Exploring Life Outside the Green Zone

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Renee Montagne talks to NPR's Jamie Tarabay about what life is like for Iraqi citizens outside the heavily protected Green Zone in Baghdad.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And a familiar scene in Iraq as the new year begins. A suicide bomber rammed his car into a bus filled with policemen in the town of Baqubah north of Baghdad. The area has been a hotbed of violence. We're joined now by NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad. Hello.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Jamie, as a foreigner living and working in Baghdad outside the protected Green Zone where the US Embassy and Iraq's government ministries are located, talk to us about the first day of the year there. What could you do and not do in Baghdad, given this violence?

TARABAY: Well, Renee, every day we see, you know, what we're going to do, if we want to go out and interview people. I have the benefit of being a woman in that, you know, I can cover my hair and when I go out I can, to a certain degree, blend in when I'm outside. But, you know, there are certain things that we still can't do. We can't really loiter outside for very long. We do go and do interviews in homes and in offices and things like that, but we try to be as discreet as possible.

Yesterday, I went out, did an interview in a largely Sunni area and had to really keep a low profile and travel with people that I trusted. Just an example of the sort of random violence that happens every day here in Baghdad, on our return, we were in the car and we were stuck on the bridge; there was an Iraqi army checkpoint just further down the road, but I was sitting in the car and I heard a gunshot. And the shot actually--the sound of the gunshot moved the car. And it turned out that someone had actually fired onto the road. And I turned around to see what was going on. And, you know, there was a man standing next to a car full of men and he had a pistol and he was pointing his gun inside the car at these men. And for one heart-stopping moment, I actually thought he was going to fire and shoot these guys dead. And he was very close to--his wife came out and persuaded him to come back inside. And this was with, you know, an Iraqi army checkpoint just, you know, 20 meters away.

And, you know, yesterday we had at least 12 car bombs across the country. There were--eight of those were in the capital itself. But amazingly, there were no casualties. The only people who died were those suicide bombers.

MONTAGNE: There are, of course, deprivations in a sort of basic way for people there in Iraq. One of the big issues of--the economy is being rebuilt, gasoline, people don't have electricity. Walking through Baghdad yesterday, what would an Iraqi have experienced on the first day of 2006?

TARABAY: Well, people were out. People were at the market, they were gathering supplies, they were shopping. You know, I went past the suburb of Mansour, which is a pretty high-class kind of area. It's the shopping district. There are lots of women out. It's very rare to see women out in most parts of Baghdad, but in Mansour they were out and they were shopping for clothes and vegetables and all the rest of it. And you're absolutely right. In terms of basic resources, people are lucky if they get two hours of electricity. I think it's two vs. five hours of power every day. You know, clean water, that's very, very hard to come by. And as everyone's heard lately, it's been making the headlines. There's this 150 percent increase in the price of gasoline. And that actually was the cause of four deaths yesterday in Kirkuk up in the north, these demonstrators that set fire to petrol stations to protest about the fuel hike, and police there shot and killed four demonstrators. So basic necessities are really where Iraqis are focused at the moment, and this is something that, you know, occupies them as they try to make a start in the new year.

MONTAGNE: Did they celebrate the new year in Iraq?

TARABAY: Most people kept their celebrations indoors at home. They invited friends, relatives. Very much a quiet night. One person I spoke to was asleep by 10:30 at night. He just treated it like a normal day. But, you know, as the clock struck midnight, there was a lot of gunfire in the air. This is one way that Iraqis celebrate. The last time they won a football match they beat Syria and there was just endless gunfire for the rest of the night. So I guess you could say we had our own brand of fireworks here.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad.

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