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Iraq checkpoints help to save lives


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Iraq checkpoints help to save lives

The death of the Italian hostage rescuer is aberrant - soldiers aren't trigger-happy; they follow procedure

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Bartle Breese Bull is a freelance journalist reporting from Iraq. This article is from The Washington Post.

March 16, 2005

As an unembedded freelance journalist in Iraq, I have safely driven through scores of American roadblocks all over the country. I have also spent many hours with U.S. troops as they set up and operate these mostly impromptu checkpoints.

At the same time, like other reporters here who don't travel with armies of their own - and like the millions of Iraqis who either have some money or are brave enough to participate in their country's reconstruction - I live constantly with the fear of being kidnapped.

We see every day the damage done with the millions of dollars that Iraq's Baathist and Wahhabist insurgencies make from that appalling business.

So as investigators try to sort out how U.S. troops could have fired on a car carrying rescued Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, killing the man who negotiated her freedom, I'm thinking about how checkpoints save lives. We don't know exactly what happened at the now infamous checkpoint on the way to the Baghdad airport. But I've seen how checkpoints work, and the American soldiers who man them are anything but trigger-happy. They know the consequences of making a mistake.

If the uproar over the shooting leads the Americans to tighten further rules of engagement, that will increase the danger to our troops and make commanders on the ground more reluctant to perform these dangerous operations. As a result, more foreigners and Iraqis will be running the risk of being kidnapped or blown up by suicide bombs.

Traffic checkpoints are an essential tactic in the disruption of terrorism in Iraq, since car bombers and kidnappers have to use the roads to conduct their criminal business. Apart from certain fixed locations, such as the entrances to the Green Zone or the Baghdad airport, most checkpoints aren't permanent, and they can be set up almost anywhere, in all sorts of situations. Bridges are often popular with American commanders, since they funnel traffic. Long highway straightaways are also good, since they provide visibility for both the civilian drivers and the checkpoint soldiers.

Anything that makes it harder to spirit a hostage away to the countryside forces urban kidnappers to keep their victims in busy areas, where the likelihood of discovery is far higher. The restriction of movement provides an important geographical focus for search efforts. Indeed, the first thing that local authorities - American or Iraqi - do in a kidnap situation here is set up checkpoints.

Many times during kidnapping sagas, I've heard Iraqis say things like, "Well, he's probably still in X because, with all these checkpoints, they would never try to move him." For the terrorists, the higher the likelihood of discovery, the less appealing the kidnapping operation becomes.

The details of Sgrena's release and wounding are still in official dispute, but on the street here there's nearly universal certainty that Nicola Calipari, the hostage negotiator who died at the checkpoint, bought her freedom with a large ransom. Although we may never know exactly what happened, I, for one, find it hard to believe that the Army's 3rd Infantry Division just opened fire at an ordinary car being driven in a normal manner. The realities of checkpoints in Iraq make random shooting at responsible drivers very unlikely. I'm currently reporting a story on a unit of American soldiers. They're drilled with a stopwatch in the task of setting up a checkpoint - a "serpentine" of concertina wire, at least three orange cones and, farthest out, a warning sign. These warning barriers are never forgotten, because soldiers are scared of car bombs. The farther out a car has to slow down, the better.

Long before the Italian incident, orders had come down that deadly force was to be used at checkpoints only after the obstacles - and then flares or smoke bombs or "star clusters," and then warning shots, and then taking out the oncoming vehicle's engine block - had failed.

As I was writing this article, I heard the announcement over the base radio in Anbar Province that two members of the combat team I was with had been killed - by a suicide bomber driving up to a checkpoint. I didn't see that explosion, but I heard it; I had spent much of the day at another U.S. checkpoint not far away.

Last summer, at the height of the kidnappings of foreign journalists here, I used to go to bed every night imagining a cold kiss of steel on the back of my neck: the first touch of the knife I feared would behead me. But not anymore. Great strides have been made in Iraq, and the progress continues every day. For law-abiding Iraqis, for reporters and for the soldiers who risk their lives to disrupt the bombers and hostage-takers, anything that makes life easier and more lucrative for the criminals is very bad news.

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