12 March 2004
On the long highways out of Baghdad - on the notorious Highway 8 to Hilla and further south - a dark and fearful tactic is being resurrected from the terrible years of Algerian butchery just a decade ago: the false police checkpoint.
Tens of thousands of civilians were stopped at Algeria's faux barrages in the Nineties, in trucks, buses and civilian cars. Routinely, they would stop, only to be machine-gunned or knifed to death; even today the "false" policemen exist in the foothills above Algiers. But this week, they arrived in Iraq, just as ruthless, and just as deadly.
Among the first victims were an American woman, an Iraqi woman and a former male US Marine, who were working on a women's democracy project in central Iraq. In the words of one of their fellow aid workers, "they were stopped by men in Iraqi police uniforms, then machine-gunned". They were on their way to visit a new women's centre in Karbala that Paul Bremer, the US proconsul, opened last month.
Then came the killing of two Americans and their Iraqi translator outside Hilla on Highway 8 late on Tuesday night. The Polish army, which patrols this sector of Iraq, has confirmed that their car, too, was stopped by men in police uniform at a checkpoint on the main road north of the city. A Polish officer said his troops later found the car in the possession of five Iraqis, the bodies still inside. No one knows if the Americans had a security escort, or protection. The occupation authorities don't intend to tell us.
A day later, the night gunmen of Iraq turned their attention to two young Iraqi sisters who worked in a laundry of Kellogg, Brown and Root, a multibillion-dollar American conglomerate which, amid much controversy, won a massive contract for logistical support to the occupation armies in Iraq.
Lika'a and Shamima'a Abdulkareem were returning home in a taxi late at night in the southern city of Basra, which is under the control of British forces, when gunmen stopped the vehicle and opened fire, killing both of the young women. Whether their attackers were also wearing police uniforms is unknown, but Basra has seen many other killings in recent months that received no such publicity. At least 40 former Baath party officials have been murdered around the city and a number of Christians attempting to sell alcohol have also been shot dead.
As usual, the American-led occupation authorities insist they keep no tally of Iraqi civilian dead, and since civilians have died in their thousands since their "liberation" last April, it is easy to see why.
But the latest killings may force a change in this policy. False police checkpoints are likely to prove a nightmare for Mr Bremer and his staff since the increase in Iraqi policing is supposed to give Iraqis more security, not less.
So it may be necessary to recall what happened in Algeria. For months there, we asked how the Islamic groups in the country could obtain so many police uniforms, so many vehicles, so many checkpoint barriers. And it was more than a year before we realised that the "false" checkpoints were often real checkpoints, that many of the gunmen were real policemen who changed their allegiance at night from government loyalist to insurgent.
So let us ask a sinister question. Where did the "false" Iraqi policemen get their uniforms this week? Did they steal them? Or were they wearing the uniforms with which they had been issued by the occupation authorities?