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2006: A day in the life of Baghdad residents 3 years after invasion

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 Iraq, residents of this troubled capital live lives that would seem bizarre nearly anyplace else. Abu Mustafa passes the nights with a pistol on his pillow, lest anyone steal his wife's jewelry. A mother has to push through a mob to get her daughter to school. Gunfire breaks out at random moments. Car bombs explode. The fear is so great that people rarely allow the publication of their full names.

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., Jadria Bridge. A man who identified himself as Abu Sarah, 34, sat idling in traffic. Five lanes of cars were piling onto the three-lane bridge. Motorcycles clogged the sidewalks.

Before the war, crossing the Jadria Bridge, a concrete span over the Tigris River, could take as long as five minutes. These days, half an hour is quick.

Before, he could cross the larger 14th of July Bridge. But U.S. forces have closed that bridge, nine major roads and dozens of side streets to protect the Green Zone, the center of Iraq's new government and foreign embassies. The closure has created a traffic nightmare in a city where the number of cars has more than doubled in the past three years, from 400,000 to an estimated 1 million.

As Abu Sarah idled, gunfire erupted, followed by a voice from a loudspeaker: "Clear the road. Move to the right."

Five lanes of cars scratched and pushed against each other to clear a path for three Chevrolet pickups loaded with Iraqi police commandos. The commandos fired several more bursts of gunfire from their AK-47 rifles and rolled past. They're always targets and they can't afford to get stuck in traffic.

8:30 a.m., Al Taji, a neighborhood in northern Baghdad. A roadside bomb exploded near the Arabic Oil Institute. One man was killed, and six others were wounded.

8:30 a.m. Hai al Aamel, in western Baghdad. Sameera Ahmed, 32, clutched the small hand of her 7-year-old daughter, Dunia, and pulled her along faster than is natural for little legs. Three years of tanks and car bombs have left the street badly pitted. What used to be a sidewalk is now just chunks of concrete.

A crowd mobbed the entrance to Dunia's school. People had come to get their ration cards. Ahmed lowered her shoulder and started pushing through, gripping Dunia's hand tighter. A guard started yelling, "Let them pass, let the small one in."

Her mother pulled Dunia through. Then she knelt, wiped the tears from her little girl's eyes, patted down her black hair, smoothed her school uniform and urged her on to class. Around them, others fought through the gate and raced across the schoolyard to collect ration cards.

"This is her life," Ahmed said.

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.

8:40 a.m., Sadr City, northeast Baghdad. Iraqi police entered a building between the Al Jolan sport club and Al Emam Al Maasum mosque to find four bodies. The bodies were riddled with bullets, and each wore a sign stating, simply, "Traitor." Police suspect that maverick Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia killed the men to retaliate for six car bombs that killed 46 people the previous day.

10:45 a.m., Rasheed Street in central Baghdad. The air was thick with the smell of cardamom, coffee and black pepper in Baghdad's famous spice market. 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?"

His father passed the shop on to him. He wonders if he'll have a shop to pass on to his son.

11:55 a.m. Karada Out, in south central Baghdad. Sajida Ali, 33, leaned against a car and chatted with another woman about the difficulties of daily life in Baghdad. Cooking, shopping, taking care of the children — all are so difficult now.

They were waiting in line for a chance to buy gasoline and cooking oil. Cars stretched for four blocks in front of and the same distance behind them. The gas station is wrapped in razor wire, hemmed in by high concrete walls and patrolled by two men with AK-47s.

Ali's husband had started the wait, arriving at 5 a.m., as soon as curfew was lifted, to claim a spot. She replaced him after their five children were off to school. She hoped she'd have gasoline before 8 p.m., when the curfew begins again.

"I am afraid it is another day of failure, leaving our children and families and coming here to have nothing," she sighed.

Ali needed oil for her stove, to bake bread, cook meals and heat water for washing. She can't afford to pay the speculators, who buy more than they need, then resell it at a premium to those still in line. A can of oil has gone from 50 cents to $7 in the past three years.

"I am afraid we are going to use wood," she said.

1:05 p.m., Mansour, in central Baghdad. For Ahmed Naser, 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."

3:25 p.m., Mansour, in central Baghdad. Two private security teams, one for Iraq's largest cell phone company, Iraqna, and the other guarding Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, surprised each other. They opened fire. The gunfight was brief. Two of Chalabi's guards were killed.

3:40 p.m., Al Shula, in northwest Baghdad. A mortar shell exploded on a private home. The roof collapsed, killing a child and injuring four family members.

6:20 p.m. Jadria Bridge. Abu Sarah was returning home. The bridge was nearly empty, but still he worried. Curfew begins in 100 minutes, and a roadside bomb, even a car accident, can trap people on Baghdad streets for hours. He didn't want to be on the streets after curfew. He's heard of cases where police shot at late drivers.

7:28 p.m., Ameriya, on the western edge of Baghdad. Abu Mustafa heard the evening call to prayer from the Shanshal mosque. He tucked his children into bed, together, of course. If something happens during the night, it's safer to have everyone together. Later, they'll wake and cry when U.S. helicopters buzz overhead, but for now they sleep. At midnight, the generator that provides the only nighttime electricity will go off, so Mustafa takes a flashlight to bed, after he hides his money and valuables.

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

(Knight Ridder special correspondents Zaineb Obeid, Mohamad Alawsy, Shatha Alawsy, Ahmed Mukhtar and Omar Jassim contributed to this report.)

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