Iraq Still Manages to Shock

Sectarian strife continues to worsen in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. John Hendren is wrapping up the latest of more than a dozen visits to the war zone since early 2003. He sends us this reporter's notebook about Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The president spoke after another weekend of violence in Baghdad, in particular, in and around the sprawling slum known as Sadr City. There was heavy fighting between U.S. troops and the Mahdi Army, fighters loyal to the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

And a suicide bomber killed ten people when he blew himself up in the midst of a crowd of mourners at a funeral.

Casualty figures like those come in every day from Iraq, and it's easy for those numbers to make you numb. And then you listen to NPR's John Hendren, who has been learning why some of those Iraqis were killed.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

This is how staggeringly pointless the killing in Iraq is getting: shepherds in the rural western Baghdad neighborhood of Gazalea have recently been murdered, according to locals, for failing to diaper their goats. Apparently the sexual tension is so high in regions where Sheikhs take a draconian view of Shariah law, that they feel the sight of naked goats poses an unacceptable temptation. They blame the goats.

I've spent nearly a year here, on more than a dozen visits since the early days of the war, and that seemed about as preposterous as Iraq could get until I heard about the grocery store in east Baghdad. The grocer and three others were shot to death and the store was firebombed because he suggestively arranged his vegetables.

I didn't believe it at first. Firebombings of liquor stores are common, and I figured there must've been one next door. But an Iraqi colleague explained matter-of-factly that Shiite clerics had recently distributed a flyer directing groceries how to display their food.

Standing up a celery stalk near a couple of tomatoes in a way that might - to the profoundly repressed - suggest an aroused male, is now a capital offense.

I've seen a lot in Iraq that has surprised me. A family living in the guard shack of an abandoned nuclear plant, suffering from what local doctors described as radiation sickness; the bearded head of a bomber, 500 feet from his still flaming vehicle. Sick stuff. But I've also been inspired: by a soldier who agreed to an interview with a bullet in his leg; by American military surgeons who operated side by side on an Iraqi policeman and an Iraqi insurgent; and Iraqis who've returned to work with us, despite death threats, kidnappings, and slain relatives.

Yet over three years of visits, I've never been able to fully appreciate the violent justice there. I've heard of a boy in Najaf whose throat was slit for blinding a neighbor's cow with a rock. I've learned a new oxymoron: religious assassins. And I've watched friends move repeatedly, to stay ahead of attacks by insurgents. And now, Iraqi's are dying over goat panties and naughty veggies.

John Hendren, NPR News.

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