31 December 2003
Cigarette sellers don't have names. They said he was called Fouad but even the shopkeeper whose nephew drove the wounded, screaming man to hospital didn't know his family name.
There was just a pile of crushed Marlboro boxes and a lot of blood that had poured from his half-severed arm when the bomb went off in the middle of Karradah. It was aimed at the Americans of course, and, as so often happens, the Iraqis paid the price. None more so than the man in black trousers and white shirt who was torn apart by the explosion and whose crushed body was dragged off on a wooden cart. Another day in the life and death of Baghdad. As always, there were the odd little ironies of violence. The dead man - and nobody in Karradah knew him because he had arrived in a taxi - was on his way to the local bank to change currencies, from the old dinar notes with Saddam's face on them to the new dinars with the ancient Iraqi mathematician Al-Hassan Ibn al-Haitham in place of the captured dictator.
In one sense, therefore, the dead man had been making his way from "old Iraq" to "new Iraq" when he died. A café owner called Anwar al-Shaaban - the living always have names - thought the man might have been called Ahmed.
Then there was Yassir Adel. He was a 12-year-old schoolboy and he was taking his two brothers to school when the bomb exploded in the centre of the crowded highway. "The American patrol had just gone past and one of their vehicles was blasted over the road," he told me with a maturity beyond his years. "It's like that here these days - every day."
I recognised the grocery store on the corner. In the last days of the Anglo-American invasion in April, I had bought my eggs and water here and I remember hiding with the owner behind his counter when an American jet flew low down the street and bombed a building at the far end.
Yesterday - eight months later - his eggs were a grey-yellow sludge, the plastic water bottles flooding the shop, the owner muttering to himself as he knocked the splinters from his window frame.
A group of US troops and members of the new, hooded "Iraqi Civil Defence Force" - a militia in all but name - turned up afterwards in those all-too-vulnerable Humvees. Their comrades had been the target and within an hour they were handing out coloured pamphlets - produced for just such an occasion by the occupation authorities - which some of the shopkeepers, sweeping their shattered glass into the street, threw into the gutters in anger.
One showed a group of children, with the legend: "The terrorists and troublemakers are putting bombs on both sides of the roads and highways and they don't care about who gets hurt ... You, the citizens of Iraq, hold the key to stopping this violence against your people." But to people blasted by just such a bomb, this was a heavy sell. "The terrorists wish to make anyone a victim - women, children, mothers, fathers," the leaflet said. "These terrorists care about nothing except fear and darkness. Their aim is to destroy your new freedom and your self-government [sic] ... Tell the police and coalition forces about any information you have."
It was a bad time to ask the people of Karradah to be collaborators. The insurgents who are cutting down young American lives every daydo not care if Iraqis die in the attacks, but everyone knows that the Americans are the targets - which the leaflets failed to mention. And indeed, the explosives were hidden in the centre of the highway. There had been a gap in the concrete central reservation for cars to turn left onto the street from a side road. Someone had re-sealed the gap with stones and placed the bomb beneath them. When the first American patrol passed, that same someone had set off the bomb - and missed the soldiers. Did he see the man with the dinars crossing the highway in his black trousers and white shirt? Did he see Fouad the cigarette salesman with his Marlboros? No doubt he did.
But one young man walked up to me and blamed the Americans. "At least under Saddam there was security - now we are afraid to go to work," he shouted. "At least under Saddam, the innocent didn't suffer."
I disputed this. He knew this was a lie. But another, older, educated man arrived. "We were better off under Saddam," he said. "No, we were not free, but you have brought us anarchy." Even the old Shia lady in black, buying lemons from the stall on the other side of the street cursed the Americans.
It was the same old story of every foreign occupier: damned if you do and damned if you don't - especially when the innocent die.