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Iraqi authorities crack down on solo drivers in effort to stem attacks

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A popular anti-terrorism commercial in Iraq shows a lone man rigging his car with explosives, chaining his hands to the steering wheel and speeding toward a market packed with women and children.

It is a chilling scene that focuses on a truth about terrorists: Suicide bombers attack alone.

This month, Iraqi authorities began cracking down on solo drivers, a measure that underscores the alarming ability of insurgents to strike at will. More than 400 Iraqis have been killed over the past two weeks, the majority of them blown apart in car bombings.

There's no official order from the central government to ban driving alone—the tactic comes from local police chiefs struggling to battle crafty insurgents.

In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown north of the capital, police in early May introduced a temporary ban on all solo drivers. In Baghdad and other cities, men alone in their cars are routinely singled out as suspicious and questioned at checkpoints. While some Iraqis said they support any attempt to stop the barrage of bombings, others complain that authorities have gone too far.

"This multiple-passenger law will paralyze life inside Baghdad," said Jassim al-Wazzan, who owns a car-rental agency.

The crackdown on solitary drivers even worked its way onto a recent call-in show with a top Iraqi security official. An irate resident yelled into the phone: "What comes next? There's nothing left. You're even stopping people from driving their cars alone!"

In Tikrit, police said, the crackdown is necessary. Two days before the ban on solo drivers, a car bomber detonated on a main bridge, killing seven Iraqis and wounding a dozen. Rumors abounded that insurgents had packed 25 cars with explosives and would set them off, one by one, throughout the city.

Tikrit Police Col. Majid Ahmed responded to residents' fears by blocking some roads and seizing cars driven by lone men. He instituted a temporary ban on solo drivers that drew mixed reactions.

"It was a successful experiment because of the great assistance and cooperation by the people of Tikrit, who were happy with the ban despite the difficulties it caused them," Ahmed said.

But, by another measure, the idea was not a success. A car bomber struck two days into the ban, authorities shot and killed a solo driver in an apparent mistake, and residents grumbled about yet another disruption to their already war-ravaged lives. Even a woman driver was stopped and warned to pick up passengers or get off the road, police said.

Dr. Taha al-Nasiri of Tikrit General Hospital said the ban has forced him to stash his car at a garage and ride into work on an ambulance with other colleagues in the same predicament.

"This experiment failed from the first moment," al-Nasiri said. "It didn't prevent anything because there was a deadly attack on a market the next day, which killed a lot of civilians."

The physician was referring to a car bomber who slammed into a crowd of day laborers waiting for rides to work Wednesday. At least 24 people were killed and more than 70 injured in what was once of the worst attacks in Tikrit since the U.S.-led war began two years ago.

In a strange twist that illustrates the adaptability of the enemy, plastic fragments from a dummy were found at the bombing scene, said Tikrit Police Maj. Bassem Abbas. The bomber apparently had known about the ban and thwarted it by sticking a dummy in the passenger seat.

"The attacker used a doll," Abbas said. "It means these people are ready to do anything just to kill Iraqis."

In Baghdad's jammed streets, there are simply too many cars to stop everyone driving alone, police at several checkpoints said. Still, they conceded, it's lone men driving fast who most catch their eyes.

"Every car brings suspicion these days, whether with a single driver or multiple people inside," said Capt. Ahmed Salam, the commander of a patrol police unit in Baghdad. "We're using our own judgment."

Ali Jabbar, a Baghdad taxi driver, first found himself stopped at checkpoints because he drives a blue Opel sedan—one of the most common cars used in attacks. When he heard he might next be stopped for driving on his own, he shrugged.

"I'll support any idea that can improve the security of this country," Jabbar said.


(Salihee is a special correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. Special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.