BAGHDAD, Jan. 29 -- On the expressway from Dora, Baghdad's southern gateway, the election banners fluttered in a brisk wind along a chain-link fence. There were the promising words that have punctuated life here for the past month as Iraq prepared to vote for a parliament: prosperity, stability, security, an end to the occupation and the beginning of democracy.
On Saturday, hardly a car passed to bear witness.
U.S. soldiers leave their Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a patrol in Baghdad's volatile Haifa Street neighborhood the day before elections.
(Darren Mccollester -- Getty Images)
Those that did -- a white Toyota carrying a coffin draped in a worn blue blanket, a battered orange-and-white taxi, a transport truck -- were turned back from a checkpoint at the city's edge that was barring traffic between Baghdad and the provinces. Waist-high concrete barricades and coils of razor wire sat across ramps that fanned from the highway. Columns of Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers, followed by their U.S. counterparts, rumbled down the street, its median plowed by the treads of others.
Guns at the ready, they passed a billboard recruiting for the Iraqi National Guard. "Determined to protect and serve," it read in part. The rest was unreadable, splashed by black paint. At times, the crack of gunfire echoed in the distance, and muffled blasts rolled across a city as deserted as it was on the day before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. In neighborhoods like Dora, the only image of ease was boys kicking soccer balls in abandoned streets they had turned into playing fields.
"God watches over us," Ahmed Daliyan said simply, as he surveyed the scene from his car. "God is present."
Baghdad was a city under siege Saturday, suspended between hope and fear.
From Dora in the south to Kadhimiyah in the north, residents of the capital greeted the coming elections with sentiments so visceral that they touched on the very questions of identity and survival. In Shiite neighborhoods, many looked back and jubilantly anticipated change: The vote would be their moment to redress decades, even centuries, of repression and disenfranchisement. Sunnis looked grimly ahead: A country they had long recognized as theirs seemed to be slipping away. Across the divide, in a city reminiscent of wartime Baghdad, many hoped for what they had never had: an ordinary life.
"After the election, there will be a government, a government that will take responsibility," said Karim Shayal as he stood in a mile-long line waiting to fill his car with gasoline. "Now there's no law, and there's no order."
Silence and Barbed Wire
When a car bomb detonated Friday on the expressway in Dora, a neighborhood where insurgents sometimes operate in the open, the driver was killed, as were four civilians. Four other people were wounded. The Interior Ministry offered its verdict on the driver: "He went to hell, to what he deserves," said Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman, a ministry spokesman. Yahya Sadiq, 30, selling firewood from his shop along the road, offered another: "Baghdad is not safe."
Sadiq looked out at the road, at the policemen, the plainclothes officers toting AK-47s and the occasional Humvee speeding past a roadside stripped bare to deprive insurgents of cover. The risk was too great, he said. He would stay at home Sunday.
"The fear and anxiety are greater than before the war," he said.
Across Baghdad, most of the cars to be seen Saturday morning were waiting in the long gasoline lines that have become common in the past two months. By noon, though, most of the remaining gas stations had closed, and the streets became even emptier. The quiet was broken only by the sirens of Iraqi police vehicles with men in balaclavas in back, pointing their rifles in every direction.
Polling stations were ringed with barbed wire. Some roads were blocked with cinder blocks, cement-filled barrels, cardboard boxes, rusted chairs and chunks of concrete. In Bab Shurji, a criminal haven, crowds scurried down the street when shots were fired in the air; they fled past deserted stalls and along a sidewalk strewn with trash. The few shops that were open quickly shuttered.
"Any Iraqi who loves his country will not feel good about the situation today," Sadiq said. "The terrorists are surrounding all the polling stations in Iraq. They don't want stability, and they don't want good for the Iraqi people."