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Despite "Hand-Over," Iraqis Have Little Control Over Security

by Peyman Pejman

The Hand-Over that Wasn't

(IPS) BAGHDAD -- What a difference a few months can make. The last time I was in Baghdad was late November. The city, the whole country for that matter, acutely felt under occupation. There were signs of it everywhere.

Flying from Amman to Baghdad by the Royal Jordanian, the only available commercial -- meaning not military and not United Nations airline route available to get to Iraq, was an experience in itself. The Royal Jordanian was the only airline that was allowed then, as now, to fly into Iraq.

Back then it offered small, twin-engine planes. The seats on the 1,000-kilometre but $1,200 round-trip journey were utterly uncomfortable, and the engine sound was not far off from that of a C-130 cargo plane.

Once in Baghdad, the planes would taxi to a secluded hangar, for good reasons. Armed gangs and members of various faceless "resistance movements" had gotten the hang of shooting rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) at U.S. military planes and at civilian aircraft used by Royal Jordanian, and by international carrier firms such as Federal Express and DHL.

RPGs are not heat seeking and usually miss their target because they require great aim and have to be fired from a relatively close distance.

U.S. military planes equipped with evasive heat flares were mostly undeterred by the largely inaccurate shoulder-fired weapons. But civilian planes have no such defensive mechanism. DHL learned its lesson the hard way when one of its planes was hit. It suspended operations for a while, along with others.

Once off the plane then, passengers would walk a few hundred metres through what seemed an empty cargo hangar and into an office-size room that serviced both outgoing and incoming passengers. There were no pictures of Saddam Hussein, or of George W. Bush.

A mix of a half-dozen U.S. military personnel and Iraqis -- some of whom barely spoke English -- would enter passengers' personal and passport information in a computer, ask the passengers to look into a PC-mounted video camera, and stamp their passports. No questions were asked about visas. For the most part, people assumed you had good reason to fly to Baghdad, or else you would not.

This time around the Royal Jordanian has upgraded its planes and flies twice daily, as opposed to a few times a week back in November.

Baghdad International Airport too has a much improved look to it. Iraqis are now in charge of air traffic control. There is an official immigration booth open, and Iraqi police equipped with communication radios are present.

And Iraqis have started to refuse people who enter the country without visa, unless you are a diplomat or a contractor with a U.S.-government agency. The visa policy was put in place early August. Officials say they are serious about turning away people without visas -- U.S. nationals or not. They say it is one way they can enforce their supposed sovereignty.

But that is about all the difference. The U.S. military still runs a checkpoint and controls who gets in and out of the huge airport. Only military and official cars are allowed to the terminals. Passengers and others have to stop miles away at a U.S. checkpoint and take a run-down bus that moves about every hour maybe -- up until 4PM

The road from the airport to the city is decidedly less tense than it used to be. Once notorious for daily attacks on U.S. convoys, the road is pretty much without checkpoints or explosions these days, in great part because there are far fewer U.S. convoys roaming the streets of Baghdad now.

The presence of U.S. forces on the streets of Iraqi cities, a clear picture of foreign occupation, has long been a thorn in the eyes of Iraqis. As part of the agreement to purportedly hand over sovereignty to Iraqis in June -- and reduce casualties in an election year, U.S. troops have pretty much disappeared from the streets of Baghdad.

Iraqi police are now abundantly visible throughout the city in their freshly painted cars with blaring sirens, new communication equipment and bullet-proof jackets -- all supposedly signs to people that fellow Iraqis, not Americans, are in charge.

But the Americans are far from gone.

During the three-day Iraqi National Conference to elect members of an interim consultative assembly, U.S. Apache helicopters could be seen flying low overhead to saeguard the conference site.

U.S. forces are still handling the bulk of the fighting in troublesome areas of Iraq such as Faluja and Najaf. Iraqi government officials says that is how they want it because Iraqi security forces are still unable to protect their country.

And there are thousands of U.S. civilians still working in Iraq as "advisors" to Iraqi ministers and officials, bodyguards to top-ranking Iraqi officials, or at thousands of reconstruction projects.

Their presence still angers many Iraqis who see it as proof of both the colonialist intentions of a superpower left unchecked, and of the insincerity of their own officials who say they, not America, are the real power behind the throne.

For average Iraqis, daily life has either remained the same, or worsened.

Eight months ago -- just a few months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime -- many were optimistic about their country's future and their safety. Today, they seem mostly pessimistic.

The way they look at it, security has worsened, the economy has not picked up, the Americans are still there, and Iraqis lack the representative government they were promised.

Traffic in the city is as bad as it used to be. At the beginning of last year's invasion, reporters had complained to Paul Bremer, the former U.S. civil administrator of Iraq, that traffic jams were becoming too much of a burden in moving around Baghdad.

His reply was memorable: "I don't understand why people complain about traffic jams. Traffic jams are good. It shows people feel secure enough and hopeful enough to move around. Otherwise, they would be locking themselves in and sitting at home."

That good sign remains, and there are others, like something a food store shopkeeper said: "If there is one thing that separates Iraqis from many other Arabs, it is that we are a patient people. We coped with Saddam for 40 years. Things will get better, maybe three years from now, but they will."

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Albion Monitor August 17, 2004 (

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