Driving in Baghdad: A Hell of a Commute If you think you have a bad commute, imagine driving in Baghdad. Armed convoys ram through the crowded streets, forcing cars onto sidewalks. The bridges that haven't been blown up are considered unsafe. Then there are the long lines for gasoline.
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Driving in Baghdad: A Hell of a Commute

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Driving in Baghdad: A Hell of a Commute

Driving in Baghdad: A Hell of a Commute

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Even on a difficult day, people in northern Lebanon can still say at least they are not in Iraq. You can learn a lot about life in Baghdad just by trying to commute there, and NPR's Anne Garrels has this postcard from the Iraqi capital.

ANNE GARRELS: Four years after the U.S. invasion, there are still no working traffic lights. So it's left to the traffic police to control the insane intersections.

(Soundbite of whistle)

GARRELS: No one pays attention. Traffic cop Muhammad Abbas is unarmed and too frightened to take on Baghdad road rage. A hundred and twenty-nine of his colleagues have been killed in Baghdad since the invasion, another 300 injured.

(Soundbite of car honking)

Armed convoys ram through the crowded streets, forcing cars onto the sidewalks: American Humvees, Western-hired guns providing security for contractors and diplomats, Iraqi security convoys or Iraqi officials with as many as 14 chase cars bristling with armed bodyguards. At the sight of an oncoming convoy, Muhammad just backs off.

Mr. MUHAMMAD ABBAS (Traffic Officer, Baghdad): (Through translator) The Americans have priority. We can't stop them or delay them, because we would get into big trouble. If they are delayed, they shoot randomly. One of my colleagues was wounded because the Americans shot him.

GARRELS: He just wants the Americans to get past as fast as possible.

Mr. ABBAS: (Through translator) We're afraid terrorists will hit them, hurting everyone else in the area.

GARRELS: This is exactly what happened yesterday - armed men attacked a U.S. convoy in the center of Baghdad. In the resulting crossfire, two civilian vehicles caught fire. Shaken witnesses say as many as four people were killed and 11 badly wounded. Police Corporal Mohammed Selman says his worst nightmare is when two competing convoys converge at his intersection.

Corporal MOHAMMED SELMAN (Police Officer, Baghdad): (Through translator) In this case, I don't know what to do. If I let the Americans pass, I get into trouble with the other convoy. If I let the other convoy go through first, the Americans turn on me.

GARRELS: Baghdad is divided by the Tigris River. Last month, insurgents blew up a key bridge. Bombs tore through two more bridges linking Baghdad with the province of Diyala to the northwest.

Pointing to the bridges on a map, Salim Amer, a translator for NPR, says most still standing are either closed or too dangerous.

SALIM AMER: Al-Dora bridge, which is down south, very dangerous neighborhood, can go through almost no government territory. The only bridge that's working and safe is Jumhuriyah. Mejafastan(ph) is closed. Here, you're going to go through Haifa Street.

GARRELS: The Americans say they've now secured Haifa Street, but Salim is leery. As a Shiite, Salim also avoids a bridge near the Sunni enclave of Adhamiyah, and, if he can, he avoids the Jadriya bridge, too.

AMER: Firefights start anytime. Fake checkpoints, sectarian checkpoints anytime.

(Soundbite of traffic)

GARRELS: That pretty much leaves one bridge, which most drivers consider the safest. There are three police checkpoints, but driver Hakim says they do nothing to improve security. It's taken him an hour just to get across the river. He says being stuck isn't just annoying; it's plain scary.

HAKIM (Driver): (Through translator) We sit and look at the other drivers, wondering if they will blow themselves up. Here on the bridge, there's no escape. I can't swim.

GARRELS: It turns out today he was lucky. Not long after he got across the bridge, it was closed down for hours.

And then there's the interminable wait to get gas. Cars and tempers overheat in the long lines. Mustafa Saleh, a student, sweats it out, waiting for friends to bring him some water. He's been in line for four hours, and there's no end in sight.

Mr. MUSTAFA SALEH: (Through translator) When the fuel truck arrived with supplies this morning, the workers distributed gas to people they know, ignoring those of us in line.

GARRELS: It's not just simple corruption. Who can buy gasoline is determined by which armed men stand near the pumps. Sometimes, the Iraqi army manages the station, letting friends in the Shiite militias slide in. Sometimes, the militias themselves take over the pumps.

Traffic policeman Muhammad doesn't tangle with them.

Mr. ABBAS: (Through translator) We cannot touch them.

GARRELS: He says the militias are stronger than the government.

Mr. SALEH: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Student Mustafa, back in the line, says he sets out every day with a prayer. He begs there will be an end to chaos on the streets.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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