Iraq: Life among the lawless

Rory Carroll and Qais al-Bashir
Two and a half years of bloodshed have convinced the outside world that Baghdad is not so much a city as an event, a maelstrom of violence.

The ferocity and frequency of bombings and shootings have turned Iraq's capital into a maze of military checkpoints, concrete blast walls and razor wire. In the past fortnight, violence has claimed almost 400 people.

Thousands have fled, but the vast majority have stayed, savouring what normality survives and making the best of abnormality.

A referendum on a draft constitution on Saturday could stabilise the country, if it is deemed legitimate and draws Sunni Arabs into mainstream politics, or it could mark a milestone on the road to full-scale civil war.

The outcome will be determined by ordinary people whose voices are seldom heard amid the din of war.

Sarmad Riyadh (35), antique dealer

If the Americans left tomorrow, I would close my shop immediately. No one wants his country to be occupied but in Iraq we have no security. We have a government of ghosts, no one is in charge.

The lawlessness is everywhere. One of my best friends was shot dead recently while driving through town. No one seems to know who did it or why. There is a risk every time a United States or Iraqi army patrol comes near that you might get blown up along with them.

My family stays indoors all the time. We are like prisoners. I got an extra two televisions for the house. We would like to leave but where would we go? For the time being, we can't stand on our own feet.

Yanar Muhammad (44), women's rights activist

I believe that the state should be secular and that Iraq should reflect the aspirations of women in the 21st century. We are facing a religious ideology that oppresses women domestically and politically.

Iraq is a worse place for women than it was under Saddam Hussain. The streets are not as safe. Politicians are ... trying to force us all to wear the veil. Things have improved a bit. In 2003 you did not see a woman on the streets without a veil. Now there are a few.

I refuse to wear a headscarf and organise protests. For that I have had death threats. My only protection [from insurgents and religious militias] is that I am seen as patriotic. The so-called resistance knows that I am anti-occupation.

Rana Hashim (40), receptionist

I can't drive myself any more like I did before the war. There are too many kidnappings. Men are being hijacked and robbed every day, so what chance do women have?

My other main concern is the bombs. When I am in a crowded area -- a market, a queue, anywhere -- I get nervous and start saying prayers. I'm almost always saying prayers when I'm outdoors.

I am lucky that I live in a neighbourhood where I don't have to wear an abaya [a head-to-toe robe]. I can go out with my head uncovered. But in some areas women have no choice. We all have to adjust to the situation.

Um Mawj (40), mother

We have just moved to a new neighbourhood from Doura [an insurgent hot spot in southern Baghdad]. We had a big house with a garden. But it became impossible. Every day there were shootings, bombings and kidnappings. My nephew was kidnapped, my friends' children were kidnapped. They all paid ransoms. When I dropped my children at school, I'd wait outside until they finished and take them straight home.

We put the house up for rent. I was worried it would be taken by squatters but we finally got a tenant who will pay =A3230 a month. That's the same we're paying for the tiny apartment we've found in a safer part of town. We had to pay a lot up front so it's been a stretch financially. But there is just one bombing or shooting a week here. It's nice.

- Guardian Unlimited =A9 Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005