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U.S. military checkpoints frustrate Iraqis, test soldiers' nerves

BAGHDAD, Iraq—As the U.S. military ratchets up its campaign to remove guns from the streets of Baghdad, new checkpoints across the sprawling city are causing massive traffic jams and jangling nerves for American soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike.

"There is too much traffic and too many checkpoints," said Hussain Mhessam, who was rushing to get to his classes at a university. "Now it is almost easier to walk than to drive. I am worried about being late. The checkpoints are a bad move. They only want to hurt people."

The soldiers admit they are nervous. They don't want to kill innocent civilians by mistake, but they fear suicide bombers, particularly because U.S. soldiers have been killed in attacks in recent days.

American soldiers killed three teenage boys in a wedding party last week when they didn't slow down at a checkpoint in the town of Samarra, north of Baghdad. Two children also were killed in the town last week when the truck they were riding in didn't stop at a checkpoint.

Soldiers from the Army's 1st Armored Division recently manned a checkpoint on the busy Jadrya Bridge.

They pulled over some of the passing cars, using a small red stop sign in English and Arabic. On more than one occasion, the soldiers just screamed at confused Iraqi drivers in English. Some drivers who weren't asked to pull over thought they were supposed to and drove into the checkpoint, setting off alarm bells. There were few Arabic translators on hand to explain the checkpoint rules.

"We can't check every car, so we try to do three at a time," said 1st Sgt. Anthony Petrone of Harrisburg, Pa. On the first day of the bridge checkpoint, the soldiers got three AK 47s and 18 handguns.

Scores of people crossed the bridge on foot instead because driving in Baghdad, which has a car culture much like Los Angeles, has become a major hassle.

The soldiers were manning the checkpoint 24 hours a day. Baghdad has an 11 p.m. curfew, so few drivers are out on the streets at night.

They move their checkpoints frequently. "But people catch on pretty quickly," Petrone said. "They hear there is a checkpoint so they avoid the bridge."

The stops take about five minutes. Drivers hand over identification, and the soldiers order them to step out of the vehicles.

At one point, the soldiers stopped a white Toyota truck. Inside, Abbas Hamad, a merchant, had a small pistol on the front seat and three large bags of cash containing 12 million Iraqi dinars—worth at least $9,000, depending on the exchange rate—in the back seat.

"Whoa!" said a soldier. "We've got some serious money here, and a gun."

"I have a pistol because I am worried about being robbed," Hamad said. "Please, I must protect my business and my family."

Petrone took the gun, and Hamad pleaded for him to give it back. Other soldiers looked through the cash.

Hamad said he owned a small business selling meat and chickens. He said he'd been robbed twice, and that he thought the checkpoints were a good idea if they helped reduce looting and theft.

Petrone gave the pistol back, but made Hamad promise he would leave it at home.

Some political leaders worry that taking weapons away from civilians before cracking down on criminals is putting the cart before the horse.

"Withdrawing weapons from the people before imposing security is a false step," Nassir Chadarchi of the Democratic Patriotic Party said in an interview in Azzaman, one of Baghdad's daily newspapers. "How can you have the gangs armed and the public unarmed and unable to protect themselves?"

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+CHECKPOINTS

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