It was a pretty standard Baghdad day — strong explosions in the wee hours, a fatal roadside bombing and a fresh episode in the grim drama of hostage-taking.
Iraq’s first full day of sovereignty since the U.S.-led invasion last year brought more of the same to the people of its capital, struggling with dangers and deprivations.
There was no revelry, no street parties, not even the celebratory gunfire Iraqis traditionally indulge in. Instead, many pondered the fate of their nation or offered criticisms of 14 months of direct U.S. rule.
If anything, the city of 6 million people was a somber place Tuesday, caught in a state of tense anticipation, wondering when or whether the insurgents would escalate their attacks and unsure whether the transfer of power was anything to cheer about.
U.S. soldiers patrolled the capital in Humvees and on foot. Iraqi police raised their profile a notch, with more personnel and white-and-blue patrol cars on the streets. Traffic was thinner than usual, and some stores did not open for business for fear of attacks.
U.S. military helicopters flew low over the city, navigating between tall buildings at altitudes not much higher than treetops.
Radio and TV stations dished out the usual chilling fare of bad news: the alleged killing of a U.S. soldier who was kidnapped in April, an attack on a police station south of Baghdad, the killings of three Marines in a roadside bomb and updates on other hostages.
The dinar, the local currency, rose slightly against the dollar.
Business as usual in an unusual setting
On a 109-degree day, small armies of street hawkers did brisk business selling motorists a range of items: newspapers, cold sodas, cheap hats and cardboard screens to shield their dashboards from the sun. Some bore images of snowcapped mountains or scenic lakes.
Bananas from Ecuador — a best-seller in Baghdad for the past year — were also on offer.
Beggars, some not yet in their teens, stalked motorists.
“Do you think I’d be doing this if my father made enough money?” asked Mohammed Kazim, a 10-year-old hawking boxes of Syrian-made paper.
Did he know what happened Monday?
“Yes, Ali Allawi became our president,” said Kazim, referring to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s new head of government.
Pessimism as a way of life
Baghdadis pride themselves on being a resilient people who have endured decades of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, nearly 13 years of crippling U.N. sanctions and the anguish and destruction that come with wars — three in a little more than two decades.
But the past 14 months were nothing like they had seen — a foreign occupation that most of them considered heavy-handed and insensitive, bombings that killed thousands of people and maimed many more, an insurgency that often triggered harsh retaliations, and violent crime.
With the spirit of the city near its breaking point, the restoration of sovereignty Monday meant little, not least because many Iraqis were convinced that it meant little with 160,000 foreign troops still in the country.
The woes of the past 14 months manifest themselves in multiple ways, from what people talk about to the graffiti and to the lifestyle many have had to adopt.
Upbeat views are rare. Grim outlooks are common.
“Dawn, dawn US arme,” declares fresh, although misspelled, graffiti in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City, where dozens of black banners announcing the deaths of militiamen who battled U.S. forces adorn many walls.
“We Jaafaris are never satisfied,” said Hussein Moussawi, a businessman from the area, using the name commonly used in Iraq to refer to Shiite Muslims.
“If they bring back the Prophet Muhammad to govern us, we will still complain,” he said at a friend’s photography store over Iranian-made cookies and a soda from Syria.
An equally pessimistic view came from Qays al-Sharaa, who runs a barbershop. “I think there will be much more violence tomorrow,” he whispered, as if divulging a secret. “Many of my friends will not open their stores.”
“Would you like to have your hair washed?” he offered a customer before hastening to add: “Sorry, sorry, you cannot! We don’t have water for three days now.”
So long, Bremer
Not surprisingly, some in Iraq found it fitting to use the occasion to vent anger and frustration over the U.S.-run occupation.
Tuesday’s newspaper editorials sharply criticized the policies of the occupation, with one saying the departure Monday of the U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, was the day’s “most beautiful thing.” Many maintained that Iraq had become sovereign in name only, while some said it was a move inspired by the U.S. presidential election.
A somewhat positive note, however, came from the emergency ward of Baghdad’s al-Kindi hospital.
“This is such a quiet day, an unusual day,” Dr. Saad Hussein said. He complained that U.S. rule added nothing of note to the hospital, but he acknowledged that it was better run now.
“At the end of a long shift, I don’t go home just cursing America. I curse everyone responsible for killing and wounding,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who it is.”