Iraq is a country where all manner of threats are issued every day, all too many of them genuine. One of the most chilling, though, is also one of the oddest-sounding: “Beware, or you’ll end up in a Toyota Crown.”
In any other country, a ride in a middle-of-the-range Japanese saloon car is not a prospect that would send chills down anyone’s spine. In Iraq, though, the Toyota Crown has become the unlikely wheels of choice for insurgent gangs, for whom it offers the ideal blend of speed and affordability for the busy assassin and kidnapper-about town.
So many Toyota Crowns have been used in hits, car bombs and abductions that the police and army in Baghdad often make a point of searching them at checkpoints. And in the same fashion, they have acquired a talismanic presence among ordinary Iraqis, for whom the mere name has become a byword for death. To add yet another surreal touch, the Iraqi nickname for the Crown is the Batta, or Duck (something to do, I believe, with the way the word “Crown” translates into Iraqi Arabic)
I learned all this during a recent visit to the Baghdad national theatre, where one of the directors mentioned that a conservative religious militia had warned him that they would “send a Duck to pick him up.” As he told this to me, his colleagues gave a collective whistle and shook their heads in sympathy.
It’s not the first time that a car of the sort more associated with someone like Alan Partridge has become the stuff of insurgent legend in Iraq. As I reported in The Sunday Telegraph in 2005, the Opel Vectra — known in Britain as the Vauxhall Vectra, and once described by Jeremy Clarkson as “the acme of dull and boring” — became popular with budget-conscious Sunni guerrillas for a while.
Vectras were regularly used in the murder of government officials ahead of the 2005 election, and according to police in the northern city of Kirkuk, they featured in 51 of 63 attacks officers during the latter half of 2004. In Sunni neighbourhoods of Baghdad, there used to be graffiti warning locals who collaborated with the US to “watch out for the Opel”.
So why have these two particular vehicles been favoured? At the risk of sounding like a reviewer for “Assassin’s Car Fleet Monthly” or “What Hitman’s Car?”, I can cite a number of reasons for their appeal in insurgent motoring circles.
First, by way of background, both cars were among the brands of second-hand vehicles that flooded into Iraq from neighbouring Kuwait just after the US invasion, when sanctions that had previously banned all car imports were lifted. They were therefore both cheap and in abundance, as well as being a lot newer than most of Iraq’s existing decrepit car stock.
In the case of the Vectra, the electronic sunroof that is standard with some models acts a useful “top gunner” turret, while the 130mph top speed is enough for a quick getaway. And in the case of the Crown, the generous boot space is great for putting corpses in, according to a Shia insurgent who spoke to The Times a few years ago.
“The Toyota Crown Super saloon is a favourite,” he enthused, talking in much the same way as a DIY enthusiast might praise a Volvo’s capacity for carrying extra-long strips of plyboard. “You can get four people in the boot.”
So there you have it — the perfect runabout for the average working man. Especially if you’re sticking him in the trunk with three of his friends. Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to make it into Toyota’s next sales campaign…
Colin Freeman, who was based in Baghdad as a freelance journalist between 2003 and 2005, returned to the Iraqi capital last month to report on how life has changed. This blog is one of a series. His book about living in Iraq is The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and other half-truths from Baghdad.