask him how it is going. He explains that the police are using “those little wands.” We’ve seen these all over the city. He is referring to a security device long in use in the Middle East – known as an ADE 651 – made by a now defunct British company, ATSC. It consists of a short antenna attached to a plastic handgrip that is supposed to detect explosives at a distance. Promotional materials claim that the wands can “tune into” the “frequency” of a particular explosive, and can detect guns, ammunition, drugs, human bodies, contraband ivory and bank notes at distances of up to half a mile underground, through walls, underwater or even from airplanes at an altitude of up to 3 miles. They don’t even require any batteries.

I tell Scott to shoot more footage of the wands. There’s been a lot written about these things. The ADE 651 even has its own Wikipedia page with a history of investigations into their ineffectiveness. So to see them still relied upon is disturbing. If there were such a technology to detect whatever you like at a distance, then there would be no bombings in Baghdad. There were four blasts just the other day.

We asked a soldier if he believes they work. “About 70 percent of the time,” he said. You wonder how he made that calculation.

Reporters and other investigators concluded years ago that the wands were a fraud. The British government banned their export in 2010 and dissolved ATSC last year. Its founder, James McCormick, was convicted of three counts of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison. But the Iraqi government had already spent $85 million on the wands. And astoundingly, they still use them.

Of course, we wanted to know why. Mohammed, my translator, said he spoke to a senior officer of the federal police a year or so ago. His answer was: “Don’t listen to what people say about them or what reports media have on them. We would know best because we are the ones that are using them.” Arguing with logic like this is not a good use of our time, I think.

Scott finishes filming, and we ride back to the police base.

Then we head out on our own to film the walls that Americans built to surround Baghdad’s Sunni Adhamiya neighborhood, another attempt to stanch violence here. Like the wands, the walls haven’t worked too well. When I was here in 2007, the year the walls were built, kidnappings were common. Sunnis would be taken, tortured, shot and their bodies dumped back inside Adhamiya. These killings still go on.

We manage to get up onto a pedestrian bridge looking over Adhamiya and point the camera at the wall. I notice that the metal railings have been torn and twisted — bullet holes from some past gun battle. I want to touch them but they are too hot. The air temperature is 115 degrees. I look over at houses nearby, and I worry about snipers.

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