Bombers Target Private Iraqi Commuter Buses

Because of the violence in Baghdad, more people have been relying on privately owned minibuses to get to work in the Iraqi capital. Now those buses have become targets for suicide bombers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Iraq's parliament met in special session today briefly, which was an act of defiance after a suicide bomber struck Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone yesterday.

(Soundbite of bomb explosion)

INSKEEP: We got that sound from Al-Hurra Television, a U.S. government-funded network that was rolling a tape at the time of the explosion. We still have conflicting reports on the number of dead, though Iraqi officials are reporting they include one member of Iraq's parliament. Two dozen others were wounded.

This was by far the most serious attack and the worst breach of security inside the zone that houses the Iraqi government and the U.S. embassy. The Green Zone had been considered the safest place in a chaotic city. Now three workers in the parliament cafeteria have been detained for questioning. Parliamentary bodyguards are also being investigated. And Iraqi leaders got another taste of what the rest of Baghdad often experiences.

Commuting in Baghdad is a risky venture. In addition to the violence, many streets and highways are blocked by checkpoints, legal and otherwise. Government rules dictate that cars with odd or even-numbered license plates are only allowed on the streets on alternate days, so now more people rely on fleets of privately owned minibuses to get to work or just about anywhere else.

That's made these minibuses an attractive target for suicide bombers. NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report from Baghdad.

(Soundbite of car horn)

JAMIE TARABAY: Here at Babar Sha'arzi(ph) bus station, Hadi Abbas Hussein(ph) marches up and down beside his minibus, calling out the stops his bus will make. Then he lines up would-be passengers and pats them down. He frisks the men, asks those who are armed if they have permits to go with their weapons, and looks inside women's bags. He says he does this every day without fail.

Mr. HADI ABBAS HUSSEIN (Minibus Driver, Baghdad): (Through translator) Some people are okay with it; others get really annoyed. But I tell them it's for their own security, so everyone can feel safe.

TARABAY: Even standing in line, people are at risk. Bus stations in all the main districts of Baghdad have been targets of drive-by shootings and suicide bombers. But minibus driver Abdul Farham(ph) won't pick up passengers anywhere else.

Mr. ABDUL FARHAM (Minibus Driver, Baghdad): (Through translator) I would rather make no money than see the death of my 11 passengers. This is why I won't pick people up from the street.

TARABAY: He said one of his fellow drivers did that, with fatal consequences.

Mr. FARHAM: (Through translator) He went up empty and picked up two men from Mustansiriya. They left a bomb on the bus when they get out. Then, after he drove away, they blew it up.

TARABAY: Two weeks ago Sunni gunmen opened fire on a minibus carrying Shiite passengers in the mixed neighborhood of Risala. All 13 on board were killed. Even with all the precautions he takes, Farham says he can never be sure about every person who boards his minibus.

Mr. FARHAM: (Through translator) I remember this one man who rode my bus. He sat close to me. He looked very strange. I was so afraid, I couldn't drive.

TARABAY: But Iraqis continue to use minibuses despite the danger. For one thing, they're cheaper. The average Iraqi wage is around $200 a month. Riding a minibus costs less than a dollar; taking a taxi to most places in the city costs around $10.00. And then there's the added danger the taxi driver may decide on a route through a neighborhood controlled by a sectarian militia, areas the passenger may consider too perilous to enter.

University lecturer Hadir Mahdi(ph) says there is no safe way to travel around the city anymore.

Mr. HADIR MAHDI (University Lecturer): (Through translator) My fears in taking the bus is the same as when I walk in the street. I'm always on my guard until I reach my neighborhood.

TARABAY: Mahdi says commuters on minibuses eye each other and wonder if there is a would-be killer among them. He says he has no choice but to believe everyone riding along with him wants to get home safely.

Mr. MAHDI: (Through translator) It all depends on the faces around me. They determine the degree of safety I feel.

TARABAY: Mahdi says there have been so many bombs on buses he tries not to think about it. It's the kind of fatalism Iraqis have adopted to deal with everyday life. But even so, he says, it's vital that the drivers check everyone on board.

Mr. MAHDI: (Through translator) If he doesn't, I would ride in it and keep my mouth shut, but at the same time I would ask the driver, why didn't you check us? You should have.

TARABAY: Others at the bus station nod in agreement. They say they keep their eyes open during the ride, but they all depend on God to get them home.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Saleem Amer contributed to this report.

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