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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 October, 2004, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Living to the sound of gunfire
Caroline Hawley
By Caroline Hawley
BBC Baghdad correspondent

On Thursday, two bomb attacks killed up to six people in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. It was believed to be the most secure part of the city, housing the Iraqi interim government and the American and British embassies. With the real threat of kidnap and bombing, many, but not all, Baghdad residents are choosing to stay indoors.


I have seen more than my share of Baghdad's residency office.

The first time I applied to stay in Iraq was in the lead-up to the war.

Failure.

Instead, not long afterwards, I was ordered to leave the country.

But two years later, I was back in the same office, applying for residency in the new Iraq.

Baghdad's bureaucrats still want bribes, so no change there. The main difference is that you are now frisked as you go in.

There are armed guards almost everywhere these days.

And the small lake of green sewage festering in front of the office was also new.

There was a time last year when I actually thought I might be kicked out of the new Iraq as well. The Americans didn't much like the BBC's reporting.

I was accused of being able to smell sewage in a bed of roses.

Of course everyone now knows that post-war Iraq is not a bed of roses.

The evils of Saddam's Iraq have been replaced by new agonies.

Iraqis are free to speak now, but they live with a different kind of fear.

Fighting for survival

I recently met a 26-year-old man, a student leader called Bashar, who had lost relatives to Saddam's executioners.

I have seen Iraqi doctors courageously battle to keep people alive in basic wards
He had wanted nothing more than the end of the regime.

But just after the war, he says, American soldiers took over his students' accommodation as a military base.

Then came the death threats from religious extremists at his university, who took exception to his secular outlook.

But by far the most horrifying thing for him has been the bombs.

A man who lost seven members of his extended family to Saddam Hussein told me that he had lost 14 relatives in explosions since the war.

Over the past few months I have been to the scene of too many car bombs to remember, including a co-ordinated attack on churches across Baghdad and an explosion at a Shia Muslim shrine.

I have seen Iraqi doctors courageously battle to keep people alive in basic wards.

In the past six months alone, close to 4,000 Iraqis have been killed, and more than 15,000 injured in bombs, explosions and American air strikes.

Aftermath of car bomb explosion in Baghdad
Iraqis now live with a different kind of fear
And behind the statistics, of course, there are the people whose lives have been quite literally ripped apart.

It is hard to forget the face of a father running down a grimy hospital corridor carrying his small son, desperate to find anyone who might be able to help a little boy with a leg blown off.

The American field hospitals of course are busy too, trying to patch up young men from half a world away, some of whom will be maimed for life.

Over the past year and a half, I have watched vast slabs of grey concrete barrier go up across Baghdad, including around the BBC office, as foreigners here try to protect themselves.

I have got used to waking up or going to sleep with the sound of gunfire, mortars or low-flying helicopters. It is the backdrop of daily life here.

Confined

The last time I ate out at a restaurant was in December last year.

The place was bombed just a few days later, on New Year's Eve.
There was a time when we drove around the country. Now, we barely move around Baghdad

Nightlife, work permitting, consists of videos or playing cards or ping-pong with colleagues, all on our sealed-off street.

There was a time when we drove around the country.

Now, we barely move around Baghdad.

I have not been to the shops for weeks because of the risk of being taken hostage.

And Iraqis, of course, are being kidnapped almost on a daily basis, mostly for ransom.

Not that all hope has gone.

Life goes on

The other day, rockets slammed into a hotel compound used by foreign journalists and contractors.

The missiles narrowly missed an Iraqi wedding party at a sports club nearby.

I ducked under my desk as our office windows shook.

But less than an hour later, we were amazed to hear music again wafting into the warm Baghdad night. The wedding guests were out in the garden - dancing.

An ancient ruin of Babylon
Iraq is hopeful that tourists may begin to return if things improve

And believe it or not, Iraq actually has a tourist board.

No matter that one of the country's most famous sites, Babylon, is now in the middle of a military base.

Or that well over 100 foreigners have been kidnapped here in the past six months.

Hundreds of tourism officials have apparently been busy buying up land and preparing designs for new projects.

One senior official admitted circumstances were not exactly ideal for tourists but suggested that the situation might suddenly improve.

You cannot predict anything in Iraq, he said.

And on that I have to agree.

Though as a new resident of the new Iraq - worried about venturing out of the house at all right now - I wish I could share his optimism.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 16 October 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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