City of fear : postcards from the edge



Straits Times correspondent Derwin Pereira reports from Baghdad US troops, Fedayeen militia, looters and vigilantes roam the streets of Baghdad where destruction and violence reign

AMERICAN amphibious assault tanks and armed jeeps are parked just 100 m from my hotel, their guns pointing towards the Tigris River.

It is deep in the night as I write this story. In eerily empty streets, the silence is punctured periodically by the rattle of distant gunfire.

After the informal curfew begins at 7.30 pm, the only people roaming the streets are Fedayeen militia with Kalashnikov rifles, or milk-faced US soldiers hunting them down.

The fighting is far from over.

During the day, crowds throng the streets, weaving in and out of a melee of hooting cars, trucks and vans. But the traffic noise does not drown out the overhead roar of US Apache helicopters and the rumble of heavy armour, nor the deadly percussion of US Marines and Saddam loyalists pounding each other with artillery and machine-gun fire.

From the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel, where most foreign journalists are staying, huge columns of smoke can be seen rising skywards from different parts of the capital.

Most of it comes from Karkh in the west, which stretches from the Iraqi Museum to the road leading to Baghdad’s international airport which is now a major base for coalition forces.

Baghdad’s core is a 3.5 km by 3 km area in Rusafah. Sharia Rashid is the main street and contains the financial district, and the copper, textile and gold souks or bazaars. Most of them have been closed since the war started.

Some streets are lined with burnt-out buildings and scarred with bomb craters and the black carcasses of cars and Iraqi tanks.

Glass, debris, tree branches and corpses, many shot in the head, litter the pavements.

Streets have become makeshift hospitals and morgues. The grounds of the Saddam Hospital are being used as a cemetery and people are digging up graves to identify loved ones.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is gone but his image – in statues on massive plinths and in huge portraits – is still everywhere.

Many of the pictures and statues in schools, government offices and shopping centres are bullet-ridden or otherwise defaced.

The air attacks have knocked out the electricity and phone lines in the city. The two major hotels still operating are running on generators, so power is used sparingly.

There is electricity for three hours in the afternoon and between 8 pm and 3 am.

TV networks such as CNN and BBC are equipped with their own mega-generators firmly planted on the hotel grounds or on the rooftop, which is also being used as an observation post for reporters.

Elsewhere in the blacked-out city, there are said to be a few pockets where the electricity has come on, but otherwise there is no power for those without generators, and barely enough water and food.

In shops, restaurants and small hotels, people leave a bottle of iced water at the reception for guests to take a drink from a common glass.

For food, most Iraqis, if they are lucky, have bean soup and rice sprinkled with green peas. Chicken and lamb kebabs, the local favourites, are a luxury these days.

Shops are still closed but yesterday, for the first time since US soldiers took Baghdad, you could buy food and cigarettes from street traders, kiosks and shops, not just from the black market.

But a kilo of lamb that cost 4,000 Iraqi dinars during the war now goes for 12,000 dinars. People pay 6,000 dinars for 20 eggs. Before the war began, a dinar was worth US$3 (S$5.35).

The dinar is changing hands at around 3,000 to the US dollar, compared, according to Reuters, with 4,000 a day earlier.

Looting is still rampant. But in some areas, people are fighting back.

In the once upmarket Al-Mansur neighbourhood, residents armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles partially block roads with sandbags and are checking passing cars for stolen goods. Some looters are being beaten up.

In the mainly Shi’ite Saddam City, following an appeal from local cleric Mohamed Hossen Alsader, some people are returning loot to mosques for safekeeping.

Iraqis have formed a ring around the Kashimain Mosque in eastern Baghdad, to prevent the desecration of the building whose golden domes and minarets have been a landmark since 1515.

Euphoria has soured into disillusionment as US troops failed to prevent the capital from descending into chaos.

The sentiments of the 10 Iraqis interviewed by The Straits Times are summed up by Mr Khalid Ibrahim, 40, a textile salesman with two young children.

He said: ‘What is the purpose of all these American tanks on the roads if they cannot protect us from looters, thieves and murderers?

‘Every night, I worry for my family, that someone will come and rob us, and kill us. There is no safety in Baghdad anymore.’

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