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When Saddam Hussein was still in power in Iraq the streets were full of women drivers. To hear Iraqis tell it, they had one of the highest proportion of female drivers in the middle east. The U.S. invasion of Iraq changed all that.

Between bad traffic, aggressive convoys and radical insurgents, the streets are not for the fainthearted. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Baghdad.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Azhar Abbas has been driving children to school for the past 28 years.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Her bright yellow van is a fixture in al Andalus district, a prosperous neighborhood of two-story houses on the southeast side of Baghdad. She said she's been doing this so long she's actually driving some of the children and grandchildren of kids she drove years ago.

Parents pay $17 a month for her to ferry their children to and from school. She's so popular her nickname is Dollar. She says that's because everyone is chasing her to drive their children.

(Soundbite of children)

TEMPLE-RASTON: The children climb into her bus and take their seats waving goodbye to their teachers.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

TEMPLE-RASTON: She laughs and says, see how calm and well behaved the children are? Athar is a big woman - both tall and round. She has long, wild red hair and is partial to tight-fitting leopard skin tops and oversized costume gold jewelry. She's the kind of woman who lights up a cigarette and offers to read the fortunes revealed from the grounds and coffee cups. In this country, where nearly every woman on the street is either veiled or in a long black abaya, Athar stands out.

The only time she wears a headscarf, she says, is when she buys gas.

Ms. AZHAR ABBAS: (Through translator) All the gas stations here are controlled by the Mahdi army and special guards. So to get gas, I have to wear a headscarf.

TEMPLE-RASTON: She holds up a headscarf and laughs.

Ms. ABBAS: (Through translator) The other day, I went to the petrol station without my headscarfs on. And they told me next time, I better start wearing it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When her young sons told her it was just too dangerous for her to keep driving, she told them it was impossible to stop. Driving was in her blood. There is something tender about her interaction with the children. She instructs them to open the door, and then get into their houses quickly.

Ms. ABBAS: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: To be sure, driving in Baghdad is tough going. The streets are chaos. Traffic circles are a continuous snarl. Electricity isn't reliable. So traffic cops hold up red and green plastic discs at intersections, like human traffic lights.

(Soundbite of traffic sounds)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Convoys are a constant worry. American vehicles are topped with gunners on swiveling turrets. The way they spin around when the vehicle takes a corner reminds of that spinning tea cup ride at Disneyland - except, of course, they have their finger on the trigger of a 50-caliber machine gun. The Iraqi police travel around in trucks. Their big guns are mounted on the truck beds. From long experience, civilian drivers have learned to just pull over as soon as they spot them. With all that to deal with, it isn't surprising many Iraqis have decided getting behind the wheel just isn't worth the risk.

Ayida Habbu is a 50-year-old engineer who has been an avid driver for 25 years. She rarely drives now and has become nostalgic about driving.

Ms. AYIDA HABBU: (through translator) I remember when we used to go to Masour or to other places in the springtime. It was really fun. You could smell blossoming flowers in the breeze. We used to go as a group of women to shop or eat at restaurants. Because of the turmoil today, we only drive in our own neighborhoods.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ammeera Hadi Ibraheem, who owns a fashion boutique in Baghdad, agrees.

Ms. AMMEERA HADI IBRAHEEM (Shop Owner): (through translator) The streets are not as they used to be. And when I drive, I just don't feel comfortable. I find myself expecting that something bad will happen.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ibraheem says she bunches her errands together so she only has to drive on a single day for a limited amount of time.

College student Samar Nihad lives in Dora, which is in south Baghdad. The main problem there is insurgents.

Ms. SAMAR NIHAD (Student): (through translator) They have stopped women in the streets and warned them not to drive again, because, as far as they were concerned, it was forbidden by the Koran. They also distributed leaflets that women were not allowed to drive. In fact, they have deprived women of everything. So we're afraid.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ahlam al-Wakeel, an Iraqi doctor, says she hasn't driven since she was shot by soldiers in an American convoy for driving too close to them. Today, she won't even drive to the market in broad daylight.

Dr. AHLAM AL-WAKEEL: (through translator) Iraq won't be back to life again until I can drive without fear - until I can stop at a red traffic light and can drive away when it turns green. Only then I can say that everything is back to normal.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Until then, Al-Wakeel and many women like her will wait to get back behind the wheel.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Baghdad.

MONTAGNE: And reporter Isra al-Rubaie also contributed to this report.

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