ABOARD THE BAGHDAD-BASRA TRAIN, Iraq—Seven minutes after its scheduled departure time, our train rolled slowly forward. Then it stopped. Then it lurched backward, unsettling the passengers in our car.
Not to worry, I assured them, the driver had just advised me that he'd never crashed in 13 years at the wheel.
That inauspicious start was the first clue that our journey across postwar Iraq would be unlike any other. With service on the Iraq Republic Railway having been restored May 7, it seemed to be one of the few things that could give people here a sense that their lives were going somewhere.
It also was the only way to fly between Iraq's capital and its second largest city, even if its speed averaged less than 25 mph and the trip took 12 hours.
Commercial flights in the country have been suspended since the war, fuel lines stretch for miles and robbery has made road travel risky.
So off we went to Baghdad's main rail station, an institutional-looking brick structure that the British built in 1957. Like so much else in this dysfunctional country, it had been looted after the heavy fighting ended, its windows smashed and clocks on its two towers stopped in time. The fare for the 330-mile trip was only $1, one of the cheapest in the world per mile and a bargain for passengers with nerves of steel and endless patience.
We would roll south toward the sea, through a recent war zone, with stops in Hillah, Diwaniyah, Samawah and Nasiriyah.
As the train finally pulled away—21 minutes late—passengers opened newspapers that an enterprising Iraqi had been hawking before boarding. The choices included six locally printed Arabic-language titles.
Our train car had been built in France in 1984. Its exterior was green and its interior orange steel. There were broken seats, children crying, cigarette smoke and a floor in need of sweeping. Much to its credit, its air conditioning worked in the 100-degree-plus weather.
Settling into the ride, passengers and crewmembers debated politics, speaking in hushed tones. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was the focus of their ire.
"He was a bad man," said passenger Hashim Flayih. "He took everything. He stole from the country."
"What does it matter?" another asked. "Everybody stole after the war."
The mere mention of Saddam gave backup driver Akram Jasim Abbas a case of rail rage. He had four brothers, all of whom disappeared after going into the Iraqi army during the war with Iran.
"I will go very fast to Basra if you want," he said, slamming the gas pedal. "Just don't speak about Saddam."
Nearly everyone was traveling to see relatives. Assam Abd al Rasul had heard there was cholera in Basra and, since his telephone still didn't work, was going to check on a sister there. Amin Khodiyah, a supporter of former exile Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, was traveling home after a few days of politicking.
As lunchtime approached, there was no drink cart or dining car. Young Wisam Gwad filled the void, strolling the aisle and shouting "Pepsi." The diminutive 12-year-old flashed a toothy grin and took drink orders.
His ice bucket at the back of the train kept the bottles cold. In exchange for 300 dinars, about 30 cents, he delivered them to passengers. After his customers quenched their thirst, he collected the bottles, refilled them from a jug and popped on new caps.
One day, I told him, he would be the richest man in Iraq. He laughed and rushed off, "too busy" to talk.
Lunch was whatever passengers brought with them. It became a communal affair as they traded what they had, a cucumber for yogurt, cookies for cigarettes.
Coming into Hillah, the train passed groves of scorched palm trees that had served as battlefields. Further south, the gold dome of the mosque in al Qasim glimmered in the distance. Outside an area now occupied by American troops was Saddam's idea of art, a giant sculpture of a rifle, as long as an 18-wheel truck.
The next hint of possible trouble came six hours into the ride, at Samawah. Members of the crew stood on the tracks waving wildly and shouting as a northbound train from Basra passed. It was supposed to stop and leave them oil. It didn't.
Our train moved on to Nasiriyah without the oil. In the engine compartment, they had other complaints. Station workers had been paid $20 monthly salaries by the U.S. military but, crewmembers alleged, the person charged with doling out their money had absconded with it. They also had no radio contact with approaching trains and stations, increasing the risk of a collision on the single track.
"If the train stops here, no one can help it, " mechanic Bahaa al Rikabia said, as helicopters bobbed across the desert before him. "We're scared all the time. The security is not good."
In the remote town of Suq Ash Shuyukh, the train stopped and sat for an hour, then for another hour. The air conditioning stopped, too.
The crew explained that a train with humanitarian supplies was heading north from Umm Qasr, four hours away, and we would have to wait to avert a collision. Some passengers suspected the oil had run out, overheating the engine.
Outside, a crowd of unruly local youths had gathered and had begun hurling rocks at the train's windows, making passengers nervous. We tried to ignore the growing mob until, without provocation, two young men approached our car and brandished rocket-propelled grenades.
Al Rasul and a friend in the next seat advised everyone to leave the train. With them, we hatched our escape plan.
My interpreter's brother-in-law, a former Iraqi Air Force colonel, was dispatched to hire a vehicle to drive us to Basra. He returned a few minutes later and our group fled the train through the stone-throwing mob. After a rock whizzed past my ear, I covered the back of my head with one hand.
We were bundled into a van that drove eight of us the final two-hour leg to Basra for $2 each. As we drove away, we were amused to find a member of the train crew in the front seat.
We reached Basra around 9 p.m., shortly after the train was supposed to arrive. According to station officials, the train eventually reached Basra around midnight, nearly four hours late.
Like so much else in Iraq, it had proven unreliable and unsafe.
(Andrea Gerlin reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-train
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): usiraq-train