One Week In Baghdad

By Zeyad
Sunday, March 19, 2006

BAGHDAD

SUNDAY, March 12 A sudden whizzzzzz . . . KABOOM sent me flying from the couch where I was dozing off, watching TV.

"What was that?" my father asked from the hallway.

"Probably a mortar round," I replied. "A close one."

"Good. They're lobbing mortars at us now. What's next?" he said and went back to his bedroom.

It's almost 9 p.m., a dangerous time to go outside. Neighborhood watch teams -- young men brandishing AK-47s, pistols, RPGs and even sniper rifles -- set up checkpoints around this time. Many were referred to as the "mujahideen" or insurgents in the past. Now, they are considered defenders of our largely Sunni district against Shiite death squads and militias.

I tried to stay interested in the Steven Seagal action flick on TV, but my focus kept shifting to the occasional rumble of mortar shells outside. After a while I went upstairs to use the Internet.

Just as I set foot in my room, an intense barrage of gunfire erupted on our street. Not good. My cellphone was ringing; it was a friend who lives down our street. "It's an American patrol," he al most whispered. "I can see Humvees from where I am. And it looks like they have Iraqi police with them."

"Keep your head down for God's sake."

I went to check on my younger brother, Nabil. He was playing his guitar to a Metallica tune, oblivious to his surroundings. His room has a better view, but it's not wise to stick one's head out of a window when Americans are nearby. The street was dark, but they have night vision goggles. A sniper bullet in the head is not a fun prospect, so I lay low and tried to listen.

I did hear a radio transmission from an Iraqi police vehicle, and what sounded like an American soldier shouting. The gunfire had ceased, probably after the local vigilantes had realized it was Americans, not militias or Interior ministry forces entering our territory. The vehicles moved away, and the alarm level dropped.

No point in trying to figure out what happened. It could wait for the morning, when people would give you different versions of the incident.

I checked the door locks and called it a night.

MONDAY "The street is blocked," my taxi driver proclaimed as we approached my stop near a bus station in the Bab Al-Sharjee district in central Baghdad. "No problem. I'll get out here," I told him, forking over his fare. He grunted, and shifted into reverse.

I skulked along the remaining 300-meter stretch of street -- the main route taken by security officials from the Green Zone to the ministries' complex, and a favorite location for bombings. I usually just take a deep breath, light a cigarette and keep moving, sticking close to the wall. To my dismay, though, I found a police pickup vehicle parked in front of the bus station. A crowded bus station is already a juicy target for suicide bombers; a police patrol is an added attraction. But one has to shrug those thoughts aside, or we'd all be clinically crazy by now.

Thankfully, the minibus didn't take long to fill -- with a couple of ladies in abayas, their two very noisy kids, a mechanic, a laborer (from the looks of him), an old man flipping through a newspaper, two nondescript young men and me, the suburban dentist. Our destination: a district on the outskirts of the capital.

We passed through countless checkpoints manned by Iraqi troops. This time, the soldiers just waved us through. Sometimes they stop us and ask for our IDs. I gave up carrying mine some time ago; it revealed too much information, such as tribal, regional and sectarian background. I just use my neutral work ID now.

We noticed several American Humvees blocking the street. Our driver lurched onto the sidewalk and tried to squeeze through, but an American soldier yelled at him to go back, pointing his weapon at us. Without a moment's hesitation, the driver took us down a side road. Uh oh, I thought. This is where executed, blindfolded young men turn up every other day. In one case, bodies were found in a minibus -- just like the one I was in.

Any other day, I would have given up and gone home, but I needed to get my salary, because I can't rely on getting to work every day next week. Preparations for the Arbaeen religious anniversary are underway, and this road will be blocked to traffic to accommodate the hordes of Shiite pilgrims heading on foot to Karbala.

TUESDAY We were engrossed in morning preparations at work when a colleague called our attention to the latest "episode" of Saddam's trial -- a form of cheap entertainment for many Iraqis against the backdrop of dreary events in Baghdad. At least it's the one thing that Iraqis of all backgrounds agree upon.

Colleagues rushed, tea mugs in hand, to take a look at TV. Our clinic director wasn't amused, but he didn't protest. After all, there are no drugs in our pharmacy, my dental chair hasn't been fixed for months -- and even if it was, there are no anesthetics.

Iraqis have lost all hope for any real justice in this god-awful country. People here have long been accustomed to taking justice into their own hands -- or forgetting it altogether. "They should just lynch him and spare us this farce," one patient remarked. His comment sparked heated debate. I've heard all the arguments so I try not to listen. Iraqis are divided over everything. They can't even agree over a dictator who ruled them with a fist of steel for 30 years.

WEDNESDAY My neighbors suggested we go out for lunch today. They are a young couple living just across the street, with two kids, a girl and a boy, ages 11 and 5. I often spend time with them in the evening during the curfew, or around tea time.

I learned from my neighbor's wife that a stray bullet injured her mother's cousin during the firefight in our street three nights ago. It went right through her window and shattered her collarbone. It was tragic, considering that her son was killed just months ago by kidnappers after the old widow failed to pay his ransom of $50,000.

We discussed the issue of Abu Ghassan, who lived next door to them until he decided to take his family and relocate to Syria. He is a very well-to-do businessman and a car battery dealer. His lavish lifestyle brought him unwanted attention in our area, and it took him one failed kidnapping attempt to decide to sell up and leave.

It was an excruciating scene, watching neighbors of a lifetime carry their suitcases at dawn to board an SUV to Syria. Being forced to leave your home is not a trivial affair. The country is being stripped of its intelligentsia, and I fear that soon we will be left only with fanatics. Add to that the forced migrations of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds out of mixed areas to sectarian strongholds.

We discussed these issues over a splendid meal of masgoof (roasted fish) on a refreshing sunny day on the bank of the Tigris, in the company of family and friends.

THURSDAY If there is any advantage of the Iraq war, it would have to be the endless stream of national and religious holidays. There was a daytime curfew today because of the opening parliamentary session, and not much activity is expected during the next week as the Arbaeen holiday will be taking place.

The new parliament was sworn in today. Our bickering politicians agreed to disagree yet again, and this time it was over the oath. I sometimes can't help wondering if it was the war that has left us so divided, or have we been that way all along.

The family stayed indoors for most of the day. For my mother it was a relief. She constantly worries and calls us on our phones, asking if everything is okay.

In addition to regular and fixed holidays, it is possible to make up your own, citing an unexpected security incident as an excuse. Many have mastered that useful trick. Personally, I use it sparingly because very often, I actually do get caught up in roadblocks.

People who need to make a living from day jobs, such as laborers, grocers and taxi drivers, are not impressed with the daytime curfews and holidays. Business is already suffering because of deteriorating security, power and fuel shortages. But lazy civil servants such as myself can lie back and enjoy the fruits of "liberation."

FRIDAY A quiet day, which left me to ponder a question that haunts me: We Iraqis continue to live between the hammer of terrorists and the anvil of American, British and Iraqi security forces. But what kind of a people are we to respond by killing our own?

zeyad_w@hotmail.com

Zeyad, an Iraqi dentist who spent his childhood in Britain, lives in Baghdad. His blog, Healing Iraq (http://healingiraq.blogspot.com) started in October 2003. For security reasons, Zeyad publishes only his first name.

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