Govt.-Funded Electronic Surveillance Center Monitors Suspicious Activity in Baghdad

Strategically placed govt. cameras tack suspicious activity; citizens approve.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 14, 2009 — -- Fighting terror in Baghdad is going high-tech and recently had its first concrete success.

The Electronic Surveillance Center in Baghdad Governorate employees each received $40 for detecting a car bomb set to go off last month through one of the cameras placed around Baghdad.

The surveillance center, the only one of its kind in Baghdad that is funded by the local government council, started up in January 2008 and employs 83 people. The employees work on 20 computers to supervise the work of 113 armored cameras atop governmental buildings.

"We are anonymous soldiers who work to maintain security in Baghdad," said Jabbar Shati, the head of the surveillance center. "Though five of our team were kidnapped, shot at by snipers, cameras stolen or sabotaged, we managed to overcome these obstacles to keep this project going on."

The wireless armored camera in this center weighs 297 pounds, with its two solar batteries and antenna. The cameras monitor suspicious vehicles, and the traffic police benefit from the center to help divert traffic to ease the flow of cars in the capital, which has a population of more than 7 million.

The center is also responsible for transmitting images to the Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office, the interior ministry and the Baghdad operation command because there is no other center in Iraq with the same surveillance technology.

Shati, a former Iraqi army officer and engineer, has a few conditions for where he places the wireless cameras: "First, the place should be a high governmental building, so that it will be protected. Then, it should be a vital area that overlooks one of the main intersections in Baghdad."

Mohammed Al-Rubaie, a member of the Baghdad local council, told, "It is a successful idea to have this center, but we need to improve it and give it more support. We need to give training courses to the employees so that they give us better results and know how to handle the images they see."

During a later interview, Al-Rubaie added that plans are in motion starting "next month, with the help of the governor, to make the center work 24/7, with three working shifts."

That would be a remarkable change from the current work schedule: The center currently is up and running just five hours a day, five days a week.

Many people in Baghdad didn't know the center existed until Aug. 19, when the Baghdad elected council released a video taken by one of the center's surveillance cameras of a car bomb that went off in front of the ministry of foreign affairs. That was during a time when a series of car bombs and explosions hit the capital, which led to the deaths of 100 people and more than 1,000 people injured.

Saad Jabbar, a 33-year-old pharmacist, is optimistic about the surveillance and does not see the cameras as a breach of privacy.

"These cameras are for the benefit of the people in the street. It is there because of the current security situation and because security is more important than anything else in the time being," Jabbar said. "I won't mind putting these cameras in the streets, and I don't think that the aim of these cameras is to watch on people, but is targeting the enemies of the people."

When you enter the surveillance center inside a Baghdad government building, you find young men and women gazing at screens in front of them and using gears to zoom in and out to check on suspicious vehicles on the streets that their cameras monitor. They are in direct contact with high-level security personnel who can react to any information sent from the center.

Surveillance Center Wants More Hours, Additional Cameras

Shati said he is elated when his team discovers or aborts a car bomb or an IED (improvised explosive device) before it goes off.

"I feel satisfied that my team succeeded in [its] job," he said.

But when a car bomb goes off in front of his cameras, he said, "We felt disappointed and very sad for the people who were killed or injured, and we couldn't prevent the explosion."

While the terrorists are the enemies of the center, the hot, "sandy" weather can also have a detrimental effect. Dusty or sandy soil is kicked up by the wind and can contribute to the failure of cameras that work on solar energy.

The cameras need to be properly maintained and adjusted, and adding a new camera can often be a problem for the center. At times, it has experienced inhospitable security forces personnel who monitor their own buildings, Shati said.

An engineer at the Baghdad Municipality took down a nearly 50-foot-high tower that had been recently erected for a new camera because the engineer didn't want it there, even though the engineer's supervisors had given the center permission to install the tower, Shati said.

Engineer Wail Hafidh, 37, said the cameras can be put to good use, but he would still like to know who is manning the surveillance cameras.

"It is a positive thing to have cameras that would clarify things if anything bad happens," he said. "But who is behind the camera and how is he going to use the material is an important question in the time being."

The center wants to place 87 additional cameras around Baghdad, and Shati said immediate plans are to start the work from dawn till sunset before a round-the-clock shift takes place.

Baghdad local council member Mohammed Al-Rubaie reiterated the need, saying, "We need to make the workers work for 24/7, and this is in the benefit of Baghdad and Baghdadis."

Shati and his team are waiting for the elected council to make that adjustment in work hours. They know that after the center discovered the car bomb, their work will be monitored by terrorists, and they themselves will become targets.

"We are persistent to continue our work no matter what happens because this is a national duty," Shati said.