Commuting in Iraq: From Tedium to Mortal Danger The U.S. troop build-up in Baghdad may have reduced overall violence in the city, but life for many people remains a nightmare of obstacles and dangers. On Wednesday, for instance, the morning commute for two NPR employees became a four-hour ordeal.
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Commuting in Iraq: From Tedium to Mortal Danger

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Commuting in Iraq: From Tedium to Mortal Danger

Commuting in Iraq: From Tedium to Mortal Danger

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And now, to Baghdad, where security is tighter than ever ahead of a Shiite religious holiday. The city is under curfew. Civilian vehicles are banned from the streets, to try to stop car bombings. That may reassure some, but it makes things worse for people left to move around the city.

NPR's Corey Flintoff has this story of two men just trying to get to work.

COREY FLINTOFF: Salim(ph) and Walid(ph) were more than two hours late for work. In a city at war, people can offer all kinds of creative excuses for not showing up. But this story has all the elements in one ordeal: adventure, tragedy, and black comedy.

Walid is a cook for NPR's Baghdad bureau. His day starts at around 5:00, when he heads to the market to stock up on meat and groceries ahead of a three-day curfew. By 6:30, he has a trunk full of provisions, and he's on his way to pick up his friend, Salim, an NPR translator. It's normally a 25-minute commute. But police and army checkpoints have sprung up everywhere, and he learns that the curfew, which was supposed to start tonight, is already underway.

WALID: (Through translator) Well, I sneaked to the back alleys to pick up Salim. But everywhere we go, there's a traffic op, who says go to this way. Then, the police block us that way. Then, the army soldiers tell us to go another direction.

FLINTOFF: That means sweet-talking, begging, or as Salim admits, lying their way through a variety of checkpoints. But the key bridge is blocked by a standoff between two branches of the Iraqi security forces. Soldiers of the Ministry of Defense won't let people from the Interior Ministry pass and vice versa. Civilians get help from nobody.

SALIM: The street was closed with barbed wires and the tough army soldiers -they are very angry and very, you know, they just want to kill somebody.

FLINTOFF: Things start looking better when a U.S. patrol of eight Humvees pulls up. By now, Salim is at the head of a group of people who are trying to get to their jobs near the Green Zone on the other side of the river. He's finally convinced the American sergeant to escort them across the bridge when…

SALIM: We hear the whistle of a mortar and it hit the ground. We turned around, I saw, personally, I saw half a body flying in the air.

FLINTOFF: Everyone is too busy ducking to see where it came from. A human being gets blown into lumps of flesh not 300 feet away and what do you do? The Americans raced back across the bridge. A few people took advantage of the confusion to follow them, but Walid and Salim are worried.

SALIM: The Iraq army maybe they will shoot when they are crazy. It took like, I don't know, five minutes, and then everything calmed down,

FLINTOFF: They decide to try another bridge. The second bridge is blocked to vehicles, but pilgrims are getting across on foot. One solution would be to park the car and walk, but they have about 100 pounds of meat and groceries in the trunk that won't last another two hours in this heat. Now, it's time to get to know Salim and Walid a bit better.

Salim is a pink-cheeked guy with a bit of a belly, wearing a polo shirt, the kind with a alligator logo, and khaki pants. No way is he carrying a dripping box of meat across town.

SALIM: I told, you know, Walid, forget it, you know. I will not carry anything. It's dirty and I can't do anything with it.

FLINTOFF: Walid is hipper looking with a sole patch and wraparound sunglasses, but he's a chef. No way is he going to leave all that food to rot. They spy a homemade handcart and they borrow it from the parking lot manager using Walid's car as collateral.

SALIM: And they said, you know, if you will not get us the cart, you'll not get your car back. I said, okay. Deal.

(Soundbite of clinging metal)

FLINTOFF: So, they trundled the cart across the bridge past checkpoints, manned by soldiers that Walid describes as having a master's degree in being dumb.

WALID: (Through translator) And we get searched by one officer, who got shocked, like, it's the first time in his life he has seen cornflakes, and aluminum foil.

FLINTOFF: By the time they get across the bridge, Coco(ph), NPR's watchman, is waiting to help. He's the low man on the totem pole so he gets to pull the cart. Even so, it's still a long trudge to work, and neither Salim nor Walid, will get home to tell their tale for at least three more days.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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