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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 June 2006, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Menacing reality of life in Baghdad
By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Baghdad

After the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, the Iraqi national security adviser said it was the "beginning of the end" of al-Qaeda in the country. But as the bombings continue, there still seems to be no sign of peace breaking out.

An Iraqi soldier secures an area in central Baghdad
Baghdad is still a dangerous place for soldiers and civilians
Most mornings around nine o'clock the phone begins to ring on Ali's desk.

He sits next to a window with sandbags on the sill.

Ali is one of our Iraqi researcher/translators.

He reaches for his pen and takes careful notes. He puts the phone down, stands up and walks across the room.

He is a large gentle man who likes to sit with me drinking medium sweet Arabic coffee.

We look up and he says, "car bomb, city centre, six dead, 20 injured", or "nine more bodies found shot dead". And we finish the sentence for him, "with wounds suggesting they've been tortured".

I have been here for two weeks.

Hardly a day has gone by without several car bombs in Baghdad and so many bodies dumped in the street that I have lost count.

There have been hijackings, ambushes, American soldiers captured and killed, a lawyer on the Saddam Hussein trial defence team abducted from his home and murdered, suicide bombs successfully aimed at police or army patrols, buses taking factory workers home held up by men with guns and driven away. Workers at a commercial bakery abducted at gun point.

"This is not a state", said Ali one morning, "this is anarchy".

Critical timings

Iraqi men inspect the area where a car bomb exploded in Baghdad (Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Image)
Car bombing happen on a regular basis in Baghdad
When I first came here I could walk the streets of Baghdad with no protection, drink coffee while I was waiting to have my hair cut, smoke hubble bubble at a cafe, go shopping at King of Dates.

The problems were already profound. I quickly learned key words - karaba makou, benzin makou, amal makou - no electricity, no petrol, no work.

But there was also a strong sense that people were enjoying their freedom from the oppressive and homicidal regime of Saddam Hussein. And that they felt cautiously optimistic that their lives would, one day, improve.

I have learned a new word, widely used, when I ask people how they are - ta'aban - tired
Now I can go nowhere without armed protection and I can only travel in an armoured private car.

I can never spend much more than a quarter of an hour at a cafe or a shop in case an opportunistic informer, perhaps simply desperate for money, makes a mobile telephone call to kidnap us.

One of the almost surreal features of this vicious guerrilla war is the normality within it.

Traffic's heavy, many shops are open, markets are busy and the people I meet are universally welcoming and friendly. But they are also worn out with anxiety.

I have learned a new word, widely used, when I ask people how they are - ta'aban - tired.

Iraqi's queue for fuel
Some homes have generators but you have to queue for hours to buy fuel or pay extortionate prices on the black market
Statistically, in this city of around six million, most people are unlikely to be directly affected by an explosion and even when a car bomb detonates just a mile away you do not hear much.

The windows rattle for a couple of seconds and there is a faint displacement of air. But the danger wears no uniform and the fear of it is grinding everybody down.

Power cuts add to the exhaustion.

It is about 45 degrees [Celsius] in the shade almost every day (115 Fahrenheit) and seldom less than 35 [Celsius] at night.

It is common to have one hour of electricity followed by six hours cut.

Ceiling fans and air conditioners stop. Some homes have generators but you have to queue for hours to buy fuel or pay extortionate prices on the black market.

The power cuts affect even the new Iraqi armed forces.

I have a friend who works as an interpreter at one of the largest military bases.

He says they sometimes have no power for 10 hours at a stretch. And this week, a soldier at a checkpoint begged him for just half a litre of petrol so that he could clean his rifle.

No-go zones

Map of Baghdad showing the 'Green Zone'
My friend has a little girl, Farah, who is six. She hardly goes out now.

Her parents never take her to the park or playground any more because they are terrified that she will be kidnapped.

But the menacing reality of daily life here does at last seem to be penetrating the isolated, heavily protected Green Zone where the British and American Embassies are.

A memo from the American Ambassador to the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was leaked to the press.

It reported the fears of the Embassy's Iraqi staff and said that they were, "negatively affecting office routine".

Many of their families do not even know they work there.

One man reported that he had queued for petrol for 10 hours.

The embassy has started shredding documents that include Iraqi staffs' surnames.

Back in our office, Ali took another call.

It was from a friend whose brother in law had been shot dead early in the morning in a district where the police said it was not safe for them to go and recover the body.

In the evening, the body was still in the street being eaten by dogs.

Country profile: Iraq
22 Apr 06 |  Country profiles

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