Daily life takes on a bizarre feel for Baghdad residents

By MATTHEW SCHOFIELD
Knight Ridder Tribune News

BAGHDAD, IRAQ – Abu Mustafa heard the call to morning prayer drift down from the tiled green minaret at the Shanshal mosque.

The call was familiar, but the voice was different. The regular muezzin had been killed a week ago when he’d rushed to defend the mosque against an attack.

Still, Mustafa welcomed the sound. He’d made it through another night alive.

"I cannot sleep at night," he said. "Instead, I put my head on the pillow and stare at the dark — stare at nothing, listen to nothing. The call to prayer tells me it is now time to fear the day."

Three years after U.S. forces invaded, residents of this troubled capital live lives that would seem bizarre nearly anyplace else. The city is infuriating, depressing and deadly, as Knight Ridder reporters found when they fanned out on a recent Monday to record life in this ancient city.

7:50 a.m.

At Jadria Bridge, Abu Sarah, 34, sat idling in traffic. Five lanes of cars were piling onto the three-lane bridge.

Before the war, Sarah said he could cross the larger 14th of July Bridge. But U.S. forces have closed it to protect the Green Zone, the center of Iraq’s new government and foreign embassies.

8:30 a.m.

A roadside bomb exploded near the Arabic Oil Institute in Al Taji, a neighborhood in northern Baghdad. One man was killed, and six others were wounded.

8:35 a.m.

Outside the University of Baghdad, the sidewalks were crammed with students waiting for class. A bomb made from an artillery shell detonated as Iraqi police cars rolled by. Four policemen were injured, as were five bystanders.

10:45 a.m.

The air was thick with the smell of cardamom, coffee and black pepper in Baghdad’s famous spice market, Rasheed Street.

Few shoppers squeezed past the concrete barriers and razor wire, however.

Jassim Alifari waved a hand over the spices in his small shop, which sits on what was Baghdad’s first paved street.

"Before, my customers had to fight to shop here — the passing crowd would sweep them away," he recalled. "Now we stand here and chat, don’t we?"

1:05 p.m.

In Mansour, central Baghdad, Ahmed Naser said business is good. His business? Getting people out of town quickly.

Officially, Naser runs a moving company. But in recent months, it’s been more of an escape service.

The flow of people out of Baghdad is so heavy that provincial housing prices — traditionally dirt-cheap — now match city rents.

When people go, they call Naser. He has a bus to whisk away his customers. Usually, they take only clothes and small items. They leave behind homes filled with possessions.

"Just this month, my family in Nasiriyah has taken in five families of relatives," he said. "It’s safer in the south of Iraq. People are fleeing the areas of unrest."

3:40 p.m.

A mortar shell exploded on a private home in Al Shula, in northwest Baghdad, killing a child and injuring four family members.

6:20 p.m.

Abu Sarah was returning home on a nearly empty Jadria Bridge. He still worried. Curfew begins in 100 minutes, and a roadside bomb, even a car accident, can trap people on Baghdad streets for hours.

7:28 p.m.

On the western edge of Baghdad, Abu Mustafa heard the evening call to prayer.

"Every day is difficult," he said, shaking his head. "We have learned not to look forward to tomorrow."

Giornalista di guerra e scrittrice

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