Rubaei street in Baghdad's Zayuna district is one of the city's unknown oases of normality, far away from the more famous Kindi street of Harthiya or 14 Ramadan street of Mansour in the center of the city. On either side of the wide and brightly lit boulevard good restaurants are open well into the night, the sidewalks are crowded with families and even young couples; expensive cars slowly cruise the street, young men gazing at the crowds of girls in tight clothes. I was sitting outside at dusk (staring at them too) with my Iraqi friend Rana in a fresh fruit juice and ice cream restaurant called Sandra. Rana ate imported ice cream, explaining that she did not eat the local ice cream for fear of nuclear contamination in the milk. She noted that the scene before us reminded her of the days before the war, when she would go out at night with her sisters, unafraid of the dangers that keep women sequestered in their homes today.
As she was waxing nostalgic about the good old days under Saddam, a refrain I am by now accustomed to hearing, and I was trying not to roll my eyes, two sharp gunshots cut her words short and returned her to reality. By now the sound of gun shots rarely distracts me, but this time it was too close, and too incongruent with the bustling nightlife. I saw two men walking hurriedly across the street in between the traffic, arms raised and pistols in the air. "They killed a man!" someone shouted. I got up and saw a man in a suit collapsed on the curb, blood spreading from beneath his head. The two men had walked up to him, shot him in the head, taken his pistol, then walked away laughing into a dark street.
The crowd grew and cars slowed down as their drivers gazed at the corpse. Soon about fifty men stood around silently, looking at the body then looking away guiltily. Someone tried calling the police but the call did not go through. Two men ran a few hundred meters away to the nearest police checkpoint, but were told by the policemen there that it was somebody else's jurisdiction. Two armed security guards from a building across the street returned panting, having failed to find the killers. They said they provided security for "an official" nearby. People told me the official was a judge. Someone from a nearby shop covered the body with a rug that failed to conceal the growing pool of blood. Half an hour after the shooting, Iraqi police began arriving, just as the several men in the crowd had turned over the body and were looking through his pockets for identification or a phone. When I returned to my hotel I told a photographer about what I had seen. He asked me if I had heard about the explosion in Fallujah. I asked him if he had heard about the deputy chief of police in Mosul getting assassinated.
"It's all small news, so you never hear of it," he said. "It's all small news but its all bad news."
You never hear about most of it because the press never hears about most of it. And if the press wasn't there, it never happened. Baghdad is a huge sprawling city with poor communication, and it is impossible for the press or the occupying army to know what is happening everywhere. We only hear the distant thunder of the explosions or feel the silent change in air pressure. At 11 p.m. one night I received a call from a friend in the Saha neighborhood of Baghdad's Shaab district, a Shi'ite stronghold. A Sunni mosque near his house had been attacked. "They are Wahhabis," he said (Iraqi Shi'ites call all conservative Sunnis Wahhabis). Did I want to come? I asked the hotel for their taxi driver, but I didn't explain why I was going there. Not a single car was out as we drove for twenty minutes from the city center to the Qiba Mosque. The streets of Shaab were misty and unlit. The road before the mosque was blocked by a truck; about twenty men held Kalashnikovs.
They surrounded the taxi and on each side a young man in shabby civilian clothes pointed his barrel in through our windows. They demanded to know who we were and what we wanted. They were very tense. I asked the one on my side who he was but he ordered me out of the car. The taxi driver explained that I was not an Iraqi. "He's a foreigner!" they shouted to each other, and all the men came to the car. "They are all Israelis and Jews," shouted one man in a slurred voice. We tried to explain that I was a journalist, but they had never seen an American passport or a press ID before. Why was I here? What did I want? It was clear from the fear in their eyes and the anger in their voices as they barked orders that they wanted to find somebody to kill. They used none of the polite expressions that color even hostile Arabic conversation. They only gave orders, as if we were their prisoners, their voices echoing against the empty city's buildings.
The man with the slurred voice pointed his Kalashnikov at me and ordered me out of the car in a drunken rage. The driver and I protested that I was just a journalist, here to investigate an attack. Not knowing if they were Sunni or Shi'ite I recited the names of every Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite leader I could think of and said they were all my friends. I won over two men and they began struggling with the drunk man who still wanted to shoot me. An argument broke out over whether or not they should kill me. The drunk man would not move the barrel down as they tried to push it and I moved away from its swaying range. The others were undecided and nervously eyed me. One man rushed me into the mosque for safety. This is why journalists and Iraqis stay home at night.
Ready for war
The violence is relentless. Explosions from bombs, rocket propelled grenades and artillery as well as guns firing can be heard all day and night, but their locations are usually impossible to determine, even if you are foolish enough to search for them after dark, when gangs and wild dogs own the streets. There are systematic assassinations of policemen, translators, local officials, and anybody associated with the occupiers. The pace of the violence is normal and mundane, so nobody cares. Unless an explosion is perceptibly close, it is just an echo, and nobody pauses in mid-conversation or stops chewing his kabob. Nobody in the US (and certainly nobody in Iraq) even cares much about the American soldiers dying daily, as long as the numbers on any given day are low. In the Sunni neighborhood of Aadhamiya in Baghdad there are nightly RPG and mortar attacks on the US base, and the men on the street erupt in cheers and whistles at the sounds.
Mosques are attacked every night and clerics killed, leading to retaliations against the opposite sect. Mosques now have armies of young volunteers wielding Kalashnikovs guarding them. Soon neighborhood mosques will unite to form neighborhood armies, to fight rival mosques or rival neighborhoods. (Even many journalists now travel with armed bodyguards; in at least one incident they returned fire, making them combatants). In the Sunni Hudheifa Mosque in Rasala one can purchase a magazine that praises Yazid, the early Muslim leader who killed Hussein, the martyr whom Shi'ites venerate and mourn for. This article would be enough to start a civil war if Shi'ites found it.
"We don't talk about civil war," one Sunni tribal leader told me. "We just prepare for it."
Like in Bosnia before the war, all sides profess their brotherhood and unity, but they are scared. And just in case, they make preparations, arming themselves and organizing units for self defense. These defensive measures are interpreted by the others as an offensive threat, so they too take defensive measures, increasing the other side's fears, and then everybody is armed and scared, as they are now in Iraq, and all it takes is a match. "We fear this match," said a leader in the Hudheifa mosque who did not want to admit to me that his mosque had been shot at, because he did not want the young men to lose patience.
So far the attempts to provoke a civil war have failed. Though clerics from both sects are assassinated weekly, the culprits are unknown and the leaders exhort their flock to be patient, blaming the "Anglo American Zionist conspiracy." After the March 2 explosions in Karbala and Baghdad, where I saw piles of body parts, scalps, hands, and fly-covered pieces of flesh, the fury was directed at the Americans. Immediately after the three suicide bombs struck in Baghdad, spraying blood even on the mosque's ceiling, the loudspeakers urged people to be calm and accused the Americans and Jews of attacking them. Shi'ite mosques sell CDs of the riot in Kadhim, when thousands of Shi'ite men attacked American military medical vehicles that came to help, and then chased them to the base, throwing shoes, stones and epithets, waving flags and taunting the reviled occupiers. The American retreat into the base was a great victory for the shocked Shi'ites.