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.
Sabah Haider, a relative of Razak Haider, shook his head as he carried a crate of orange soda out of his kiosk and placed it on the ground.
His shop was on the list to be bulldozed. And he, like other shopkeepers, offered a different explanation.
"We were paying a bribe of 100,000 dinars a month to the police," he said -- a figure equivalent to about $67. "That's why for three years they didn't touch us. Now they want 100,000 dinars every week. We can't afford to pay that."
As he spoke, other shopkeepers and their relatives gathered. They were all from the same family, and several were named Haider.
"Now they have cut the source of our income," Saleh Haider said. "We are seven families living off these cafes."
A few yards from him, Mohammad, the municipal official, watched as the bulldozer tore into another kiosk. He denied taking bribes.
"I have clean hands," he said.
What about the police?
"I don't believe that. Now, the police, they are with us," Mohammad said, motioning at the policemen who had cordoned the area around the bulldozer. "If they have taken bribes, will they be able to stand with us here? Of course these people will attack them."
As he spoke, Sabah Haider came up and interrupted him.
"I swear to God, I have paid the money to the police," he said, his face snarling.
Around him, Haider's supporters were getting more and more agitated. The policemen appeared nervous, and soon the bulldozer stood still. By now, dozens of curious people had come out of their houses and stood on the sidewalk.
"Now, where shall we go?" Saleh Haider lamented , as the crowd grew behind him.
Soon, the young man in the Mercedes drove up. Before long, so did the policemen in the pickup trucks.
As he took cover behind the white car, Razak Haider explained his predicament. The gunfire had subsided. But the policemen were still standing in the middle of Abu Nawas Street, their weapons pointed in the air.
"If we had other work, we would leave the cafes," he said. "Give us a solution. All we want is work. There are no jobs in the government."
Gunfire erupted again. Razak Haider crouched lower.
Then another white pickup pulled up. It had no police markings, yet it was filled with men in blue police uniforms and black bulletproof vests. Several wore black bandannas around their faces, like bandits of the Wild West.
"Those guys, we don't know where they came from," said Ali Haider, Razak's brother, who was also crouched behind the white car.
In Baghdad, militias and death squads are widely believed to have penetrated the Iraqi security forces, especially the police.
"Don't go over there," Razak Haider said. "They will take you, and we'll never know where you have gone."
More gunfire, this time from a side street. One gunman from the unmarked white truck began to walk toward the white car. Razak and Ali Haider crouched lower. But the man stopped halfway, and walked back to Abu Nawas Street, his gun poised.
"You can see nothing like this in the whole world," said Zien Allah, one of their friends, who was also behind the white car.
A few minutes later, it seemed calm enough to come out. Some of the pickup trucks had left. Their apparent mission, to disperse the crowd, was a success. On Abu Nawas Street, the bulldozer roared back to life.
On Tuesday evening, Ali Mohammed was cleaning up in front of his flattened kiosk. Behind him were the remnants of his business: Two crates of Pepsi and orange soda. Two stands of potato chips, the bags still ordered neatly on each shelf. Fifteen cartons of cigarettes. One pack of bottled water.
Mohammed said the demise of the businesses was a loss to Abu Nawas Street. Eight months ago, he said, he and some other shopkeepers discovered a roadside bomb and informed the police.
"We weren't only shopkeepers. We were guards," he said, clutching a broom.
Across the street, Khadim Haider was inspecting the carcass of his kiosk. Nearby, tables and chairs were neatly arranged, as if to host a dinner. But it was only because they hadn't been in the bulldozer's path.
"I can't do anything now," he said. "We want to be compensated, but who is going to compensate us?"
Abbas Fahdil was also thinking about the future. He once was a waiter at an outdoor cafe. He knows it will be hard to find a job in Baghdad now. He doesn't want to work downtown, "where there are car bombs and explosions."
If he doesn't find work, he plans to thumb his nose at the very reason for the tearing down of the kiosks and the loss of his job: the law.
"Either I'll become a thief or a highway robber," he said.
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.