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One Week in Baghdad
I checked around the house once again, to fasten locks and bolts on the doors, and called it a night.
"The street is blocked," my taxi driver proclaimed as we approached my stop near a bus station in the Bab Al-Sharjee district in central Baghdad. "No problem. I'll get out here," I told him, forking over his fare. He grunted, and shifted into reverse.
I skulked along the remaining 300-meter stretch of street that was lined on both sides with dozens of Interior ministry troops, some in khaki and some in plainclothes, a sign that an official's motorcade will be passing by.
The entrance to the Interior and Oil ministries, as well as the Baghdad Police Directorate was right behind me. This street is the main route taken by security officials to the ministries' complex from the Green Zone, and a favorite location for bombings.
I usually just take a deep breath, light a cigarette and keep on moving, sticking as close as possible to the wall, until I reach my destination. Much to my dismay, though, I found a police pickup vehicle parked in front of the bus station. A crowded bus station is already a juicy target for suicide bombers; a crowded bus garage with a police patrol nearby is an added attraction. But one has to shrug those thoughts aside; otherwise we would all be clinically crazy by now.
Thankfully, the minibus didn't take long to fill up with passengers -- a couple of ladies in abayas with two very noisy kids, a mechanic, a laborer (from the looks of him), an old man flipping through a newspaper, two nondescript young men, and me, the suburban dentist. Our destination: a district on the outskirts of the capital.
We passed through countless checkpoints manned by Iraqi troops. This time, the soldiers just waved us through. But sometimes they stop us, inquire about our destination, or they ask for our IDs. I stopped carrying mine some time ago; it gave out too much information, such as tribal, regional and sectarian background. You never know when you might end up at the wrong checkpoint. I just use my neutral work ID now.
We noticed several American Humvees blocking the street. Maybe there was a roadside bomb ahead. Our driver lurched up onto the sidewalk and tried to squeeze through, but an American soldier yelled at him to go back, pointing his weapon at us. Without a second thought, the driver took us down a side road. Uh oh, I thought. This is where the bodies of executed, blindfolded young men turn up every other day. In one case, bodies were found in a minibus, just like the one I was in.
Any other day, I would have given up and gone home, but I needed to get my salary as soon as I could, because I can't rely on being able to get to work every day in the upcoming week. Preparations for the Arba'een religious anniversary are underway, and this road will be blocked to traffic to accommodate the hordes of Shiite pilgrims heading on foot to Karbala.
The detour worked, and I did get my salary. But the way things are here, you never know.
We were engrossed in morning preparations at work when a colleague called our attention to the latest "episode" of Saddam's trial -- a form of cheap entertainment for many Iraqis against the backdrop of dreary events in Baghdad. At least it's the one thing that Iraqis of all backgrounds agree upon.
Colleagues rushed, tea mugs in hand, to take a look at the TV screen. Our clinic director wasn't amused, watching his employees leave their posts, but he didn't protest. After all, there are no drugs in our pharmacy to prescribe, my dental chair hasn't been fixed for months -- and even if it was, there are no anesthetics for patients.