Isis bombers, bribery and endless checkpoints - the death-defying trials of an Iraqi trucker

In the final instalment of a four-part series on Isis, Patrick Cockburn talks to those who travel across a region marked by violence and bribery and face the jihadists - plus a wary government 

Patrick Cockburn
Kirkuk
Friday 03 June 2016 07:48
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Levying charges on vehicles passing through checkpoints is one of Iraq’s most remunerative rackets
Levying charges on vehicles passing through checkpoints is one of Iraq’s most remunerative rackets

Iraq is breaking up into competing centres of power and truck drivers are among those who can best describe the miseries of trying to travel from one fragment of the country to another. “Our life is horrible,” says Mohammed Oday, a driver sitting with seven or eight others in the shade of a road bridge beside a parking lot filled with trucks on the outskirts of the oil city of Kirkuk.

All the drivers bar one were Sunni Arabs from Ramadi in Anbar province, a city that was 80 per cent destroyed by US air strikes and Iraqi army artillery when they besieged it last year. “One room in my house is not as badly damaged as the others, so maybe my family could live in it,” said one of the drivers, but he added that there was not much chance of this happening because the road to Anbar is too dangerous.

The furthest west he and the other truckers dared go on the road to Anbar was a checkpoint called Bzeybiz beyond which the road is controlled by much-feared Shia paramilitaries like Ketaeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. “They question us to see if we have Sunni names like Baqr, Othman, Omar or Muawiya,” says Mr Oday. “And, if they don’t arrest us, they charge between $800 (£555) and $1,000 per truck to let us through.”

Levying charges on vehicles passing through the frequent checkpoints on the roads is one of Iraq’s most remunerative rackets. Nothing moves without paying up and a good security reason can always be given for imposing endless delays while the real purpose is to extract the maximum bribe. Police and army officers pay heavily to be given charge of checkpoints on well-used routes and paramilitary groups use them as a regular source of revenue. The drivers in Kirkuk spoke of paying $500 at smaller checkpoints or up to $5,000 if they are carrying perishable goods like chicken or eggs to the markets in Baghdad.

“It is not we drivers who pay the bribes but whoever owns the goods we are carrying,” said one the drivers, only a few of whom own their own trucks. “Then the owner adds the cost of the pay-offs to the price of goods when they are sold in the shops or the markets in Baghdad.”Iraq

They agree that this helps explain why everything for sale in Iraq is so expensive, with a frozen chicken that costs $1 in Turkey costing $4 in Iraq and a pair of jeans made in a Turkish factory for $4 or $5 being sold in Irbil for $40. Iraq produces almost nothing itself apart from oil and gas, so everything needed by 33 million Iraqis has to be imported by road. Even the tomatoes sold in street stalls in Baghdad come from Iran.

Mr Ali’s journey illustrates the extraordinary difficulties and dangers Iraqis face moving quite short distances within their own country. Unemployed in Mosul after it was captured by Isis in 2014, he went first to Syria, then to Turkey and finally to Irbil in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area where he was arrested to make sure he was not an Isis agent.

Cleared of this, Mr Ali was sent to Kirkuk, which is controlled by Kurds but outside the KRG and told not to come back. This restriction limits his ability to earn a living because he cannot pass through the KRG to pick up goods from Turkey. “I wish I had stayed in Mosul despite Daesh [Isis],” he says bitterly. “At least then I would be able to see my wife and children.”

The life of these drivers is hard when they are working and harder still when they are not, because it is too dangerous for them to return to their homes. “Where are you living?” we asked and they replied in chorus: “Under this bridge. This is our address.” Up to four months ago they got the occasional load to take to Basra in the far south in Iraq, but this is no longer happening, probably because of the cost of bribing checkpoints or the danger of being identified as a Sunni in Shia provinces. Trucking companies frequently switch between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish drivers so they will be driving through an area where their own community is in control.

The degree of danger for drivers varies greatly from one part of Iraq to another. For instance, a businessman involved in the freight forwarding business in Baghdad, who wished to remain anonymous, says that it costs about $7,000 in bribes to get a truck to al-Asad air base in Anbar province where US troops are stationed alongside the Iraqi army.

The fees are often paid in advance through an intermediary in return for an unofficial permit and they increase the closer the vehicle gets to the base. He says that each of the big Shia paramilitary groups have their own territory, usually retaken from Isis, in which they can extract illicit revenues from the transport industry or through kidnapping individuals: Ketaeb Hezbollah dominates in eastern Anbar, Asaib Ahl al-Haq on the Samarra to Tikrit road and Badr in Diyala province to the north-east of Baghdad.

The drivers are angry at having to live a life in which they are at the mercy of predatory and sectarian checkpoints that treat them with contempt. “We are back to the Stone Age,” says Mohammed Oday, describing how he sleeps on the open ground or in his truck, cannot go back to Ramadi or drive through Isis-held areas.

They probably thought that anything to do with Isis was too dangerous to talk about, though Mustafa Ali said that “we live between two hells: Daesh accuses us of being apostates and the government suspects that we are Daesh terrorists”.

Iraq and Syria are both infested with checkpoints that are meant to provide security and detect Isis suicide bombers, but in practice this seldom happens. One reason may be that those manning the checkpoint are well aware that if they do detect a suicide bomber he will blow himself up immediately and they will be killed.

But another reason why the bombers get through so easily is that that those manning checkpoints see them primarily as a way of making money and an Isis bomber who pays a small sum will be waved through without being searched. “They must have bribed their way through a checkpoint,” an intelligence official in Baghdad told The Independent in February when dozens of Isis gunmen and bombers launched a fierce attack at Abu Ghraib.

Long columns of stationary trucks, often stretching for miles, have been a frequent sight on Iraqi roads for years. The reason may be elaborate security checks or the Turkish border being closed or some more complicated reason, though a common feature of these stoppages is that those responsible for them do not care what happens to the drivers.

Fallujah fighting flares as Iraqi PM says victory is near

The drivers accept these bribes as more like customs tariffs that are an inevitable fact of life, but they are angered by the extraordinary length of time they may have to wait – up to a month – to get through checkpoints where they should stay only a few minutes. They complain they are continually mistreated by officials and there is nothing they can do about it. “An officer killed a driver who lost his temper at a checkpoint on the road into Baghdad,” says Mustafa Ali, a driver who came from Mosul two years ago.

Last week I drove past a five-mile long immobile line of well over a thousand trucks loaded with sacks of grain outside of the town of Makhmour west of Irbil. I was surprised because I did not know that the KRG produced so much grain and in this I may have been right. Further enquiries revealed that Kurdish farmers were eager to get their heavily subsidised grain to a Baghdad government controlled silo near Makhmour and get paid. But the federal ministry of trade was causing delays because it suspects the farmers are engaged in a massive scam at its expense.

The ministry pays three times the market price for the grain so the KRG farmers purchase cheap grain from Iran and Turkey and sell it to the state at the inflated subsidised price as their own production. The ministry is in future going to insist on more documentation to show where the grain really comes from, so the farmers are eager to off-load all the foreign grain they have imported while they still can.

Getting a truckload of goods from Baghdad to the al-Asad air base can cost up to $7,000 in bribes

Iraq is unlikely to disintegrate because all parts of the country are too dependent on the oil revenues from the oil fields concentrated in the southern provinces around Basra. Outside powers, who have done so much to weaken the central state by supporting their chosen proxies, do not want Iraq to formally cease to exist.

Its break-up would not be bloodless, but would be more like the Partition of India in 1947. To a substantial degree this is already happening, and three million Iraqis have already been displaced from their homes. Communities under threat have responded to danger by consolidating their control over a compact piece of territory and evicting everyone else.

South of Kirkuk, in Tuz Khurmatu, the Kurds and the Shia Turkman have split the town down the middle and neither side ventures into the others’ domain. Even street cleaners working for the municipality have to come from the right sect and ethnicity. It is one more tricky disputed area through which Iraqi truck drivers will have to make their way.

Previous articles in this series:
Part one: Isis in Mosul 
Part two: What comes after the defeat of Isis? 
Part three: Isis in Raqqa

Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East’, published by OR Books (orbooks.com), £18. Readers can obtain a 15 per cent discount by using the code: INDEPENDENT

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