By Ellen Knickmeyer and Saad al-Izzi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 1, 2006
BAGHDAD, May 31 -- For many of the 12-year-olds bent over their final exams in classrooms where the stifling heat already edged toward 100 degrees by 9 a.m., Wednesday's tests would signal the end of their families' days in Iraq.
With the school year reaching its close, and life in Baghdad unbearable for many, some of the mothers at al-Mahaj school in north Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood began collecting the school records that their sons and daughters would need in new homes in other countries. They would soon join a three-year exodus of the middle class from Iraq, where outbound flights are booked near-solid through June, travel agents say.
School guards with AK-47 assault rifles stood watch around al-Mahaj. Fathers chatted outside, their own pistols discreetly hidden under shirts or tucked away close by in their cars: Kidnapping is rampant in wartime Baghdad.
Sometime after 9 a.m., bullets started flying. The 12-year-olds, well into their math tests, "were terrified," screaming and sobbing, said Um Bakir, a mother who recounted the battle. The parent of a sixth-grader, she would identify herself over the telephone only by her family name, which means mother of Bakir. She refused to identify her son, citing fears for the family's safety.
The shooting sprawled over three neighborhoods -- one Sunni Arab, one mostly Sunni, one Shiite -- where busy streets form the otherwise unremarkable dividing lines. Insurgents, Shiite militias, Iraq's overwhelmingly Shiite police, the slightly more trusted army forces -- all were said to be in the fight. Residents could not be sure, or tell how it started. In the fights that roil many of Baghdad's neighborhoods, with automatic-weapons fire heavy and explosions sounding, no one without a gun sticks his neck out to investigate.
Motorists on one main street turned around and sped back out, flashing their headlights to signal oncoming drivers to do likewise. Iraqi forces blocked another street as a vehicle carrying Iraqi soldiers rushed through.
In the official account, provided by Col. Sami Hassan at the Interior Ministry's operations center, insurgents had attacked an army checkpoint. The insurgents then withdrew, seeking cover "inside residential structures," Hassan said. Soldiers chased them through the area, past shops and schools.
Hassan said three policemen and eight insurgents were killed in the fighting.
Rumors flew among residents. Noor Taha, a newlywed awakened on her first morning in her husband's home by explosions and gunfire in her new neighborhood, said she was told that the clashes began after militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr held a funeral for three of their fighters.
Ahmed al-Omari, a worker at an Education Ministry office, heard heavy shooting near a Sunni mosque at an intersection bordering the three neighborhoods. He had been told that police were firing on insurgents inside the mosque. He stood in the courtyard of the education office trying to discreetly scope out the firing.
As he spoke on his cellphone to a friend, Omari suddenly interrupted himself. "A bullet just hit near my foot," he said, gunfire rattling clearly in the background.
"Get inside," his friend said.
"That's what I'm trying to do," Omari said, and ran.
Back at the school, the barrage caught some of the parents outside, away from their children.
"Bullets were falling on us like rain," Um Bakir said. Events went by in a blur, with parents and teachers rushing toward screaming children.
Iraqi soldiers and police burst in. "Get away from the windows!" they screamed at the children. "Get down!"
The soldiers and police made the children curl up on their sides on the floor, as if asleep, Um Bakir said. Some of the 12-year-olds already had fainted, she said.
As gunfire continued, the police and soldiers started rushing the children out of the school in groups.
Um Bakir hurried home with her boy and three other children, hustling them inside for safety.
Once home, she washed their faces, cleaning away the dirty tear marks. She made them something to eat. She called the other children's parents. "Your kids are okay," she told each. "But don't come yet. It's not safe."
To the south, Omari left work at noon, stepping over spent bullet cartridges as he walked to a main street for a taxi.
A bullet-riddled car sped by.
There were no bodies in sight. Shops were starting to reopen. For this part of Baghdad, street battles were nothing new.
Parents collected their children from Um Bakir's house. She sat through the heat of the afternoon, as generators that serve in lieu of city electricity in wartime Baghdad kicked on and off.
She said that for her, there would be no flight to safety overseas at the end of the school year. Her husband no longer had a job; they had no money to start a new life.
There was the summer to get through, and then the next school year. But first, there were the next three days.
"My son has at least three more exams," Um Bakir said.
"We are going to go tomorrow, and see how things turn out," she said. "We are terrified."
Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.