JAMAIL: On Pins and Needles in Baghdad

January 29, 2005

On Pins and Needles in Baghdad
by Dahr Jamail

Despite a continuing increase in the already draconian security measures imposed across Iraq, the bombs keep coming.

Today in the al-Dora district of Baghdad a primary school which had been a designated polling station was struck by a car bomb. Four Iraqi Police (IP) were killed.

A GMC packed with explosives rammed a checkpoint at the al-Dora power plant, killing several people, and as far south as Basra a policeman died when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb.

With Baquba experiencing its daily car bombing, at least 18 Iraqis have been killed in attacks on polling stations in the last 24 hours alone.

While IP's have been given pay raises for this weekend, they remain extremely tense and edgy, and not without due cause.

We are driving around Baghdad today attempting to take photos and conduct interviews, and the streets are nearly completely empty.

An oddity in Baghdad, where traffic jams often find people waiting for hours in places to creep their way through clogged streets. Over 90 streets in the capital city are barricaded, further increasing the horrendous congestion on "normal" days.

I take a photo as we drive past an IP praying behind a barricade which blocks an empty street. Almost immediately afterwards we hear yelling and I look back to see an IP aim his Kalshinkov over our car and hear the pop as he squeezes off a shot.

"They weren't even guarding anything. What was that all about," I ask Abu Talat who takes us down some side roads in case they decided to follow us.

"They are in terror of what is to come," replies Abu Talat, "So many of us are afraid of what is to come now."

We drive past the recently bombed SCIRI headquarters across the street from Baghdad University, then our circuitous route takes us past an area where men are lining the streets handing out bundles of posters and other election propaganda for the Royal Constitution Party, in hopes of luring some votes.

I'm on a mission to photograph the barricades that are springing up across the capital city, and one of Abu Talat's sons, Ahmed, is along with us doing some filming as well. Just after filming more of the abundance of concrete blocks and razor wire we are pulled over by an unmarked car of three IP's.

They take Abu Talat and Ahmed's ID's, the registration papers for the car and tell us to follow them.

I'd been detained by mujahideen in Fallujah last May while conducting interviews inside the city, and Abu Talat and I were piled into a GMC with armed Iraqi National Guard (in Fallujah they were all muj), and taken in for questioning.

So this didn't feel like a kidnapping, since we had our car sans personal armed escorts. Nevertheless, it's safe to say I was a bit concerned.

"Should I escape? I could try to get a taxi," I say to Abu Talat. "No. We're fine. They will just verify we are press. Besides, you are American. You are the only thing keeping them from throwing me in jail."

From the back seat Ahmed says, "Me too!"

They pull over at a marked police vehicle and everything is sorted out. "I apologize, we just have to make sure you are press," says one of the policemen.

Before leaving them Abu Talat felt like having some fun and asked the policeman, "Why didn't you take the American's papers?"

"The Americans will fuck my mother if I do," he replied. They both burst into laughter.

Later in another area of the city we are on a sidewalk and see a large cargo truck with a tattered Iraqi flag on one of the antennae. A crowd of weary travelers are milling around the back of it holding large travel bags.

"They have just returned from their haj," comments Abu Talat as he looks at the weary travelers from Mecca. "Welcome to Iraq," he says while laughing.

From the backseat Ahmed says, "Welcome to hell."

We'd already pushed our luck, so after talking to a few folks we grab lunch and head back towards home. "Let's play a game and see how many photos we can take before we get pulled over or shot at again," I joke to them both.

They laugh, appreciating my acquired Iraqi humor – if you don't laugh at this situation, you lose your mind promptly. "Yeah, why not," replies Abu Talat as we speed down another mostly empty street.

Ahmed, 15 years old, tells me one of his friends was shot in the back by an Iraqi soldier because he drove by an unmarked checkpoint. "He's in the hospital now, but he's in too much pain to talk to me," he says.

These stories are everyday.

Going through the IP checkpoint at the hotel, one of the guards says, "I don't think much will happen this weekend. I think it's just a bunch of lies. Nothing will happen."

After watching his colleague speak, the other guard who is looking under our hood replies, "We're closing this checkpoint at 5pm today, so no more cars in or out of here. The coming days will be the worst we've ever seen. Attacks will spread across all of Baghdad."

Like the election and the aftermath, nobody knows for sure what will happen here. Baghdad is on pins and needles. Gunfire cracks in the distance as I finish this. Two distant explosions (the car bombs) rattled the hotel earlier this evening.

The curfews have been extended and all the security measures are now in place.

And, as usual, nobody knows what will happen next in occupied Iraq.

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Dahr Jamail

streets are nearly completely empty


IP praying behind a barricade

recently bombed SCIRI headquarters

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