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As nightlife returns to Baghdad, tensions flare

BAGHDAD, Iraq—One minute a soldier is dancing furiously in the street, jumping up and down on a sidewalk entertaining a small horde of children chanting at the top of their lungs and singing nursery rhymes.

The next, a burst of gunfire from a wedding party motorcade sends the soldier into the street, gun raised, to stop a silver BMW sedan whose passengers have been firing a military-style assault rifle through the sun roof.

In an instant, cultures clash and a soldier's job switches from winning hearts and minds to defusing a dangerous situation. A week ago, the streets were empty. Drivers were too frightened to go out at night. Shops were shuttered well before dark.

Now, as nightlife begins to return to A'a Dhamia—a neighborhood of busy sidewalk cafes and brightly lit furniture shops—the evening is a barometer of Baghdad, all wedding caravans and shooting and blaring music and cigarette vendors as old routines and new rules begin a wary coexistence.

At the Al-Iskaan intersection, under the gaze of a sculpture of Saddam Hussein, darkened traffic lights turned a two-second crossing into a 20-minute sightseeing exercise as seemingly half of Baghdad got out of their cars to survey the gridlock, accompanied by a couple of gunshots of impatience.

Outside the Meryam Pastry shop, five soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga., surround the car, search the trunk and seize the weapon.

"Keep your hands up! Stay in the car!" shouts Aaron Duemmel, a field artillery specialist.

"It's a wedding! It's a wedding!" Iraqis shout in English to the soldiers.

"It's a habit for us when we get married, we shoot some bullets in the air while we are riding in the car," a local resident tell Duemmel.

"Bullets going up in the air are going to come down and hurt these kids," Duemmel says, adrenalin pumping. "It's not good!"

Meanwhile, a crowd of bystanders gathered to watch the drama. An ambulance whizzed by, sirens blaring. Children rushed up to them, offering cold sodas. Traffic built up and night began to resemble day.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NIGHT