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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 17:03 GMT
Baghdad diary: Week two

Omar Razek
BBCArabic.com correspondent in Baghdad

Omar Razek, a correspondent for the BBC's Arabic Service, is writing an online diary of his experiences in Baghdad.

Follow his diary here in English every Friday, and in Arabic at www.bbcarabic.com

Saturday 6 December

The doors, which hitherto have been shut tight, have swung wide open following the lifting of the international trade sanctions on Iraq.

Everything has become permissible. Political parties and associations have mushroomed; some of them are "real" and effective, while others are no more than window-dressing.

I planned to cover five demonstrations scheduled for yesterday.

The first one I went to was virtually unattended. The second had some tens of people, while the third was a real demonstration.

Notwithstanding this, Iraqi police closed off one of the main thoroughfares in the city - Saadoun Street - for the whole day.

There are some 100 publications in Iraq now. Some of them have readers. But many others suffer from carrying too many typos and other errors - and this in a country that has taught the world how to write.

Sunday 7 December

Lawrence of Arabia talked about the "noble Bedouin". He was referring to those who were not compromised by civilisation.

To simplify the complicated nature of Iraqi reality, it was easier for the coalition and for the Western media during the recent war on Iraq to paint a picture of Iraq as a "noble" tribal society, where the head of the tribe is regarded as the final authority.

But Baghdad has some six million people. It has suburbs for the elites, and others, the marginalised.

It has professionals, artists and poets. Iraqi cities have oil and gas installations and factories. How could all of this have been forgotten?

Tuesday 9 December

Some people in Iraq whisper about their fears of the spectre of a civil war.

Outside the Al Mustafa mosque - hit by an explosion this morning - people said: "We are one people, Sunni and Shia. This is the work of saboteurs."

The guards, most of them very young and carrying machine guns, were out and about in the mosque's courtyard. I did not see a single Iraqi police officer or an American solider.

The imam of the mosque was in a threatening mood. He said that any attack on a Sunni mosque is itself an act that crosses the "red line".

Al Hirya, or freedom, suburb of Baghdad where the mosque is located is a poor neighbourhood. The residents here are not too interested in politics and their obsession is with security.

They say that their kids go to schools which are very near the mosque and wondered what would happen if a missile was to misfire and hit one of the schools.

Wednesday 10 December

Life is good in Al Kadhumia neighbourhood, which is in Al Karkh sector, on the western bank of the Tigris river.

The streets are busy with passers-by and shoppers. The markets are stocked up with every imaginable piece of merchandise.

Some women are sticking to their traditional black headscarves, others take up the latest fashions while out shopping for golden jewellery.

Gold is an important part of the culture in this neighbourhood. A friend who lives there told me that the four minarets of the shrine of Imam Mousa Al Kadhum are covered with real gold. Also the price of gold jewellery is very reasonable compared to other countries.

Portraits of the Imam Ali and Imam Al Hussein - and other revered Shia Imams - are all over the place, and almost all the shopkeepers play tape recordings of religious recitals reminiscing about the injustices suffered by the Prophet Mohammed's grandsons.

Iranian pilgrims have become the backbone of religious tourism in Iraq. They visit Kadhumia and Najaf and Karbala in buses that carried them across the Iranian borders.

In the past they were not allowed to wander around freely in these religious sites, and they were not allowed to speak directly to Iraqis.

They used to be confined to places set by the authorities accompanied by official minders throughout their pilgrimage.

Thursday 11 December

A journalist in Iraq is required to be aware of everything in a country where military operations and guerrilla attacks and crisis are occurring at a crazy tempo.

The well-informed journalists are a few foreign correspondents who know their contacts within the ranks of the American forces - for it is the American forces, it seems, that know everything.

Today I almost banged my head against the wall out of frustration as I was searching for a spokesperson to confirm or deny a piece of information.

I call an official Iraqi spokesman who says: "I don't know. What is the source of your information?"

"Associated Press," I reply.

I call the Coalition Provisional Authority. "We will not disclose this information", they say. "You'd better call the American forces."

The American forces only inform a group of selected journalists.

I do this exercise every day in a country without a communications network.

Journalists must carry on doing this while sharing the little available information to cover an extremely explosive situation.

Friday 12 December

I took canned food with me to Iraq, thinking that I am going to country where I might not find anything to eat - but I was proven wrong.

Thousands of Iraqis visit the Hajji Hussein Restaurant in Falouja after the Friday prayers to enjoy the fresh Tanoura bread, Iraqi Kebab and Tikka.

Meat is a very important part of the Iraqi diet. This hasn't changed despite years of economic embargo.

I made a comparison between the huge portions served in Iraqi restaurants and the modest portions of the London restaurants.

Prices are also very reasonable and affordable to the average Iraqi. We were three people, and we had a huge meal for 11,000 Iraqi dinars - which is around five and a half US dollars.

Saturday 13 December

Fear can be quite monstrous in Baghdad.

Last night, heading back to hotel late from work, I had a terrifying surprise awaiting.

After my Iraqi friend's car stopped almost every 100 metres for checks, there was eventually an American patrol.

They had to be suspicious because being there at such a late hour in the dark is quite pitiful.

With the search finally over, I sought the hotel doors within few yards distance, only to find the invincible iron gate locked.

The dark was only interrupted by the monotonous buzz of a generator. It was a Friday, the local weekend, and I had to knock for a length of time.

I then started to shout, in a desperate attempt to catch the attention of the receptionist on the first floor. If anything, my voice had to be louder than the electric generator and the TV, while not soliciting unwanted attention by the US troops, or others who might mistake me for a robber or a gunman.

Five minutes passed like an age before I was let in by the employee who gave me a hug to calm my fears.

Once in my room, the first thing I did was to push a heavy table against the door.

I have no idea how many times I woke up that night to the sound of what seemed like nearby shots.

Whether the shots were real, I actually have no clue.



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