In Flash of Chaos, a Glimpse Into Iraq's Woes

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

BAGHDAD, Sept. 12 -- As an angry crowd gathered Tuesday morning, the young man stepped out of a gray Mercedes poised for battle. Across Abu Nawas Street, his tin-roofed shop lay crumpled like a run-over trash can. He knew whom to blame.

He glared at some policemen and said: "Today, I'm going to kill one of you. You will never stop until I kill one of you."

"Stop," a policeman yelled as the man got back in his car and sped away. Another policeman fired a shot in his direction. Moments later, white pickup trucks brimming with men in blue police uniforms and black bulletproof vests sped up the street and screeched to a halt in front of a small kiosk. Some wore black masks.

They jumped out and began firing AK-47 assault rifles. Bullets flew toward the sky and down the street, sending dozens of bystanders, including women and children, scrambling for cover. The gunfire reached a jackhammer pitch.

Crouched behind a white car, Razak Haider, whose relatives were watching their shops get leveled, voiced a question on many minds: "How can we accept this shooting? There are families and children here."

It was a quintessential Baghdad moment, the sort that happens to hundreds of people here every week. And each moment opens a window onto the forces that plague Iraq.

Whether one is driving on a quiet street or stuck in a traffic jam, chaos can erupt in nanoseconds. One day it may be a suicide bomber; another day, a roadside explosive. It could even be a mortar shell, a missile -- or an army of policemen with guns blazing.

The events leading to Tuesday's moment began to unfold in the morning, when a large yellow bulldozer rolled into Baghdad's upscale Karrada neighborhood. Its driver was on a mission to crush kiosks nestled along Abu Nawas Street, one of Baghdad's best-known thoroughfares. The street, once dotted with fish restaurants and nightclubs, follows the curves of the Tigris River.

Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion toppled President Saddam Hussein in 2003, the businesses closed down and squatters arrived. They built a cluster of roadside cafes and food stalls. Three years later, the municipality of Karrada wanted the property back.

"This is a violation of state land," said Abdul Rudha Mohammad, a municipal official, watching with satisfaction as the bulldozer mowed into one kiosk. "These cafes don't have permits. They are not registered."

"After Baghdad fell, there was chaos," he continued. "Everyone started doing their own thing, building structures. We have to go back to law and order as it was before and make it better. We want to bring respect to the government and to the rule of law."

"This is a good decision," said Baha al-Rubai, another Karrada council member who had driven up in a brown sport-utility vehicle to see the progress of the demolition.

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