Baghdad Traffic Jam

Try this for freedom.

Iraqi police backed by American forces with Humvees and armored personnel carriers set up hundreds of checkpoints around Baghdad last week – with the goal of checking every driver’s license plate.

Because of an acute gas shortage and constant traffic jams, Baghdadis are now only allowed to drive every other day.

“If you have to go to the hospital or you have an emergency, you can’t use your car,” complains Mushtak, a taxi driver. On the other hand, he says “there’s less traffic on the streets now.”

Since the beginning of the occupation, Baghdad’s streets have been choked by traffic. There have been no working traffic lights, and the U.S. military has closed main streets in the name of security.

The smoggy city is spread out over miles. But the red London-style double-decker buses that used to ferry passengers around are a thing of the past. Smaller van services have been privatized, and with the lack of security in the capital, many Baghdadis are reluctant to use them.

Journalist Isam al-Adami believes the system has its origin in corruption.

“The responsibility for enforcing this is with the police,” he says, “so the amount of corruption is increasing. The police will charge you $20 for this violation. This is the first time the police were working hard to make a law pass as fast as possible.”

The Iraqi capital is also suffering from a gas shortage. Long lines that used to snake through the city have been replaced by a ration system and an increasing number of private gas stations that charge 50 percent more than the government ones. Since Iraq is one of the most oil-rich countries in the world, few Iraqis understand why they don’t have easy access to fuel. Sarmad al-Hamdani runs the Iraq4All news service. He notes that while Iraqi petroleum was refined inside the country before the war, it’s now sent abroad under occupation.

“Turkey takes Iraq’s oil and refines it and sends it back as gasoline,” says Hamdani.

Before the U.S. invasion, there were no problems at Iraq’s refineries. Like many Iraqis, Hamdani says there’s been more corruption under occupation.

“The pollution of corruption is in all the ministries because they are splitting up the ministries in a sectarian way,” he says. “And this corruption came to the Ministry of Oil. But supposedly the Ministry of Oil should have less corruption because the Americans took over the Oil Ministry on the first day of the occupation.”

Regardless of the reason for the gas shortage and traffic jams, journalist Isam al-Adami says Iraqis are at the breaking point. It’s a vicious cycle. Frustrated people, he says, often turn to violence.

“People are like a time bomb,” he says. “They can explode any minute, and they can’t bear this situation anymore.”

Alternate-day driving in the most oil-rich country in the world. This is the democracy the Bush administration talks about. This is the freedom.