- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqis crowded into neighborhood markets this week, their ears alert for radio reports of daily bombings and shootings, to stock up on supplies for a major Muslim festival and to survive a possible bloodbath during the election — just 9 days away.

“Iraq is bad,” said one young woman, a Christian disguised in typical Muslim garb — an ankle-length skirt, long coat and head scarf — to remain inconspicuous to the militant Muslims behind much of the violence.

“We bathe in little water,” she went on, making the shape of a cup with her hand, then passing her hand briefly around her body.

Iraqis scrambled to get water after the city’s supply was abruptly cut off mid-afternoon on Tuesday. Hours later, rumors swirled that the city’s water supply had been poisoned.

Life without water was one more blow to the millions in this city who cope with limited electricity, sporadic phone service and constant violence.

By nightfall, people are locked in their homes, attempting to cook and bathe with little or no water and electricity and awaiting the nightly crash of exploding mortar rounds and the crackle of gunfire.

Fear stalks Iraqis in ordinary life — a terror largely unseen by the outside world and largely invisible to American soldiers and U.S. diplomats assigned here.

Death threats and execution-style killings — including reports of entire families being dragged into the street and shot in the head — continue under cover of darkness, locals say.

Anyone rumored to have contact with Americans is in danger. Police forces are so riddled with informers and under threat themselves that no one dares report kidnappings, bombings and executions in their neighborhoods to authorities.

A group of Iraqis agreed to take a reporter, covered from head to toe in Muslim garb, shopping in one upscale neighborhood, provided the reporter did not say a word.

The conversations in shops and markets were limited to mundane topics, a discussion of the quality of cucumbers or the price of cooking oil. No one said a word about elections scheduled Jan. 30.

Many shoppers were preparing for the Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, which began yesterday. The holiday, the most important on the Islamic calendar, marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God.

A photographer could not accompany the shopping party because Iraqis now fear having their pictures taken and anyone walking the streets with a camera is suspected of working for a foreign news organization.

For many Iraqis, the elections — the first multiparty parliamentary vote in 50 years — have already become a nightmare.

To some Iraqis, it is as if Americans in their naivete are intent on leading lambs — in this instance, would-be voters willing to risk their lives for a dream of democracy and freedom — to slaughter.

The young Christian woman, who like everyone interviewed for this article asked that her name not be used, said that threats had been pasted throughout her neighborhood — warning that anyone who voted would be killed.

But some Iraqis, typically those without families to care for, refuse to be intimidated.

“I will risk my life for this election,” said a 22-year-old employee of the Resafa office, which is coordinating the vote in east Baghdad, an area that includes the Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City.

“You know, we are making a country here. Our country depends on us, the youth of Iraq, and we won’t let them down,” said the young man, dressed in the same brown, black and beige colors that almost everyone wears.

The streets in Baghdad remain clogged with beat-up cars rolling past graffiti and election posters. Iraqis lucky enough to have jobs still show up to work, where despair shows through, sometimes on a personal level.

“No babies, no babies until Iraq is better,” said one young woman who miscarried her first child after a car bomb exploded close to her home.

Men hide their faces as they arrive for work in the U.S.-protected green zone or with international companies.

Women cover their heads and quickly change into a different set of clothes once inside their offices.

Large numbers of Iraq’s educated and professional workers have left the country in anticipation that the election will trigger violence on a scale not yet experienced.

“The pillars that are important — doctors, engineers, people who were driving the country — now they are leaving,” said one woman, whose husband is a physician in Baghdad.

“This is the biggest destruction of the country,” she said.

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