Ordinary life hardly the norm in Baghdad

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 14, 2007 

Sunni families arrive in the Dora neighborhood of southern Baghdad after they were forced from their homes in the Jabour area by elements of al-Qaida.

LOAY HAMEED / AP

"Today, most of Baghdad's neighborhoods are being patrolled by coalition and Iraqi forces who live among the people they protect. Many schools and markets are reopening. Citizens are coming forward with vital intelligence. Sectarian killings are down. And ordinary life is beginning to return."

— President Bush in his speech Thursday on Iraq

BAGHDAD — "Ordinary" isn't a word that residents of Baghdad use to describe their lives.

Gunmen are driving people from neighborhoods in the city's southwest. Electricity, depending on which block you live on, is available as little as two hours a day. Running water, if it's available, is unsafe to drink.

Car bombings are down, but most residents won't leave their neighborhoods, frightened that they'll encounter Shiite Muslim militiamen or Sunni Muslim extremists who'll kill them.

Some markets are reopening in the southern neighborhood of Dora under the watch of U.S. soldiers, but no one from outside the neighborhood visits.

As for schools, it's hard to say: The school year hasn't started yet.

Yousef al Mousawi, a 28-year-old Shiite resident of Sadr City, told this story Friday: Two days ago, his friend Mustafa was kidnapped from his computer shop. He was later found dead, shot in the head. It wasn't unusual. In his neighborhood — controlled by the Mahdi Army militia, loyal to cleric Muqtada al Sadr — he sees bodies every day.

Traffic jams terrify him, he said. He was wounded by a car bomb last year and has traveled the region since for medical treatment.

"The Mahdi Army isn't just killing Sunnis now, they are killing Shiites as well," he said. "I go to university, I'm afraid of suicide bombers and car bombs. I come home and I'm afraid of the Mahdi Army. We're living in fear, endless fear."

Even grocery shopping can be risky. Jassim Mohammed, 53, a Sunni from the neighborhood of Sleikh in northern Baghdad, said he rarely left his home, let alone traveled to marketplaces throughout the city.

This week marked the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. The evening meal is a feast, and everyone wants his favorite food. But what Mohammed's family eats is up to Abu Ahmed, the lone grocer in his neighborhood. If he's selling okra, they eat okra stew. If he doesn't have yogurt, they don't eat yogurt. As a Sunni in what's become a Shiite capital, Mohammed said, he has no choice.

"It has become a dream for us to shop from any central market," he said. "No way can I roam freely in Baghdad. I can barely get from home to work, there are so many checkpoints manned by people I don't trust."

"By what standards can I consider this life ordinary?" he asked. "Would Mr. Bush consider my life normal if he knew the details? Would any American?"

Muhsin al Ribaawi, 45, a Shiite, lives in Hurriyah, a once-mixed neighborhood in northwest Baghdad that's been devoid of Sunnis since they were forced out in December. The change was good, Ribaawi thinks. He can travel freely through Shiite neighborhoods throughout the capital, though he never ventures into Sunni enclaves. He no longer sees as many bodies dumped on the streets. As a supervisor for roads and bridges in Baghdad, he used to encounter as many as 20 a day. "I'm so happy for that," he said.

Still, life is hardly back to normal. Dirty and disease-ridden, the water that comes from his tap is "terrifying."

Mohammed al Ani, 36, a Sunni, lives in Mansour, in central Baghdad. When he travels elsewhere in the capital, he maps out his route so that he passes only through Sunni neighborhoods.

"If they (militias) have my ID and they see my tribal name, al Ani, I may lose my life," he said. When he returns home at 5 p.m., the neighborhood is already empty and he shuts himself inside.

On Industry Street in central Baghdad, Mariam Shleimoon, a Christian, said she spent her days cowering in her home. Earlier this week, the Mahdi Army called her husband. They said he'd cursed the militia and that the family must pay — $4,000, a princely sum for a poor man who makes his money repairing kerosene heaters, a skill needed only in winter.

Shleimoon and her husband went to the police but no one would help, so they stay in to avoid the militia. She'd like her children to stay home as well. Her daughter, Rita, barely escaped a bombing, and her son watched a man be killed as he waited to buy bread. But the heat is stifling — they have only two hours of electricity a day, one in the morning and one at night — and her children want to get out of the house.

"We are living in fear," she said. "I thought about selling out and leaving the country but my husband said, 'I will live and die here.' "

In Saidiyah, in southwest Baghdad, Ali Mohammed, 30, a Sunni, said nearly all the stores in his neighborhood had closed as Shiite and Sunni gunmen battled to control the area. The only clinic closed three months ago. It didn't have any medicine, anyway, he said.

A university student, he fears leaving the neighborhood because the checkpoints are manned by police commandos, units known to be rife with Shiite militiamen, who alert gunmen in civilian cars to attack suspected Sunnis. Three days ago, a father and son were killed at a checkpoint, he said.

Bush, he said, "is speaking the opposite of what's going on on the ground."

(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Sahar Issa, Mohammed al Dulaimy, Laith Hammoudi and Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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