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World is shrinking for many Baghdad residents

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Samira Kubba wakes early each day, though she's not sure why. A year ago, she would have been busy helping her husband prepare for work, shopping for her family, meeting friends, planning the celebration for breaking the daily fast after sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Today, she knows she won't leave the house, except in case of emergency: a child in danger, the food supply running low. Even then, the excursion will be carried out with military precision: a timed route, covered by machine guns. She won't stop to chat with friends, she won't look in the eyes of anyone she passes, she won't stop for tea at a favorite cafe—all parts of daily life for her as little as months ago.

"We do not think about how we live our days in Baghdad these days. We wonder whether we will survive them," she said. "No place outside this house is safe."

Two and a half years after the city fell during the U.S.-led invasion, the world is shrinking for many residents, if not most of them. First they felt confined to their region, then their city, then their neighborhoods, then their blocks. Now, it's down to their houses, and, once inside, rich and poor are quick to point out the safest rooms, the places where their entire families now sleep at night.

Baghdad is a sprawling city of 6 million people, a jumble of sand-colored Legos poured along the twisting banks of the Tigris River, punctuated by the bulbs and points of countless mosques and minarets.

It's a 1,300-year-old city that for hundreds of years was considered among the world's most important, and beautiful, places. Residents usually say they can feel this sense of place, especially during Ramadan, when Muslims fast all day to understand the suffering of the poor, then after sunset jam the restaurants lining every street.

But not this year.

War zones have always been difficult on civilian populations. Londoners still talk of the blitz, the Nazi bombing campaign of World War II. Nadim Shehadi, who runs the London-based Chatham House research center's Middle Eastern program, remembers living through the stresses during the troubles in Beirut, Lebanon. But he sees something unique in Baghdad these days.

"Before, there's always been a sense that there was someone you could trust, someone who you could count on for help," he said. "Baghdaddees don't have this."

Resident fear insurgents and their car bombs and random gunfire. They fear Iraqi police, who are famously corrupt. They fear criminals, who've turned kidnapping—especially of children—into a prime business. They fear soldiers—both U.S. and Iraqi—who shoot innocent civilians every day, fearing they might be insurgents. Even their own guards have to be feared: Desperation destroys loyalties, and the price of release for a bodyguard's child can be the deliverance of a rich man's son.

"I cannot sleep at night," Falah Kubba said, his eyelids sagging and bruised from rubbing. "In bed, my wife rests on one side, and my new second wife—a pump-action shotgun—stays in my arms on the other side. I am up all night, aiming at the doors every time there is a bump. This is no way to live. It is a way to die."

After the fifth child on their block was kidnapped this summer, he cleared out an old office connected to his house as a play area for neighborhood children. The doors and windows are covered by iron gates, chains and padlocks. A family member with a locked and loaded AK-47 automatic kneels in front of the only entrance. While the children play—the youngest with a collection of push toys, the older ones with bicycles or balls, the teenagers sitting and chatting on the steps to the second floor—Falah keeps his second wife at hand.

"I'm a businessman," he explained. In fact, his brother was executed under Saddam Hussein and he was arrested, for insisting that the international business currency should be American dollars, not Iraqi dinar. "These days I eat my money, and my business is to keep my family together, and alive."

The Kubbas lives in Mansur, an area of large homes with marble entryways and exterior walls decorated with statues. Across town, in the middle-class and extremely dangerous Amariyah neighborhood, Huda al Zubaydi walks her children to school each morning. Afterward, she grabs a spot among other parents sitting or leaning against the school's security wall. They do this every day, and they wait until the final bell, waiting to walk their kids back home.

"The shootings, the bombings, the kidnappings: It's all too dangerous to leave my children alone," she said recently from her modest home. "The school cannot protect them. We can't trust anyone to protect them. I breathe again once I get them back inside the house. Maybe we're not safe in the house, either, but where else is there?"

Her husband, Abass, has to leave each day, to go to work. The bullets are a constant, so constant that he doesn't recognize them anymore, as are the mortar rounds that rain down on his neighborhood daily. The car bombs and the military checkpoints still shake him up, however.

"We don't know who our enemy is now," he said. "But we know it could be anyone outside our doors. We do not go outside if we can help it."

That means the supermarket across the highway is too dangerous a journey, so they shop at a small grocer on the block. The grocer doesn't carry their usual foods, or such items as laundry soap, so they simply do without. Comfort foods or clean clothes aren't worth taking a stray bullet or piece of shrapnel, or losing a child to kidnappers.

In the relatively secure Karada neighborhood, Abu Sarah—his nickname, as father of Sarah, not his real name, for fear of being killed for talking to an American—has started building a home near a family complex in northern Iraq, near the Iranian border.

He describes it as a backward place, with no opportunities and nothing to offer his two children, aside from safety. But after keeping his children out of school for a year, watching their lives be transformed by fear of the craziness around him, he thinks that safety may be more important than the modern world.

"We're afraid to leave the house once we're inside, in any case," he said. "Baghdad has gone from worst-case scenario last year to worse."


(Alawsy is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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


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