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Amid the mayhem in Baghdad, rulers of the road preserve civility

Even during the Saddam Hussein years, the traffic officers in Baghdad had a reputation for integrity. ‘‘The traffic law is the only thing . . . that functions correctly,’’ one Iraqi said.
Even during the Saddam Hussein years, the traffic officers in Baghdad had a reputation for integrity. ‘‘The traffic law is the only thing . . . that functions correctly,’’ one Iraqi said. (Saad Khalaf/ Los Angeles Times)

BAGHDAD -- Death squads move with impunity after curfew. Abductions are rampant, but kidnappers are rarely caught. Corruption has poisoned government, yet few have faced criminal charges.

Double-park a car on a Baghdad street, however, and you can be sure of this: The law will hunt you down.

Abdel Nasser, a 32-year-old traffic officer, describes himself as a ``mujahid," or holy warrior, battling evildoers in a city without signs, traffic lights, or speed limits. In this pandemonium of sputtering wrecks and speeding US military Humvees, directing the flow of traffic is a religious duty, he said.

Nasser and his colleagues are beacons of civility in the choppy waters of Baghdad traffic, where the term ``riding shotgun" is taken literally. Until recently, they valiantly defended intersections with only a whistle. Now they have handguns.

``Despite the danger, we feel we are securing our country," said Nasser, a police officer who was reassigned after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

``I go home, feeling proud," he said. ``Other officers serve the government. But we serve the people."

Iraqis may complain of corrupt clerics, greedy politicians, and murderous security forces, but for the most part they remain devoted to this cadre of stoic traffic wardens, who even during the Saddam Hussein years had a reputation for integrity.

``The traffic law is the only thing nowadays that functions correctly," said Mustafa Hatim, a 32-year-old electrical engineer.

Hatim said he got into trouble with the law only once. He had parked outside a downtown ice cream parlor and returned to find a $12 ticket on the windshield. The offense: a sloppy parking job.

Munir Nouri, 43, who sells parts for used cars, commended the traffic officers for their good manners. They ``talk to you before ticketing you," he said.

Wearing neat blue-and-white uniforms with matching blue hats, nearly 3,500 traffic officers labor on the streets of the capital, working seven-hour shifts in 120-degree heat.

From a small concrete shelter, Nasser watches vehicles flow through a flag-decorated traffic circle in the Karada district, near a bridge to the fortified Green Zone. Key Baghdad arteries come together in this intersection, and Nasser controls his fiefdom with choreographed movements.

Nasser is fastidious about his uniform. His shoes are brushed, and his shirt is ironed every day. The hat and the three stripes on his shoulders keep his back straight and his gaze steady.

Although his job is meaningful, it is also increasingly dangerous, he said. Bombings and gunfights make Baghdad streets the meanest in the world, and dozens of his colleagues have died on the job.

Drivers are armed and edgy, and road rage is common. Politicians, soldiers, and police officers are the biggest scofflaws, say drivers and traffic officers.

``They drive very fast, pay no attention to traffic regulations, and expect others to give them way, regardless of the conditions of the street," said Ammar Abbas, a 30-year-old taxi driver. ``If other drivers don't make way immediately, they hit cars or shoot randomly."

Shi'ite Muslim militias also ignore the rules of the road, said Husham Hassan, a 25-year-old traffic officer. ``Those people don't respect us."

During Hussein's rule, there was less anarchy -- and fewer cars -- on the streets. Then, Iraqis mostly drove Russian Ladas, Brazilian-made Volkswagens, and beat-up Chevrolets. Today, big BMWs, large Toyota pickups, and huge GMC sport utility vehicles -- most owned by foreigners -- drive bumper to bumper with beat-up wrecks steered by Iraqis. The red double-decker buses from London, once ubiquitous, have all but disappeared.

The US-led invasion also brought Humvees, tanks, and checkpoints to Baghdad, transforming the ancient capital into a maze of concrete and wire. Some Iraqis have sought traffic counsel from religious leaders.

``Is it permissible to violate the red traffic light when all side streets are completely empty from traffic, and there is no danger?" was one question posed to the country's most powerful Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on his website.

``It is not allowed to violate these laws," was the cleric's response.

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