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Security Checkpoints Leave Baghdad Vulnerable

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Security Checkpoints Leave Baghdad Vulnerable

Iraq

Security Checkpoints Leave Baghdad Vulnerable

Security Checkpoints Leave Baghdad Vulnerable

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Iraqi security forces monitor traffic Wednesday in the Karradah district of Iraq's capital Baghdad as heavy security measures were imposed following bombings this week. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

In Baghdad, a string of bombings this week left more than 60 dead and raised questions about the effectiveness of the security checkpoints throughout the city. Militants have been able to travel with near impunity, even into some of Baghdad's most secure neighborhoods, to carry out bomb attacks.

The bombings have left Baghdad jittery. Most of the streets are empty, except for the cars pooled around Baghdad's hundreds of checkpoints.

In the Karradah neighborhood, a policeman holding a bomb detector marches past a waiting car, watching for the tiny antenna on the device to swivel, the supposed sign that there are explosives in the vehicle.

An Iraqi soldier uses a hand-held bomb detector at a checkpoint on the streets of Baghdad. Kais al-Jalele for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kais al-Jalele for NPR

An Iraqi soldier uses a hand-held bomb detector at a checkpoint on the streets of Baghdad.

Kais al-Jalele for NPR

"The device does work, and I can show you that," says Abu Moussa, an Iraqi army soldier. "Go put one single bullet in any of those cars, and the device would detect it."

But the wand-like machine has recently come under scrutiny in Britain, where the device — the ADE 651, as it's known — is made. British officials have banned its export and detained the head of the company that makes it for fraud.

Iraq's government, which reportedly paid the British company at least $85 million, says it will launch an investigation into how well the device works. It also says the wand is not the only defense it uses against bombers.

But on a recent trip across town, a dozen checkpoints in different parts of the city were relying exclusively on the device. Soldiers working the checkpoints said it is the only detection method they are trained to use.

Hussein Qassim, a 32-year-old taxi driver, says people are worried that Iraq's national elections scheduled for March 7 will prompt more attacks.

"I expect more violence in the run-up to the elections. All the people are scared. They are afraid to go out," he says. "The security men are doing their job properly, but it is the devices that are bad quality. They are useless and only cause traffic jams."

A crater marks the site of a car bomb explosion Monday near the Al-Hamra hotel in Baghdad. Three car bombs exploded, targeting hotels used by foreign journalists and businessmen. Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images

A crater marks the site of a car bomb explosion Monday near the Al-Hamra hotel in Baghdad. Three car bombs exploded, targeting hotels used by foreign journalists and businessmen.

Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images

Some U.S. military officials have charged that the machines are little better than divining rods. The head of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, says the U.S. military is trying to train Iraqis to use other methods.

"It is very sophisticated how they hide these explosives. You cannot judge it by the naked eye. It takes a certain amount of expertise to determine if there are explosives in the vehicle," Odierno says.

For the first time, in attacks this week on a string of hotels frequented by foreigners, insurgents used small arms fire to disrupt the checkpoints. That allowed the car bombers to get closer to their targets.

It is a tactic more familiar to Afghanistan than Iraq, Odierno says.

"Although we had some intel that said they were going to try to conduct some of these attacks under the cover of small arms fire, it's the first time we had actually seen it," he says.

The effectiveness of the security checkpoints in Baghdad will determine, in part, how quickly U.S. troops can withdraw from Iraq. The U.S. military says the bombings are just a spike in what has been a period of relatively low violence.

But that is little comfort to the people affected by the blasts.

On one of the streets where the attacks took place, Ali Nazar, a furniture salesman, shows his cracked storefront window. He says it is unacceptable to be faced with this level of violence.

"The Americans couldn't stop talking about that Nigerian who tried to blow up a plane — talking about something which did not happen. But here, there are attacks everyday, but they say it's not a big deal. Is Iraqi blood so cheap?" Nazar says.

Haji Ahmad Hafudh, also a furniture trader, blames Iraq's government for buying the bomb detection devices in the first place.

"They know it doesn't work. They bought something on the cheap. I have traveled with weapons on me through checkpoints and have never been stopped," he says.

He says Iraqi government leaders have no one to blame but themselves for the security lapses. He says he won't vote for them in the upcoming elections.

"We do not believe in the people in power now," he says. "I'm talking as a person from the streets. I do not feel proud of such government because it is a failure."

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