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Why is Baghdad removing checkpoints during security crisis?

While barriers and checkpoints deployed across Baghdad are being removed, a series of terrorist attacks occurring in the capital recently raises many concerns about the government's ability to prevent violence.

BAGHDAD — On Dec. 20, security authorities in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, started removing concrete barriers and checkpoints that have been deployed across main and secondary streets since the launch of the law enforcement plan in 2006. This step seemed like a new security plan and it raised several questions and concerns, especially since it coincided with the recent explosions that hit various Baghdad neighborhoods and the Jan. 2 suicide attack in Sadr City in east Baghdad, which killed and wounded dozens of people.

According to a statement by Maj. Gen. Jalil al-Rubaie, the commander of Baghdad Operations, there is an integrated plan to lift all checkpoints in the capital, and the first stage was implemented Dec. 20 in Rusafa.

Rubaie said, “More than 25 checkpoints and 85 surveillance posts were removed from Rusafa in Baghdad, which will significantly ease traffic jams and prevent bottlenecks, provided that the relevant stages are implemented respectively.”

But the most prominent concerns remain — the timing of this step, its relation to previous security plans, such as Saqr Baghdad and Baghdad Wall, and the negative impact of these measures on security in the capital’s neighborhoods.

Saad al-Matlabi, a member of the security committee in the Baghdad Provincial Council, told Al-Monitor, “We know nothing about Saqr Baghdad; it seems it was a ruse or a trick to steal people's money. Today there is no such thing as Saqr Baghdad.”

Saqr Baghdad is a plan where the Baghdad operations command would require citizens to buy stickers and affix them to their vehicles’ windshields to facilitate surveillance and control; the project is not yet completed.

Matlabi added, “Work is underway to implement the Baghdad Wall plan, but things are moving slowly. This project aims to establish an electronic surveillance wall [around the capital] and set some concrete barriers in rugged areas.”

Matlabi further noted, “The major achievements by the intelligence services prompted the authorities to lift checkpoints that became useless and caused traffic jams, not to mention the barriers that divided neighborhoods on a sectarian basis.” He pointed out that the new plan aims to lift all concrete barriers and checkpoints within weeks.

Matlabi believes the explosions are not linked to the removal of checkpoints, which failed to prevent car bombs in recent years. “Yet intelligence information allowed us to identify nests of terrorist gangs,” he said. According to Matlabi, the Baghdad Operations Room did not know about the surveillance system that Baghdad Gov. Ali al-Tamimi inaugurated. Matlabi added that it is “the governor’s own activity that no one learned about, and it has nothing to do with the other security projects in place.”

Tamimi, who may be dismissed by the Baghdad Provincial Council, inaugurated Dec. 17 what he described as “the biggest modern security surveillance camera project in the capital.” Tamimi said in a statement, “The high-end modern security surveillance camera system is the largest security surveillance project in the province of Baghdad. It will help provide security services with important and accurate information in order for them to perform their duty in the face of terrorist groups and criminal gangs that are committing kidnappings, murders, thefts and robberies.”

Tamimi will be questioned about this project in addition to his previous project, Baghdad Falcon. This reflects the large amount of security decisions and lack of coordination between security and administrative authorities in the absence of security ministers. The interior minister resigned in July and the defense minister was dismissed in August.

Despite the new security measures, explosions resumed in early December in different neighborhoods of the capital. On Dec. 20, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that there is information that the Karrada district will be targeted again. He said in a press conference, “We warn the enemy against trying to carry out bombings similar to those targeting Karrada district after the liberation of Fallujah.” He called for vigilance and caution and stressed the need for “a collective solidarity in the face of any security breach, and for not portraying it as a general collapse.”

Fears of removing checkpoints and barriers were coupled with calls for maintaining surveillance checkpoints (security checkpoints that do not search vehicles, but monitor them only), according to Majed al-Gharawi, a member of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee. Gharawi told Al-Monitor, “Removing checkpoints and cement barriers and opening the streets is an essential public demand. But we call for maintaining the surveillance checkpoints to help the intelligence efforts.” He added, “The checkpoints are burdening citizens and do not offer real benefits. They only cause traffic and create complaints and anger among citizens.”

Security control in Baghdad is almost impossible amid the current political conflict, the multiple security institutions that lack necessary equipment, the availability of weapons to all citizens and their use in tribal and political conflicts, not to mention the easy targeting of innocent people.

Baghdad and some nearby provinces will likely see repeated explosions in the coming stage in response to the losses that the Islamic State (IS) is bearing in the ongoing battle to recapture Mosul. Security expert Hashem al-Hashimi told Al-Monitor, “IS hotbeds in Baghdad and south Iraq will carry out dirty operations that will shake up society to retaliate for their big losses in Mosul.”

Finally, IS sleeper cells in Baghdad will remain a serious threat to the capital's security. As they are well-prepared and well-organized, confronting them is a tough task for the security forces in charge of protecting the city.

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