What Iraq's checkpoints are like
Editor's note: On Friday, an Italian intelligence officer was killed and Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was wounded as their car approached a US military checkpoint in Baghdad. The US says the car was speeding, despite hand signals, flashing white lights, and warning shots from US forces. Ms. Sgrena says her car was not speeding and they did see any signals. This personal account, filed prior to the shooting, explains how confusing and risky checkpoints can be - from both sides.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a common occurrence in Iraq: A car speeds toward an American checkpoint or foot patrol. They fire warning shots; the car keeps coming. Soldiers then shoot at the car. Sometimes the on-comer is a foiled suicide attacker (see story), but other times, it's an unarmed family.
As an American journalist here, I have been through many checkpoints and have come close to being shot at several times myself. I look vaguely Middle Eastern, which perhaps makes my checkpoint experience a little closer to that of the typical Iraqi. Here's what it's like.
You're driving along and you see a couple of soldiers standing by the side of the road - but that's a pretty ubiquitous sight in Baghdad, so you don't think anything of it. Next thing you know, soldiers are screaming at you, pointing their rifles and swiveling tank guns in your direction, and you didn't even know it was a checkpoint.
If it's confusing for me - and I'm an American - what is it like for Iraqis who don't speak English?
In situations like this, I've often had Iraqi drivers who step on the gas. It's a natural reaction: Angry soldiers are screaming at you in a language you don't understand, and you think they're saying "get out of here," and you're terrified to boot, so you try to drive your way out.
Another problem is that the US troops tend to have two-stage checkpoints. First there's a knot of Iraqi security forces standing by a sign that says, in Arabic and English, "Stop or you will be shot." Most of the time, the Iraqis will casually wave you through.
Your driver, who slowed down for the checkpoint, will accelerate to resume his normal speed. What he doesn't realize is that there's another, American checkpoint several hundred yards past the Iraqi checkpoint, and he's speeding toward it. Sometimes, he may even think that being waved through the first checkpoint means he's exempt from the second one (especially if he's not familiar with American checkpoint routines).
I remember one terrifying day when my Iraqi driver did just that. We got to a checkpoint manned by Iraqi troops. Chatting and smoking, they waved us through without a glance.
Relieved, he stomped down on the gas pedal, and we zoomed up to about 50 miles per hour before I saw the second checkpoint up ahead. I screamed at him to stop, my translator screamed, and the American soldiers up ahead looked as if they were getting ready to start shooting.
After I got my driver to slow down and we cleared the second checkpoint, I made him stop the car. My voice shaking with fear, I explained to him that once he sees a checkpoint, whether it's behind him or ahead of him, he should drive as slowly as possible for at least five minutes.