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Snapshots on the Road From Baghdad
On a Drive to a Tent City, the Common Sights of an Uncommon Time

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 6, 2006

BAGHDAD -- Our car slips into traffic headed south on a fresh spring morning, under a sunny sky scrubbed blue by overnight rain. We settle in by chance behind a teal GMC hauling a pine coffin plus corpse on its roof rack, heading to the sprawling Shiite cemetery outside Najaf.

The highways and gray concrete blast walls that shroud Baghdad give way to palm groves and fields of barley and wheat. They line the road to Iraq's Shiite and more peaceful south, our destination on a reporting trip to one of the tent cities opening up for families uprooted by the surging Shiite-Sunni violence.

On the sidewalks and streets of the towns rolling by, I see Arab men in checked headdresses stop to say good morning to each other. They shake hands and pat their hearts, heartfelt hellos.

Iraqi police in the concrete-block watchtowers that line government buildings lean their elbows on sandbags, smiling down on the crowds like the beneficent sun in "Teletubbies."

Before us, a man crossing the main street hoists his robe as he picks his way through puddles. He answers the question of what villagers wear under their drab, ankle-length cotton robes: baggy shorts.

A street sweeper's broom shoots a curtain of muddy rainwater over our windshield. Our walkie-talkie crackles.

"A shame your windows weren't rolled down," our security chief, in one of the vehicles nearby, gibes.

I stop myself from smiling, mostly at the normality of it all. There is an exhilaration from breaking out of the Baghdad grind and easing into life among the talking, shopping, scowling and laughing people.

A colleague in Baghdad once summed up the elation that accompanies election days in Iraq, when round-the-clock curfews and car bans mean everyone -- including Western journalists -- can step out with less worry of getting blown up or being shoved into the trunk of a car. "I felt like lying down in the middle of Karrada and making snow angels," he said after his walk through one of Baghdad's middle-class Shiite neighborhoods.

This day wasn't an election day, just a "routine" reporting trip. Each time we can get out to just do our job in Iraq -- talk to kids at a school, huddle among refugees at a shelter, go to a funeral -- it's a victory, a triumph of planning by ourselves and our Iraqi colleagues and, usually, a pleasure. We do it daily.

Each trip we make has to be weighed against the risk. On this one, we had good security. We had a reasonable destination, the tent city to the south of Baghdad. We had a reporting goal that justified the trip. But a couple of dangerous towns lay ahead. So did the possibility of kidnapping, always.

Looking out the car window, I willfully sobered myself, conjuring an image of our security chief with a bullet through his face, with the blank and stupid look that people get when they've been shot in the head. I ask myself how giddy I will feel if I get the people working with me killed.

I still want to hang my head out the window, though, into the breeze.

* * *

Policemen stand in a ring on the median in one town, their hands on their hips. A couple of other men crowd in. All have their heads tilted down, at what looks through their legs to be a pile of trash.

Bomb hidden in garbage, I figure.

Corpse dumped on the road, the walkie-talkie informs me. Someone freshly killed and newly found, incongruously dead on this bright morning.

* * *

We pass a distant mound, topped with one of Saddam Hussein's ugly palaces that resemble 1970s airports.

"What Saddam did here was terrible," says Saad al-Izzi, our interpreter for the trip. This is Babylon, and what Hussein did was lay bogus concrete restorations and cheesy murals, with smiling winged lions and horned donkeys, over the ancient halls where Nebuchadnezzar once walked. Ancient Babylon today looks like a cut-rate day-care center.

* * *

A tightly contained base of Polish troops hugs the banks of the Euphrates River. Like many of America's coalition partners, the Poles generally seem to stay close to home here, concentrating on what is politely called "base-oriented operations" and keeping their country's casualties low. "You hardly see them," Saad notes of the Polish forces there as we drive past.

Iraqi forces, though, are far more visible than they were a year ago. They seal the south off from the suicide bombers of Baghdad, manning checkpoint after checkpoint where a year ago U.S. forces had to nag them into showing up. U.S. convoys this day roll up and down the road, keeping watch on all.

Saad points out a stretch across the road that marks the farthest-north push of Shiite men in 1991, when the south rose up in a doomed rebellion against Hussein after the Persian Gulf War. The brick factories lining the road here block from view the mass graves that took in hundreds of Shiites, men, women and children, victims of Hussein.

* * *

On the car stereo, automatic-weapons fire marks an unfolding drama on call-in radio. Gunmen have surrounded a Sunni Arab mosque in the battle-zone Jihad neighborhood back in Baghdad. Since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine, mosques have gone from largely respected refuges from the violence to epicenters of it. Shiite militias have fought to evict Sunnis from mosques; Sunni men stand guard with guns outside the places of worship.

Sunni men holed up in the besieged Jihad mosque this morning call up the radio station of a Sunni political party.

"They are not doing anything!" a Sunni man, despairing, tells the call-in radio show host, saying that government forces are ignoring their telephone calls for help.

"We call upon the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior to go there," the radio host says. "We wish God will help you and save you," he tells the caller.

"Okay," the caller says, distracted by the gunshots in the background. He hangs up. Neither man sounded hopeful.

One mosque guard was wounded, Sunni political parties say later.

* * *

More and more roof-racked coffins bob in the stream of traffic. Well-to-do Shiites around the world fly their dead to Iraq for burial in Najaf; those reverent enough to seek their last rest here are said to have an easier way into heaven. Unclaimed victims from Baghdad's bombings and bullets are being trucked in here in for free burial, courtesy of Shiite philanthropists. Poor families who manage to find their dead borrow pine coffins from their mosque, hire a van and bury their loved ones the same day. Those killed by violence are removed from the loaner coffins and buried wearing the clothes they died in, and unwashed of their blood, marking them as martyrs. Weekly shipments of bodies have doubled.

Saad translates for me the verse of the Koran painted on the coffin-vans. Even for secular Iraqis, automotive expressions of intense faith have become advisable for motorists in hopes that religious extremists will see them as fellow travelers and spare them.

For the first time, I learn about the difference between Shiite and Sunni swords, renderings of which are popular windshield decorations. Shiite swords are forked; Sunni swords are curved sabers, Saad explains.

Smart travelers rent vans decorated with Shiite swords for travel down south; vans with sabers are better for trips to Fallujah, Saad says.

Baghdad now has become all about that kind of disguise. Most women wear Islamic-style head scarves when they go out now, whether they want to or not. Many of the Iraqi men on our staff, since the pivotal bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra in February fueled the sectarian killings, are pulling sons named Omar out of public schools. Omar is a Sunni name; rumor is that the Shiite-led Interior Ministry forces are hunting down Omars for killing.

* * *

We pass an Islamic scarecrow: a palm-frond stick man, dishdasha hanging off skinny arms, turban askew in typical low-achieving, dead-end-job scarecrow fashion. We reach our aim, a refugee tent city for families driven from their neighborhoods and towns by Shiite-Sunni violence. Only it's all tents, no refugees. Families would rather squeeze into the crowded shelters opened in cities or set up in outbuildings of farms than live in this dust-blown camp miles from nowhere. Police guarding the empty tents suggest in veiled terms that authorities in charge of setting up water and kitchens to receive the refugees aren't working too hard.

* * *

We stop at Kifil, site of a 7,000-year buildup of cultures Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Jewish, Islamic and Ottoman, among others. In the 6th century B.C., Nebuchadnezzar hauled Ezekiel here from captured Jerusalem in the Jews' second Babylonian captivity.

Ironically, because Hussein would not want to draw attention to a Jewish site, the town has been spared his concrete history rehabs. The eroded brick towers, the Persian minarets, the centuries-old enclosed market are tawny, rounded, graceful, beautiful, ancient.

My Iraqi colleagues are having as good a time as I exploring the Ottoman-era buildings around Ezekiel's shrine, ducking into rooms to guess their uses while sleepy bats crawl back to privacy. Catching one another's eyes, we establish in a few words that it's safe enough to stay. It is a luxury; snow angels on Karrada. It is a Babylonian road trip.

Lore says Ezekiel is buried here, laid to rest after his followers killed him, caretaker Zaid Mahti tells us earnestly. Why? "They killed him because Jews always kill their prophets," says Mahti, a lightly educated Shiite upright in his role as shrine guide. Mahti is 28. The last in millenniums of Jews here left town in 1965, he says.

Ezekiel is a prophet shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims; his synagogue has become a mosque. Women come here to pray for the hopes of their heart; they come back to plant a hennaed palm on the wall when their prayers are granted, testifying to mercy.

"Pray the verse of Fatiha, which you say over the dead," a loitering elder at the tombs instructs three young veiled women who've come to pray at the graves of Ezekiel's disciples. They nod politely and continue with their verse, their palms already pressed to a tomb, their lips barely moving in prayer.

* * *

On the road back, a lake of black oil, scattered metal and glass, and a crater that wasn't there before suggest a bombing since we passed. Unless we know the dead or see the dying, we are all like dogs trotting down the road here, paying no attention to our run-over brethren.

Saad points out a site north of Kifil that marks what Arab tribes consider one of their victories over the occupying British, the battle of Rarinjyia in July 1920. Soon after, the grandfather of Hareth al-Dhari, one of the current Sunni leaders who has vocally opposed the United States here, joined the mainly Shiite rebels. British dominance held another 30 years.

Driving north, we reach a stretch of one town that seems deserted, with many of its shops shuttered and sidewalks empty. The reason for the town's sudden battening-down seems clear: A U.S. military convoy has pulled over and dismounted.

It occurs to me to wonder how all the empty coffins get back to Baghdad.

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