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This is Baghdad. What could be worse?
I had first met Karima Salman during the U.S. invasion. She was a stout Shiite Muslim matriarch with eight children, living in a three-room apartment in the working-class district of Karrada. Trash was piled at her entrance, a dented, rusted steel gate perched along a sagging brick sidewalk. When I visited last year, the street, still one of the safer ones in Baghdad, exuded a veneer of normalcy. Makeshift markets overflowed with goods piled on rickety stands: socks imported from China, T-shirts from Syria and stacks of shoes, sunglasses and lingerie. Down the street were toys: plastic guns, a Barbie knockoff in a black veil, and a pirate carrying an AK-47 and a grenade. There was a "Super Mega Heavy Metal Fighter" action figure and a doll that, when squeezed, played "It's a Small World."
On this day, the metal stands were empty, as were the streets.
"Praise God," Karima said as I asked how she was. In a moment, her smile faded as she realized the absurdity of her words. "Of course, it's not good," she said, shaking her head. "There's nothing that's ever happened like what's happening in Iraq."
On June 23, 2005, three car bombs detonated in Karrada, outside her home, wrecking the Abdul-Rasul Ali mosque and spraying shrapnel that sliced into the forearm of one of her five daughters, Hiba. Friends at school nicknamed her "Shrapnel Hiba." Two months ago, yet another bomb hurled glass through their window, cutting the head of Hiba's twin sister, Duaa. Four stitches sealed the wound. Over that time, Karima lost her job as a maid at the Palm Hotel, where she had earned about $33 a month.
"People are too scared to come," she said matter of factly.
Next to her sat her son Mohammed. During the invasion, Mohammed, an ex-convict, had joined a motley unit of a dozen men patrolling Baghdad's streets as part of the Baath Party militia. Now he had entered the ranks of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to a young cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, and blamed for many of today's sectarian killings in Baghdad. Karima's son-in-law Ali had been an officer in the American-equipped police force, earning $300 a month. He quit after receiving a death threat. Now he, too, had joined the Mahdi Army.
"Not all of them are good," Karima told me, casting a glance at her son.
Stocky and a little surly, Mohammed smiled. "Who else is going to protect Iraq?" he asked.
They debated the causes of the violence that, these days, is the topic of almost every conversation. Radical Sunnis, the Americans, Iranian agents, other militias. "Even the Egyptians," Karima offered. "And the Sudanese," Mohammed added.
"Brothers are killing their brothers," she said.
Stories poured forth: a bomb amputating the arm of a 10-year-old neighbor; another killing Marwan, the barber.
"If they brought the Israelis, the Jews, and they ruled Iraq, it would be better," said Karima, her face framed by a black veil. Sunlight bathed the room; electricity, as usual, was cut off. "It would be a million times better than a Sunni, a million times better than a Shiite."