Iraq locks down Baghdad before Arab summit

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2012 11:58 AM
Iraq locks down Baghdad before Arab summit

By Serena Chaudhry

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's government has locked down Baghdad ahead of this week's Arab League Summit, throwing up a maze of security checkpoints and roadblocks as it seeks to protect the capital from insurgent attacks.

The three-day summit is the first of its kind to be held in Iraq in more than two decades, and a successful meeting would allow Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to show the country is pulling back from years of violence and upheaval months after the last U.S. troops left.

"Our lack of intelligence capabilities means we can't find explosives as we don't have the apparatus," said Hakim al-Zamili, a member of the parliamentary security committee.

"We have to rely on these old-fashioned methods like blocking the streets. So far it's been a success despite the impact on the citizens."

Despite the security clampdown, Baghdad and other cities were targeted with more than 30 bombs last Tuesday, however, killing at least 52 people.

It was Iraq's bloodiest day in almost a month and the scale of the coordinated blasts underscored the country's fragile security and the insurgents' apparent resolve to prove Maliki's government cannot keep the country safe for the summit.

Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate claimed responsibility for the attacks. It still controls the streets elsewhere in the country.

DISRUPTION

Entire streets in Baghdad have been closed down, SWAT teams have been combing the city, the government has declared a five-day public holiday, and around 100,000 extra security forces have been drafted in to man hundreds of checkpoints.

The extra security has caused big traffic jams, forcing some people to abandon their cars and walk to work. The delays have been so bad that lawmakers have called for emergency lanes to be opened up to allow doctors and ambulances to reach hospitals in a timely fashion.

Baghdad residents have long suffered due to disruption caused by the capital's blast walls, checkpoints and security roadblocks. Getting into the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to ministries and many embassies, can often mean long waits.

But the security clampdown has irked even war-weary Baghdadis.

"I left home at 7 a.m. and got stuck in a horrible traffic jam. Cars could not move... I had to get out of the car and walk to work. I arrived at 11 a.m.," said 30-year-old Baghdad resident Farouq Abdullah.

On a trip to Baghdad's airport last week, passengers jumped out of taxis and cars caught at security checkpoints and walked to the terminal with their luggage instead.

Iraq's stock exchange also had to close as workers and traders were unable to reach its central Baghdad office. Stock market chief executive Taha Abdulsalam said he hoped to resume trading from April 1.

Transport difficulties have also pushed up food prices.

Twenty-three percent of Iraq's population live below the poverty line, according to the planning ministry, and many Iraqis are dependent on a national food ration program. Food ration shortages led to mass protests last summer.

"Prices of groceries have nearly doubled because of costly and difficult transport. People are afraid of shortages during the week the government has declared a holiday," said Ali Ibrahim, a grocer in Baghdad.

Ibrahim said the tighter security measures had pushed up the price of one kilogram of apples to 2,500 Iraqi dinars ($2.14) from 1,250 Iraqi dinars.

SCEPTICISM

Iraq is still trying to build up its army and police to tackle al Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgent groups and Shi'ite militias, who remain capable of carrying out lethal attacks.

Security analysts said the extra measures were likely to deter some of the smaller insurgent groups, but warned that some may seek to attack after the summit, which takes place from March 27-29 in a former Saddam Hussein palace.

"Security forces will relax after this long period on alert so we think terrorists will try to target some places after the summit if they can't do it before," Zamili told Reuters.

Some Baghdad residents are skeptical of whether the extra measures will help secure the capital.

"When we arrived at a checkpoint, I did not see an explosives detector in the hand of the soldier," said Um Laith, who works in Baghdad. "He was just ordering cars to pull up, arbitrarily."

While violence from the country's long war has eased since the days of sectarian slaughter in 2006-07 when tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed, the sound of a roadside bomb going off or a mortar round detonating is still common in the capital.

Hundreds of people have been killed in bombings and attacks since a political crisis erupted in December, increasing tensions among Sunni and Shi'ite political blocs, and threatening to push Iraq back into the worst of its sectarian violence.

(Additional reporting by Raheem Salman and Mohammed Ameer; Editing by Patrick Markey and Andrew Osborn)