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Reporter's Notebook: Daily Life in Baghdad - 2003-09-25


In Iraq, violence and crime seem to be part of everyday life, as the country emerges from decades of war and repression. But the people are getting on with their lives and some normality is gradually returning. Correspondent Scott Bobb has spent the past month in Iraq and has these thoughts about living and working there.

The half-dozen passengers buckle up their seat belts as the twin-engine plane spirals down from the sky in a corkscrew motion over Baghdad's main airport.

With its wings banked at a 45-degree angle, the plane plummets 4,000 meters (12,000 feet) in three minutes. The passengers hold on to the seats in front of them, their ears popping and temples pounding from the descent. The pilot has cheerfully told them that the maneuver is to avoid rocket propelled grenades that are fired every so often from the ground outside the airport.

The plane makes a dogleg turn over the end of the runway, drops softly onto the tarmac and rolls up to a hanger. The passengers step out, blinking in the torrid sunshine, and are greeted by a U.S. soldier.

Welcome to Baghdad, he says, and goes on to tell them they may not talk to any soldiers and they may not take pictures, especially of wounded people who might be waiting to be evacuated.

The passengers are searched. Their luggage is e-rayed. And they are registered in the former cargo office for Iraqi airlines. The waiting room is drab, but someone has tried to make it comfortable with some over-stuffed chairs and pieces of art that look like they came from one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.

Once beyond the barricade and barbed wire sanctuary of the airport, the visitors enter the streets of Baghdad, which, surprisingly, are choked with traffic. There are cars, buses and trucks of every age and description. Most of the newer ones are sport utility vehicles belonging to coalition officials, humanitarian workers and members of the new Iraqi elite.

The reason there are so many cars is that gasoline is cheap in Iraq, the cheapest in the world, a legacy of the days of Saddam Hussein. A liter costs less than half-a U.S. cent, a tank full of gas - less than one dollar.

There are long lines at the gas stations, so enterprising Iraqis fill up, then park down the street and, with a hose in hand, sell gas to people who don't want to wait in line. Their gas is double the price at the pump, but still quite cheap.

Every now and then, some American tanks rumble by, their soldiers alert with fingers on the triggers of their weapons.

They offer a temporary diversion but also tie up traffic even more.

Since the car bombings that seem to target any group perceived to be working with the U.S.-led coalition, security has become a paramount concern.

A section of Baghdad, including Saddam Hussein's main palace, the international convention center and the famous Rasheed Hotel, is the domain of the coalition authority and the interim Iraqi government. It is where the leaders of the new Iraq live and work.

It is called the green zone. But its overall hue is more metallic, because of the millions of dollars of military hardware that protect it: tanks, personnel carriers, HumVee vehicles and kilometers of concertina wire, all surrounded by three-meter high walls of sandbags.

To get inside the green zone and into one of the buildings, anyone without a coalition pass must produce two photo identification cards. There are four different checkpoints and each visitor is frisked twice. The process usually takes 15 to 20 minutes. On entering from the pounding sun, the air-conditioned convention hall feels like an oasis. Reporters gather here in the afternoons for news conferences, while U.S. soldiers train security guards in the lobby.

Back on the streets of Baghdad, the cars and pedestrians thin out as the sun loses its glare and shadows start to lengthen. Some people venture out at dusk to shop at the neighborhood store or fruit vendor. But by dark the streets are almost empty and they are deserted by eleven o'clock when curfew begins.

The nighttime often crackles with gunfire.

The shots may be from a robbery or a vendetta, both of which are common right now. But they may also be a celebration, like a wedding, or someone marking the receipt of several months of back pay. All are part of the freedom in the new Iraq.

But eventually even this, too, dies down. And the city rests under starry skies, until dawn ushers in another scorching day, the muezzins call for early-morning prayers and slowly the city awakens to do it all over again.