IRAQ: A duck that strikes fear in the hearts of Iraqis
Few things strike fear in the heart of an Iraqi quite like an inconspicuous sedan known locally as a Batta --Duck, in Arabic.
In Baghdad and the major cities of southern Iraq, the Toyota Crown has become the signature of Shiite Muslim militiamen, who stuff their hapless victims into its roomy trunk and speed away.
Once, I was driving back from the southern city of Basra with a Times driver when we spotted one of these cars parked next to the highway with five young men inside. Our hearts started pounding. Sure enough, when we drove past them, they gave chase.
Their car was so fast that they managed to overtake us and block the road. But my driver swerved into the dirt and drove around them. Still, they didn’t give up. My driver’s face was pale, and he was shaking. He veered again to avoid a pothole and banged his head against the roof of the car.
"I can’t move my neck!" he shouted.
"Keep driving," I told him. "It’s a matter of life and death!"
The Batta was gaining on us, when suddenly we faced two trucks in front of us. One was trying to pass the other and taking up the entire road. Again, my driver slammed his foot on the accelerator and swerved off the road to overtake them. He then checked the rear-view mirror and laughed with relief.
"Raheem, they returned back!" he shouted.
We made it home safely that day.
The Batta is so notorious that songs have been written about it.
"We are afraid of the Opel (a car favored by Sunni gunmen) and the Batta. We are afraid of the jaish (army) and the shurtta (police)," goes one ditty.
For Ghassan Abdullah Suaiman, the Batta is like a "bad omen." He worked as a barber in Basra until the day that four masked gunmen pulled up in front of his shop in a Batta and ordered him to quit what they regarded as a sacrilegious profession.
He then started working as a taxi driver. One day, when he was looking for passengers, he saw a group of gunmen drive up to a cleric in a Batta and kill him along with an associate.
"I don’t like this car at all," Suaiman said.
For years, the gunmen had almost free rein in the lawless cities of the south.
The Iraqi security forces "weren’t doing anything to the gunmen who were killing or kidnapping, even when it happened right near their checkpoints," said Rafid Kareem, a pharmacist in the city of Amarah. "Even if they found some weapons inside a Batta, they would not take any action if (the occupants) told them they were from this or that party. Of course, if they did do anything against them, their lives would have been in danger."
A policeman in Basra, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, conceded that he never used to stop Battas when they passed through his checkpoint.
"We were afraid of the people using the Batta," he said. "Large numbers of Battas passed through our checkpoint in which there were gunmen, but we couldn’t stop them, punish them or even question them."
However, things have started to change since the government poured reinforcements into Basra in late March to crack down against militiamen. Now, owning one of these cars is an invitation to be searched.
"Checkpoints are always stopping me to ask about the car documents," grumbled Wisam Adil Salim, who has driven a Batta for years. "This is tiresome to me. My documents are legal."
The car’s fearsome reputation occasionally leads to misunderstandings.
A captain in the government’s Facilities Protection Service, who also asked not to be identified, said he lived in constant fear of assassination. As he was walking home one day, a Batta with no license plate pulled up alongside him with three men inside.
"I didn’t know how to behave," he said. Confused thoughts raced through his mind: "I’m going to be shot! I have no weapon!"
"I was thinking to grab a piece of brick or even a handful of dirt," he said. "But one of them asked me: "Please, where is the Qais the Martyr medical center?"
The captain said it took him more than a week to get over the fright.
A traffic police officer, who was also too afraid to give his name, said he thought the gunmen deliberately used the vehicle when they committed atrocities, so that people would quake at the mere sight of them.
"During this security campaign, hundreds of such cars were seized, as they have no legal documents," the officer said. "After that, the rate of crimes decreased a lot."
Photo: Just the sight of a Toyota Crown is enough to strike fear in the hearts of Iraqis. The vehicle is favored by Shiite Muslim militiamen. Credit: Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles Times.