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Spate Of Car Seizures Leaves Iraqis Guessing

A car in the Iraqi capital with a license plate from Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region
Authorities in the Iraqi capital have impounded dozens of cars in a move that's likely to put a dent in a practice that regularly saves new-car buyers thousands of dollars.

Baghdad officials say there's no clampdown and that police are merely seizing cars whose documentation is incomplete.

But the backdrop to the problem and the possible repercussions for Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region -- which continues to feud with Iraq's central government over a range of issues from law enforcement to political representation to oil revenues -- have some people accusing Baghdad of duplicitous dealings in order to teach the Kurdish leadership a lesson.

Iraq has seen a massive increase in automobile ownership in recent years, and the resulting traffic congestion has troubled residents of Baghdad and other major cities. (Here's a report from two years ago about traffic woes in the Iraqi capital.)

One of the ways the national government has tried to apply the brakes to car imports is to quit issuing license plates. So in order to register a new car, owners have had to buy an old car and then mount the plates on the new one. That adds anywhere from around $3,000 to as much as $7,000 or more to the cost of a new car.

A loophole lies in the fact that the government in the Kurdish autonomous region issues license plates for the equivalent of around $200. Many motorists simply avoided the charge by buying and/or registering their cars there (and reportedly providing a boon to Kurdish car importers).

But a spate of around 50 impoundments in the Iraqi capital in late November has spooked drivers and sparked local media reports of a crackdown to close the loophole. A lawmaker for the Kurdistan Alliance, Mahmh Khalil Sinjari, says he's heard complaints from people who say they're being targeted because their cars have Kurdish plates.

Baghdad officials deny there has been any decision to single out Kurdish-registered cars for special treatment, although they suggest that the Kurdish authorities have lagged in sharing important registration information in some cases.

Whether the traffic stops and seizures continue or not, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq says they've already had an effect on drivers in the capital, many of whom are opting to take taxis rather than risk losing their shiny new wheels just because they're caught up in politics between Baghdad and Irbil.

-- Andy Heil

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