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One Week in Baghdad

By Zeyad
Special to washingtonpost.com
Sunday, March 19, 2006 12:00 AM

BAGHDAD, Sunday, March 12 -- A sudden whizzzzzz . . . KABOOM sent me flying from the couch where I was dozing off, watching TV.

"What was that?" my father asked from the hallway.

"Probably a mortar round," I replied. "A close one."

"Good. They're lobbing mortars at us now. What's next?" he said and went back to his bedroom.

It's almost 9 p.m., a dangerous time to go outside. Neighborhood watch teams -- young men brandishing AK-47s, pistols, RPGs and even sniper rifles -- set up checkpoints around this time. Many were referred to as the "Mujahideen" or insurgents in the past. Now, they are considered defenders of our predominantly Sunni district against Shiite death squads and militias.

I tried to stay interested in the Steven Seagal action flick on TV, but my focus kept shifting to the occasional rumble of mortar shells outside. After a while I went upstairs to use the Internet.

Just as I set foot in my room, an intense barrage of gunfire erupted on our street. Not good. My cell phone was ringing; it was a friend who lives down our street. "It's an American patrol," he al most whispered. "I can see Humvees from where I am. And it looks like they have Iraqi police with them."

What is going on?

"Keep your head down for God's sake. We'll talk later."

I went to check on my younger brother, Nabil. He was playing his guitar to a Metallica tune, oblivious to his surroundings. His room has a better view, but it's not wise to stick one's head out of a window when Americans are nearby. The street was dark enough, but everyone knows they have night vision goggles. A sniper bullet in the head is not a fun prospect so I lay low and tried to listen.

I did hear radio transmission from an Iraqi police vehicle, and what sounded like an American soldier shouting. The gunfire had ceased by now, probably after the local vigilantes had realized it was Americans, not militias or Interior ministry forces entering our territory. The vehicles moved away after a while, and the alarm level dropped.

No point in trying to figure out what happened. It could wait for the morning, when people would give you different versions of the incident. Most of the time no one has an idea. Two days ago, there was a similar firefight and neighbors claimed that 40 vehicles carrying black-clad Shiite militiamen had attempted to enter our district but were fended off.

I checked around the house once again, to fasten locks and bolts on the doors, and called it a night.

MONDAY

"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.

TUESDAY

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.

I generally cringe at the thought of another session of the trial, but in this case, it was a welcome relief from the emptiness of the daily routine.

Iraqis have lost all hopes for any real justice in this god-awful country. People here have long been accustomed to taking justice into their own hands -- or forgetting it altogether. That is one thing that hasn't changed much.

"They should just lynch him and spare us this farce," one patient remarked. His comment sparked a heated debate among other patients. I've heard all the arguments so I try not to listen.

Iraqis are divided over everything. They can't even agree over a dictator who ruled them with a fist of steel for 30 years. Saddam oppressed all who opposed him even-handedly, regardless of their sectarian backgrounds; but Iraqis have not been so even-handed in their opinions about his oppression.

WEDNESDAY

My neighbors suggested we go out for lunch today. They are a young couple living just across the street, with two kids, a girl and a boy, ages 11 and 5. I often spend time with them in the evening during the curfew, or around tea time. Normally, we just chat about daily news, or share gossip on the comings and goings in our neighborhood over trinkets and cigarettes, with the children fooling around in the background.

I learned from my neighbor's wife that a stray bullet injured her mother's cousin during the firefight in our street three nights ago. It went right through her window and shattered her collarbone. It was tragic, considering that her son was killed just a few months ago by kidnappers after the old widow failed to collect his ransom of $50,000.

We discussed the issue of Abu Ghassan who lives next door to them. He decided to take his family and relocate to Syria after threats from criminals. Abu Ghassan is a very well-to-do businessman and a car battery dealer. His lavish lifestyle brought him unwanted attention in our area, and it took him one failed kidnapping attempt to decide to sell everything and leave.

It was an excruciating scene, watching neighbors of a lifetime carry their suitcases early at dawn to board a SUV to Syria.

Being forced to leave your home is not a trivial affair. The last three years have witnessed scores of Iraqi professionals and businessman leaving to Jordan, Syria or Egypt, a second exodus of Iraqis far more alarming than that of the 90s. The country is slowly being stripped of its intelligentsia, and I fear that soon we will be left only with fanatics inside.

Following the Samarra bombing, many Shi'ite inhabitants of Sunni dominated areas north and west of Baghdad were forced to leave. In the south, a once sizeable Sunni community in Basrah, Nasiriya, Hilla and Samawa is diminishing day by day. Kurds in the north have regressed back behind their borders, further isolating themselves. Iraqi society is falling apart.

It seems that the barrage of bombings, assassinations, detentions and abductions is not enough, so we need one more thing to worry about.

And yes, we were discussing these pleasant issues over lunch. It was a splendid meal of Iraq Masgoof (roasted fish) on a refreshing sunny day at the bank of the Tigris, in the comforting company of family and friends.

THURSDAY

If there is any advantage of the Iraq war, it would have to be the endless stream of national and religious holidays. There was a daytime curfew today because of the opening parliamentary session, and not much activity is expected during the next week as the Shi'ite Arba'een holiday, or the 40th day commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, will be taking place.

The new parliament was sworn in today. Our bickering politicians agreed to disagree yet again, and this time it was over the oath. I sometimes can't help but wonder if it was the war that has left us so divided, or have we been that way all along.

The family stayed indoors for most of the day. At least for my mother it was a relief. She constantly worries and calls us on our phones when we are out to work or school, asking us if everything was okay where we were, when we would return and how.

I imposed my own daytime ban on news channels. Last thing I need is a headache. Instead, we watched a good old rented sci-fi movie.

In addition to regular and fixed holidays, it is possible to make up your own without the need to take leave. Better still, you can do it from the comfort of your bed, citing an unexpected security incident as an excuse.

Like sometimes I don't feel like going to work. I just oversleep. The phone rings and wakes me up at 11 am.

"Where are you, Dr.?" my boss inquires. "We were expecting you. You know the Directorate might send someone for inspection today."

"Oh, I apologize, Dr.," I reply, trying to sound as wakeful as I can. "I'm on the Canal highway, and there seems to be an American roadblock. I'm not sure I'm going to make it to the clinic today."

"I see. Let me know if you can -- Bye."

And it's back under the sheets for me.

Many have mastered that useful trick. Personally, I use it sparingly because, very often, I actually do get caught up in roadblocks.

People who need to make a living from day jobs, such as laborers, grocers and taxi drivers, are not impressed with the frequent daytime curfews and holidays. Business is already suffering much because of deteriorating security, power and fuel shortages.

 But lazy civil servants such as myself can lay back and enjoy the fruits of "liberation."

FRIDAY

A quiet day, which left me to ponder a question that haunts me: We Iraqis continue to live between the hammer of terrorists and the anvil of American, British and Iraqi security forces. But what kind of a people are we to respond by killing our own?

zeyad_w@hotmail.com

Zeyad, an Iraqi dentist who spent his childhood in Britain, lives in Baghdad. His blog, Healing Iraq, started in October 2003. For security reasons, Zeyad publishes only his first name.

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