Islamabad After the Marriott Bombing: The Baghdad Effect

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Muhammad Sajjad / AP

Alert to danger: Paramilitary troops in the tribal region

Over the past few years, Pakistan's government and generous foreign donors have spent tens of millions of dollars building roads and widening existing ones across Islamabad. The canyon-like underpasses and grand boulevards are meant to help traffic flow around the capital. But since a truck packed with 600 kg of high-grade explosives rammed into the Marriott hotel on Sept. 20, city officials have scrambled to reverse the plan, hoisting in concrete barriers to slow traffic, setting up police checkpoints, and seriously beefing up the "red-zone" security area around parliament, the prime minister's house, other government buildings and big hotels.

Call it the Baghdad effect. The colorful moniker may differ slightly from the "green-zone" U.S. forces carved out of central Baghdad, but Islamabad is beginning to feel a little like the Iraqi capital these days, especially since the devastating Marriott bombing that killed 54 people. True, Islamabad is not tattered by years of economic sanctions, nor pockmarked by days of aerial bombardment. And it is not occupied by a foreign army. But on my first trip here in six months, I'm struck by all the ways — small and big, physical and mental — Islamabad has become Baghdad circa the summer 2003.

Take those concrete barriers. They are not yet the 12-foot tall monsters that eventually scarred Baghdad's streets like lifeless, bleached reefs (and which were being taken down in one part of the Iraqi capital last week). But big or small, the effect on traffic is the same: huge jams, boiling frustrations and growing chunks of the city off limits to ordinary citizens. The most visible no-go area in Islamabad today is the high end of Constitution Avenue (there's a moral in that somewhere), but security forces are also closing off smaller roads, remaking traffic flows by the day.

The scramble to secure hotels and government offices means you can be screened two or three times just to get into a building these days. The international airport in neighboring Rawalpindi was closed to taxis and civilian vehicles the night I flew in because of bomb threats. Worshippers at one of the biggest mosques now have to park some distance away after another bomb scare. Diplomats have started removing their consular license plates and replacing them with ordinary plates to lessen the chances of being spotted by would-be assassins. Diplomats have become so wary of venturing out from the relative safety of the diplomatic zone that a group of city shop owners has just set up a 30-shop market inside the enclave. Though hurriedly built, the traders say they are already working on plans for a more permanent market in the area to take advantage of the walled-in, well-to-do consumers.

That's not going to help people like Laeeq Quereshi, 53, who owns a shop selling plastic kitchenware in Kohsar market, where Islamabad's wealthier local residents and foreigners used to flock for imported foods and other goodies. "It's very slow," says Quereshi of recent trade. "The economy is down but security is the big problem: bombings, thieves. Pakistan is falling." Quereshi was robbed at gunpoint on his way to work recently. The three men took 70 rupees in cash (just under $1) as well as his beloved Nokia cell phone "with camera." Grimacing as he talks, he forms his hand into a pistol and then says: "Just like in California, who's poor, who's hungry they come and take what they want now. It's becoming wild." His nephew Tariq Aziz, who helps out in the shop. says the government needs to improve security. "They should check every car coming through," he says, pointing down the road towards a barrier that slows cars but does not require them to stop. "This city is too unsafe."

With the most popular big hotel now destroyed and local restaurants frequented by westerners the target of extremists — Luna Caprese, one of the few places in this Islamic country where you could have a glass of wine with a meal, was bombed in March — Islamabad's sleepy night life has slipped into a veritable coma. Throw in regular power cuts, soaring food inflation and an economy teetering on recession and the citizens of Pakistan's capital are pretty stressed out.

Showing me to the front gate of his modest central Islamabad home this week, former foreign minister Abdul Sattar visibly shudders as he recalls the sound of the explosion as the Marriott went up. "Horrible," he says. "The whole thing is horrible. You can hardly go out anymore without worrying" There's still lingering hope that the new government can improve security and get the economy humming again. But perhaps the scariest part of comparing Islamabad to Baghdad is the knowledge that things got much worse in Iraq before they got better.