January 8, 2005

If It Ain't Broke, Fix It

 Images 2005 01 04 International Iraq583-2

Back in November, The Atlantic published a wonderful article by William Langewiesche called “Welcome to the Green Zone.”  (Unfortunately, it is no longer available on line without a subscription.)  The piece was an in depth look into the operation and mindset of the Coalition Provisional Authority — the American contingent that assumed control of Iraq in April 2003.  Setting up operations in a four square mile area previously consisting of Saddam Hussein’s governmental palace and official grounds, this 5,000 person bureaucracy set out to redesign Iraqi governance from scratch.

The article spends a good deal of time talking about traffic.  Apparently, the traffic system in Baghdad had been quite orderly prior to the American invasion.  With the fall of the regime, however, congestion increased, military vehicles caused heightened confusion, and the traffic police–stripped of their authority–stopped enforcing the system. 

Considering the situation, an official in the CPA decided that, rather than repairing something that probably only needed a little support, a completely new, “modern” set of standards would be developed (based on the traffic code of the state of Maryland).  Unfortunately, months slipped away as CPA personnel and Iraqi police haggled over new rules, including the prevention of smoking and cell phone use while driving, as well as a crackdown on petty bribe-taking by traffic cops (which, the author discovered, turned out to be the most crucial element in the successful operation of the previous system). 

This photo, which appeared in last Tuesday’s New York Times, shows Iraqi security personnel reacting following a car bombing at a checkpoint near the offices of the interim Prime Minister.  (Here’s the article link to see a larger version of the picture.)

What I find most interesting about this image is that, in the face of our comic-if-not-disastrous attempt to remake that society, it suggests that the people of Bagdad haven’t lacked for their own sense of direction.  Besides the fact every vehicle seems pointed a different way (reflecting the immediate chaos, and/or the fact that traffic enforcement is still screwed up) the picture (beyond the mayhem) reveals a wealth of coherence in terms of orientation.

If you look closely, you will see: (1) the left hand turn to Hilla; (2) another turn that goes to the left (mostly obscured by the smoke); (3) the right hand turn to the City Center and Damascus;  (4) a round blue and white traffic sign mounted on the pole just beyond the blue upper left tip of the police car’s alarm light; (5) a free standing clock with faces pointed conveniently in at least two different directions; and (6) another blue and white directional sign indicating a roundabout.

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4. 200501051638-2    5.  200501051638-3    6.  200501051638-4

(image: Ali Jasim/Reuters in NYTimes)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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