Why Iraq's undercover security men are saying 'Call me a cab!'

The tradition that taxi drivers pick up a lot of gossip is allegedly being exploited by the security services in Baghdad - and 'real' cabbies are raging at the loss of passengers.

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BAGHDAD // Taxi drivers the world over are renowned as a bountiful source of gossip, sometimes dubious, sometimes not, gathered in large part via what they overhear from passengers. And in Baghdad, afflicted by a deadly insurgency and deep political instability, there is a special importance to some of the things that taxi drivers overhear. Now, it appears, the country's intelligence services have realised how much information can be gathered just by sitting in the driving seat of a cab - with the result, according to Baghdad's cabbies, that undercover security agents have gone into the minicab trade and are stealing away all their customers "There's no doubt it's the secret police," said Amer al Husseini, a 29 year-old driver working in the Kadhimiyah neighbourhood. "All of a sudden you'll see lots of new taxis in Kadhimiyah and none of us know any of the drivers. That's how you can be sure it's the security looking for information about some terrorist group.

"They go around, picking up passengers and trying to find out what's going on. It's might be good for the secret police but it's bad for us real taxi drivers because they take all the business." In the Middle East it is not uncommon for the security services to have agents working as taxi drivers, or to recruit cabbies as informants. They are inconspicuous, get to hear and see what is going on in the streets and can pump people for information in the guise of their ostensibly aimless chatter. Since the Iraq elections in March there has been increasing muttering among Baghdad's fleet of privately owned taxis about these so-called secret police cabs. The main problem for Mr al Hussein is that the new taxis aggressively undercut normal fares in order to get customers.

"I'll be there waiting in the sun, sometimes for hours, to get a passenger," Mr al Hussein said. "Then one of these new taxis will come up and they'll challenge you for the customer and will offer big discount, a price no real taxi would take because it wouldn't even cover their costs. But they have no costs, they're the secret police." It is not just in Kadhimiyah. In other areas of the capital, taxi drivers tell a similar story. What annoys them most is their unshakeable sense that these police-run taxis have evolved from being an intelligence-gathering scheme into a moneymaking enterprise for the security services. "There are new taxis all over this place, they're all security," said Anwar Abbas, who lives and works in Karrada, a neighbourhood with a high population of government members and Shia political parties.

"It's supposed to help them collect information but look, all the attacks are still happening, do they stop any of them? Really it's a work opportunity, a chance to make more money. The intelligence people get their police salary and on top of that they get a taxi for free and put all their fares in their pocket.  "It's the same in all the ministries. The people in power give these nice jobs to their friends and families, and the rest of us have to suffer. I worked hard to save for my taxi, but now it's hard to earn a living." Government security officials refused to discuss the question of intelligence operatives using taxis. Politicians were also reticent, saying that such national security matters could not be commented on publicly.

In the Ameen neighbourhood of Baghdad, a stronghold of the Sadrists and an area once controlled by its Mahdi Army militia, taxi driver Ali Mohammad al Mesaudi said there was a local struggle underway against the intelligence service's taxis. "The secret police taxis are trying to work here because they're worried about the Mahdi Army coming back," he said. "But the Sadrists know everyone in this neighbourhood so they can immediately spot these strangers. They don't want them here collecting information." Mr al Mesaudi said he had heard rumours that three of the new drivers had disappeared. "Stories like this go around and they might be true," he said.

Back in Kadhimiyah, driver Amer al Husseini complained that his earnings had dropped significantly in recent months, with the arrival of the new taxi teams. "I took a loan out to buy my car and now these newer taxis are around, offering almost free rides," he said. "Some days I don't earn US$5 (Dh18) while the secret police are putting that in their pocket as tip money. "It wouldn't matter so much if all of these agents were stopping the bombs and the shootings but they're not. The police are all too busy on their taxi rounds. They've forgotten what their real job is." nlatif@thenational.ae