A Bus, and Talk of Iraq's Future, Course Through a City's Streets

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 11, 2005

BAGHDAD -- The call went out as it does every few minutes, along a line of parked minibuses that ferry Baghdadis across town. "New Baghdad!" the driver shouted. "New Baghdad!" Dhia Abbas, with a clutch of papers tucked under his arm, clambered into a seat next to the window and, with a sigh marking the end of his workday, sat back for the ride home.

His tattered city sprawled beyond the cracked glass. Election posters festooned concrete barriers, a dash of color across the ubiquitous gray. Yellow barrels, to deter car bombs, snarled traffic.

"My sense is that Iraq is being destroyed day after day," Abbas said, a hint of pain in his voice. "Iraq and the Iraqis."

He handed his fare to the driver -- 17 cents. He looked back out the window and for a moment, savoring the quiet, sat silent.

The bruised and battered minibuses that ply Baghdad's streets are known as kias , the name borrowed from a specific Korean model. In a city divided by sect, ethnicity, class and so on, they glide across its psychological borders, at times a bit recklessly. Rich and poor, religious and secular, Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurd gather inside, brought together by circumstance. In a forum of sorts, the conservations that follow swirl around life, death and, these days, the election this week to choose a new parliament.

Iraq's last parliamentary election, in January, was perhaps most remarkable for what it symbolized: a long-repressed people exercising democratic rights. The constitutional referendum in October was often described as a means to end the country's prolonged uncertainty. A sense of dread and desperation underlines this vote. It is frustration with a year in which people's lives have improved little. It is unease, too, over a contest in which visions for the future are polarized.

Abbas's kia was soon barreling down the streets, through the congested commercial avenues of the Karrada district and into the jumble of shops selling spare tires and auto parts in an area known as Rashid Camp. A line of cars at a gas station wrapped around the corner. On a fence topped by barbed wire was a poster that had been put up for the vote on Iraq's constitution: "The guarantee for Iraq's future."

Newer posters vied for Abbas's attention: for a coalition of religious Shiite parties, for the Kurdish list and for new entrants to electoral politics -- Sunni parties that boycotted the parliamentary vote in January. "Expelling the occupier is our goal, building Iraq is our project," one of their posters read.

Abbas said he would vote Thursday for the list of Ayad Allawi, the former interim prime minister. Allawi was appointed by the United States in 2004. He was professional, Abbas said, and neutral. He was unlike the religious Shiites empowered in January. He could do something about the proliferation of militias in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere. He was a strong leader.

Echoing a view heard often, Abbas said Allawi's appeal was what he was not -- ostensibly sectarian and overly religious.

"If he loses, we'll remain in the same vicious circle," he said.

The kia crossed what was once known as the Great Saddam Bridge. It is now named for Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, a Shiite cleric assassinated in a car bombing in Najaf in August 2003. Its railing was variously bent, missing or crumpled in the street. At its exit was coil after coil of barbed wire before the New Baghdad police station. A billboard advertisement by a mobile phone company, Iraqna, celebrated more than 1 million customers. "We appreciate your trust," it read. In Abbas's neighborhood, municipal water no longer flowed as it did before the U.S. invasion. Like others, he paid about $3 for a tanker to bring water each week to his street.

Before he stepped down, Abbas turned to a visitor. "I thought we'd be like Germany or Japan. They were rebuilt after their wars," he said. "Bush called for a war on terrorism, but he fought it on our soil, not his. He protected his people but destroyed Iraq."

He shook his head as he walked away, toward his home. "Is this justice?" he asked.

Ibrahim Sarkis and Hadi Abu Hassan soon boarded. Sarkis, an Armenian Christian toting a bag of groceries, would vote for Allawi; Abu Hassan was undecided but said he would likely vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shiite religious parties that, by reputation, has the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric. To followers like Abu Hassan, the reclusive Sistani is the marja , whose judgments go unquestioned by the most religious Shiites. His authority is known as the marjaiya .

"Frankly, I think the marjaiya understands the situation," said Abu Hassan, 45, a former prisoner of war who now lives on a pension. He carried a pair of new shoes in a black plastic bag. "They know the details of these questions better than we do."

Sarkis shook his head. "People here are secular, not religious," he said. "Religion is for God, the country is for everyone."

Abu Hassan stared downward. "Both can continue along the same path," he answered, his voice steady, if soft. "There should be some kind of balance. If someone wants to pray, he can. If he doesn't, he doesn't have to."

The 50-year-old Sarkis barely listened before interrupting.

"The issue of religion is bringing the troubles to our country. The religious parties are making problems for everyone else," he said. He looked out the window, past street markets selling everything from socks to pomegranates, stacked on rickety wood stalls topped with soiled tarps. Sirens blared through the street. "If you don't wear the veil, they will kill you," Sarkis said, his words dropping to a whisper. "They are another form of terrorism. If they disagree with you, they will come and kill you."

In the front of the minibus, an argument broke out. The driver said he hadn't collected full fares from everyone. Nearly every passenger joined the quarrel. Some accused the passengers in the back of shortchanging him. Others challenged his calculation.

The driver stopped, refusing to go any farther until he was paid. The minibus went silent. No one was giving an inch.

"This is the way Iraq is," quipped a 17-year-old passenger, Alaa Abdullah.

Tired of the wait, a passenger finally volunteered the difference, and the kia arrived in Bab Moadhim, where it disgorged its passengers.

In recent days, campaign posters have proliferated around the Bab Moadhim station, promising what Iraq lacks. Security is mentioned by most, as is stability. Some promise a better life; others pledge to build the country. Prosperity is a theme. So is sovereignty, unity and, for the Sunni slates, the occupation. The posters tell another story, too: Across the city, many are torn down, wadded along the roadside. Black paint has been thrown over some of Allawi's posters. On one street nearby, a Star of David was scrawled across the portrait of Ahmed Chalabi, an erstwhile American ally seen as sympathetic to Israel.

"There's an occupation. It makes you wonder whether the elections will be 100 percent fair," said Ali Mahmoud, a 19-year-old passenger who studies at the Technological University. "There's an Iraqi government, but the Americans stand in the background."

Mahmoud, with his wispy beard and tinted glasses, was optimistic, more so than the passengers in the seat in front of him. Their sentiments collided, in the kind of cacophony that the city's restrained chaos brings.

One person complained about security.

"The best thing for us to do is take our salary and sit at home," suggested another.

Mohammed Fattah, an unemployed Shiite, and Saad Saadi, a Sunni engineer, carried on the conversation. A scratchy cassette of Shiite laments played. Fattah voted in January and, he said, it got him nothing. He wouldn't vote this time. Saadi would vote for Salih Mutlak, a hard-line Sunni Arab candidate.

"Iraq is a rich country. It has the world's second-largest oil reserves," Saadi said. "What it lacks is leadership."

The 38-year-old Fattah, sharing little else with Saadi, nodded his head in agreement and grew angry.

"We simply want someone good," he said, his voice rising. "We just want the right person to solve our problems. We want to live like other people, like other countries." He paused, then grew angrier. "I'm just boiling!" he shouted.

"A person should be at ease. It's the simplest thing in life, and no one feels that way. I swear to God, I'm not very old and look at my gray hair. There's no country like this -- it's all wars and tragedies. I'm too young for this. We haven't seen anything else, just tragedies. You go here and you see bombings, you go there and you see killings. We need a year of quiet just to settle our minds."

He stopped. Other passengers stared at him, silent as well.

"It makes me feel better to talk," Fattah said.

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