Posted at 12:01 AM ET, 12/29/2008

In Baghdad, a Trip to Nowhere

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post) VIEW FULL PHOTO GALLERY

At 5:30 a.m., everything is dark at the Baghdad Central Station. There are no passengers about, and most of the gates are still locked. The morning train, the only working train, leaves the station with a deep, heavy rhythm that vibrates through the six passenger cars. Only the engine has electricity. There are no lights.

Five minutes down the line, the train cuts through a neighborhood powered by generators. Wiping away fog from a window in the first passenger car, Razaq Saleh, 54, watches back-door house lights pass by slowly and tunes his portable radio. He stretches the antenna, bends it to the left and listens for a routine morning broadcast -- a man intoning the words of the Koran.

"We get about 10 passengers a day," says Saleh, the traffic manager, a title he says he has had for 32 years. "I think they will end this train. There is no profit."

Baghdad's first-ever local commuter train started running in October, giving residents an alternative to roadblocks, checkpoints, overwhelming traffic and roadside bombs. It travels 15 miles through southern and western Baghdad, making two round trips a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. A ticket costs about 75 cents.

As the train picks up speed, Saleh's shadow passes through the cavernous car. The conductor and a security guard join him, avoiding seats next to cracked, broken or shot-out windows that are wet from the rain.

A soft morning haze hangs over bean fields and mosques, checkpoints and lanes of traffic. Stray dogs give chase. A man in an open market skins sheep.

The conductor stands up, blows a whistle and smacks the backs of the empty seats.

"Wake up! Wake up!" he shouts to imaginary passengers. They are approaching the Dora stop, the turnaround point at the end of the line.

Finally, some passengers board the train. Five of them. They sit far from each other, low in their seats. Without an announcement, the train pulls forward, heading back to the heart of the city.

Suddenly, it jumps to a stop, yanking the passengers from their seats. The whole train leans slightly, as if sinking. It has derailed. The guard leaves the car, carrying three guns. They are in the worst part of Dora, Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhood.

The travelers jump down unassisted to uneven ground. They are quiet and seem only slightly annoyed, as if they never expected the train to work in the first place.

Schoolchildren walk over the tracks in front of them. The passengers join them, making their way to the main street, looking for another way to work.

By Andrea Bruce, Washington Post Staff Photographer

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Posted at 9:00 PM ET, 12/14/2008

In Baghdad, a Pause for Beauty

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post) VIEW FULL PHOTO GALLERY

Young boys chase each other through an arch of balloons and crowd onto the stage with cellphones and small cameras. The humid ballroom is packed with long tables strewn with the remains of dinner. Men sit back in their banquet chairs, chewing on toothpicks, ready to hear the results of the Hunting Club Beauty Pageant.

The judges, three women and two men, are seated on the stage behind a table. They whisper and scribble notes. One judge gnaws a cigar. The woman next to him holds her cigarette with long, fake nails.

The contestants are dressed in rather plain Western attire. Skirts with black knee-high boots. No head scarves. Tight jeans with shirts tucked in. Lots of makeup, almost doll-like. Pasty-pale and red-circle cheeks -- a popular look in Iraq. No swimsuit or evening gown competition.

This is Baghdad's first public beauty pageant since the war started in 2003.

After a short discussion among the judges, Shamis Arif, 17, is named queen. Dressed in jeans and high heels, she blushes but stands tall, trying to hold a smile and hold back nervous laughter. Her brother and his friends, all in black leather coats, lead the crowd in cheers and whistles. Little girls stand on chairs, staring. Shamis accepts her crown with a meek thank you.

When she steps off the stage, she hugs her family but loses her smile. People are leaving the hall quickly, trying to beat the traffic. Her mother swiftly removes the crown, putting it in her purse, and hands her daughter a sheer scarf.

The Hunting Club Queen raises the scarf and rests it lightly on her head. Looking at the ground, she makes her way to the car.

By Andrea Bruce

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Posted at 12:05 AM ET, 12/ 8/2008

Winter Bus Trip, Interrupted

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

It isn't always sunny and hot in Baghdad. Summer ends. Seasons change. The sky darkens earlier. December arrives, and so does an afternoon storm. Rain turns to hail and then to rain again. It collects on the streets and pushes into homes, garages and street-corner shops. Cars stop everywhere, stuck. One driver waits on the side of the road, smoking in his car, windows up.

Two shuttle buses speed halfway through a puddle under an overpass and stall out. The drainage grates are overmatched, and the puddle keeps growing. Bus engines sit silent for five minutes before the passengers realize it isn't getting better. In 30 minutes, the water rises four feet, seeping inside.

Stranded travelers stick their heads out windows; some men climb to the roofs. But most people walk down the bus steps, into the waist-high murky water, and head for dry land.

Three tearful women form a chain, holding hands high in the air, abayas floating and twisting around their waists. Thin young men laugh at each other, slipping as they race to reach the sidewalk first. Two men hold briefcases high, shielding their eyes from the rain that continues to fall. Plastic bags are suddenly in demand for shoes, purses and newly bought goods from the market.

Another passenger, one of the last to leave the bus, wades through the water holding a pistol. He hides the gun behind his velour lapels when he reaches the sidewalk, stomping the water from his shoes. He is traveling alone.

The soaked commuters continue toward higher ground, looking both thrilled and terrified. The wind is cold. Traffic isn't moving. Cellphone networks are jammed. December is here. The sky is still full of rain.

By Andrea Bruce

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Posted at 8:05 PM ET, 11/23/2008

In the Kurdish North, Progress for Some

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

Hyder Hassan Aziz, 46, walks the damp streets of Irbil with his hands thrust in his coat pockets and his shoulders tense, close to his ears. His clothes are faded-gray, like the overcast early sky, and he looks at the ground when he walks, kicking small stones with every step.

The bakery is a block from the apartment building where Hyder has lived with his family for 12 years. His morning routine, buying fresh bread for their breakfast, has changed very little in that time. But in the past five years, the street has become barely recognizable. While most people in Iraq have been suffering because of the war, the Kurdish region in the country's north has been growing, becoming unaffordable for the working class.

Here in Irbil, the storefront windows are new and the treeless street looks freshly paved. Walking back to his apartment, Hyder steps over a red carpet, swollen with rain, rolled out to greet customers at the new Bijan Plaza hotel. There are many new hotels like this one in the Kurdish areas now, Hyder says. Most are designed for foreigners.

An empty plot sits like a missing tooth next to his apartment -- where an apartment building once was and a hotel will be. The new sidewalks, already flagged and marked, should be finished soon. Jackhammers echo around the corner. Hyder's vegetable cart sits idle at the construction site, its wooden wheels deep in mud. He won't be using it today, he says. The rain keeps people from shopping.

Selling vegetables is Hyder's second job. He is also a police officer.

His apartment stands at the end of the block, the only site that doesn't suggest new growth. It is weathered and crumbling, above a row of mechanic shops. Water drips disturbingly close to generator wires. The landlord wants Hyder and his family to move out in a week. They say the building will become another hotel.

The city of Irbil no longer has room for his family, he says. And he doesn't have a plan. He says this without emotion, beyond worry.

He slips off his shoes before entering his apartment. Rainwater spreads like an ink stain on the ceiling. It forms a drip and falls, missing a bowl. The family is quiet and busy with the bedding that is rolled out every night and folded away every morning.

When the smell of bread enters their home, the family gathers around Hyder, sleepy and hungry. Avoiding the wet areas, they sit on the floor, in a quiet circle, and eat bread with yogurt and tea.

By Andrea Bruce

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Posted at 12:05 AM ET, 11/17/2008

Partying the Night Away in Baghdad

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

The music starts with an amplified violin. A slow, searing fiddle playing traditional Middle Eastern chords. Thin young men in slick-tight suits and butterfly collars lean back at their tables and exhale cigarette smoke. The violin continues its lament. The singer teases the crowd. He stretches his voice with sad, slow, poetry, building anticipation.

At the back of the room, under harsh lights, nine women, the only women in the room, sit facing the men. Long black abayas slide off their crossed legs, revealing fishnet stockings and miniskirts.

Hidden away in the basement of the Sheraton Hotel, this "singing party" brings to mind a 1920s speak-easy. It is a party no one talks about but everyone knows about. Such affairs were common in the days of Saddam Hussein and resumed in Baghdad about four months ago, with certain adjustments for the war that intervened. For one thing, partygoers at the Sheraton can't leave the hotel compound until 5 a.m., when curfew ends.

Four drummers give the crowd what they've been waiting for -- a loud, quick beat. Men walk to the main floor smiling, fingers snapping above their heads, hips shaking. Some skip and leap from side to side. Their movements are bold, unfettered.

Waiters weave through the dancers, ignoring the music and revelry, serving hummus, fruit plates, sodas and bottled water. Whiskey is not served. Everyone brings their own.

After an hour of music, the women shed their abayas and walk across the floor, bringing every eye in the room with them, showing off tattoos, cleavage and gold. Men approach them, casually. One woman, with long, straight hair extensions slips from the room with a man who smells of whiskey. They return 30 minutes later.

Nona, a woman wearing a purple tube top, a miniskirt and lace-up boots, runs to the band and shakes her shoulders for attention. She is in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by men, dancing. It's a scene most women in Iraq will never see.

The band doesn't take a break. They are on their second singer -- a younger man in an immaculate white suit. Men kiss the band members and throw money in the air, showering them with Iraqi dinars, celebrating the party's return.

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Posted at 8:14 PM ET, 10/26/2008

A Grim Ritual at the Baghdad Morgue

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post) VIEW FULL PHOTO GALLERY

As the visiting families enter the guarded room, a technician sprays a flowery fragrance over them, attempting to mask the faint smell that permeates the Baghdad morgue.

Four computers and a flat-screen television, arranged in front of rows of blue plastic chairs, reflect women draped in black and men wearing polished shoes shuffling into the cramped room and squeezing into the seats.

Eyes wide, the visitors lean forward, closer to the screens. Tongues click with pity and disapproval. Image after image of unidentified murder victims flashes by at heartbeat speed. A widow raises a pink Kleenex to her mouth.

The visitors fall silent.

Photos show blue-faced men who have been handcuffed, gagged and tortured. Headless corpses and limbs. Bulging eyes. Bullet holes. Charred faces, frozen in a scream.

The room opened in 2004 to help the morgue identify the bodies arriving by the hundreds from all over Iraq. July 2007, just over a year ago, was the deadliest month, with more than 2,000 victims. At that time, a line of wives, husbands, mothers and fathers waiting for their turn in the room wound through the hallways.

Visitors have passed out and thrown up. Many shake or scream. One smashed the back window in rage. An employee says his nightmares have changed from images of the lifeless bodies, which he now knows by heart, to the heartbroken faces of the families he watches over every day.

Now, another nightmare. A woman, eyes deep in black circles, falls to the floor. She recognizes her18-year-old son, who was engulfed in flames after an IED explosion four days ago. He had been fixing his bicycle at the side of a road. Police took his body to the morgue before the family arrived on the scene.

A white-haired man in the room continues to scrutinize the screens. A full year's worth of images, thousands of images, reflect in his thick glasses. Craning his neck, he squints and tilts his head and tries to recognize something familiar. A piece of clothing. A tattoo. Placing the memory of his son on every frame.

By Andrea Bruce

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Posted at 10:33 PM ET, 10/12/2008

The Tigris, Abandoned by Fish

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post) VIEW FULL PHOTO GALLERY

The wooden boats float on the edge of the Tigris River, bumping each other with a deep, empty sound -- the only sound on the river at 6 a.m. The sun brings a soft haze to the water, which reflects skyscrapers from the other side. Seven ferrymen sit in the back of their motorboats. They are quiet and comfortable in one another's company, waiting for customers to ferry across the river.

Six years ago they were fishermen, not ferrymen. But now, in the Haifa neighborhood of Baghdad, sewage runs through the narrow alleyways directly into the river. Waterside restaurants stand abandoned, their owners still afraid to open their doors. The fish have disappeared.

"My family used to fish day and night. But times have changed," says Latif Mahmoud, 65, his long face heavy with wrinkles. "I catch one, two fish a day now, and sometimes even they don't show up."

Some of the fishermen blame Syria and Iran for the lack of fish. They suspect those countries of holding back the river's water supply. Others blame a lack of regulations since the government collapsed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, allowing people to overfish.

Regardless, there aren't enough fish to even pay for fuel, Mahmoud says. A single gunshot from a bridge disturbs the quiet but is barely acknowledged.

Mahmoud exhales, a short laugh. His grandfather, he says, was also a ferryman -- he used a tire to float people across before there were working bridges. Now many bridges are closed, off-limits in the Green Zone or blocked by checkpoints. Traffic is fierce. The bridges are, again, barely usable.

Passengers arrive, announced by barking stray dogs that emerge from abandoned boats. Men and women, bound for the market across the river, stand on pieces of tin to avoid the sewage-wrecked water and step over piles of trash.

When the first boat is full, it leaves with a gentle wake. Most of the customers are regulars, crossing every day.

By Andrea Bruce, Washington Post Staff Photographer

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Posted at 11:33 PM ET, 10/ 5/2008

A Joyful Welcome Home for Detainees

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post) VIEW FULL PHOTO GALLERY

Flipping back a canvas tarp, 12 men squint at the dusty sun and jump, one by one, off the bed of a U.S. military transport truck, dropping to their knees in prayer. They are free.

Before their arrival at the Iraqi police headquarters in Baghdad, they were transported, hands tied, from the U.S. detention facility Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq -- a full day's drive from here. Their ironed pants and stiff new shoes were donated for their homecoming, replacing the detention-orange jumpsuits from Bucca.

Slowly, they pull each other up, their tears falling, uncontrollable after years of waiting.

And then they are forced to wait a little more. Temporarily in Iraqi police custody, the men wade through an hour of bureaucracy while their families mill about just outside the compound. For security reasons, they are then transported in Iraqi police vehicles to another neighborhood.

The trip becomes a parade. Horns blare. Kids cheer. Women pelt the police pickups with hard candy. The detainees stand and wave in the truck beds, crying as they pass old men drinking tea and selling vegetables on the streets. One family follows behind in a rusted car, yelling, driving haphazardly, eyes on their loved ones and barely on the road.

Haqi Ismaeel Awad was detained more than two years ago because, he says, the U.S. military suspected his brother of participating in the insurgency. Now he has been cleared of involvement.

Awad faces into the wind, eyes closed, feeling its force on his face as the smells and sounds of Baghdad become a reality.

When the truck pulls into a neighborhood park, Awad's parents run alongside it with their arms open. The truck's rear gate is not opened fast enough. The men jump over it and down to the road, into the embraces of mothers, wives, brothers and fathers.

Weeping, Awad's wife grabs him, holding his face in her hands, kissing one cheek, then the other.

"You look old," she says, but she smiles.

He scans the crowd past her.

Their two children are waiting for them at home, she tells him, bringing his eyes down to hers. It is still too dangerous for them to be out on the streets.

By Andrea Bruce, Washington Post Staff Photographer

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Posted at 11:30 PM ET, 09/28/2008

Watching the Big Game, Far From Home

(Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

Lit only by the moon, its windows blacked out, a small U.S. military outpost in southern Baghdad looks abandoned. Hulking armored vehicles, still hot from a recent mission, rest on imported gravel. Bats flutter and fall like a sudden twitch in the placid night sky.

For a moment, light hits a wall of sandbags. A door opens, held by a soldier dressed in shorts. He leads the way through the building to a room smelling of microwave popcorn and locker-room sweat.

The scene looks like a basement keg party, with its fluorescent lights and worn furniture. Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division sit in rows before the television, on any chair they can find. The soldier is greeted with a warning smack on the legs. No one stands in front of the game.

Alabama vs. Arkansas. Out of respect, most soldiers are quiet, while others lean forward to hear the football cheers and announcers -- the sounds of autumn back home. It's the first quarter, and Alabama is ahead 14-0.

"They love it. I just kind of sit here and laugh at them," says Sgt. Adam Rainville, holding the unit's "force protection dog" like a baby. Another dog sleeps under homemade bookshelves stacked with donated books, inscribed with loving notations from small Texas and Ohio towns.

Dinner, brought in from the main base, is late.

Another Alabama touchdown. 21-0. The guys swear or cheer.

During a commercial, the LT, as the lieutenant is known, stands in front of the television. Knowing how unpopular he is about to become, he takes a deep breath and tells his men to gear up. They have another mission.

A sigh of disappointment deflates the room. Some men, lips closed tight, hold back words of disappointment. Most don't.

By Andrea Bruce

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Posted at 11:58 PM ET, 09/21/2008

In Kurdistan, Wishes and Laughter

VIEW GALLERY (Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

This is the place women come to make wishes.

It is a holy shrine in Irbil province, in the mountains of Kurdistan. Muslims call it Sheik Wsu Rahman, while Christians know it as Raban Buya. Once a hiding place for people fleeing religious persecution, it now has a picnic area at the bottom and a steep, zigzagging path to a high cave where four women who have just made the ascent are trying to catch their breath before beginning a series of tasks.

They all have wishes to make, but Ajeen Isamel, 15, is the main reason they are here.
"She was married four months ago," says Hasiba Siad, 43, Ajeen's mother-in-law. "We want a baby boy." Fertility is the wish of most of the shrine's pilgrims.

Nazinine Hassan, 44, slides her sheer white scarf from her head and crumples it into a ball, which quickly loosens as she tosses it into the air. The first task required at the shrine is to throw a head scarf through a natural archway in the cave. Nazinine, whose husband was killed five years ago while he was fighting for the pesh merga, the Kurdish army, wishes for money and a way to support herself. After two tries, the scarf catches briefly on a rock, then drops down on the other side. Success.

Next, the women duck into a smaller cave, slipping on the wax-covered ground. They light tall, thin candles and stick them onto a rock ledge with melting wax, then carefully leave the cave backward -- the key to this second task. Niaz Muhammed, 27, leads the way, teaching Ajeen the ritual. Also a war widow, Niaz wishes to be married again.

The third step is completed only by Ajeen and is the most important one for luck in conceiving a child. She climbs to the top of an angled rock, worn smooth by decades of childless women, and lies on her stomach. Head and hands first, she slides down the rock into the arms of the three older women, who cackle and fall back under her weight. Ajeen slides down twice more without saying a word.

As their laughter dies down, all four women search for small stones on the floor of the cave. Hasiba is the most focused, almost competitive, as she looks for the 14 stones needed for the final task. Seven are thrown to a high, man-made hole on one side of the cave and seven into a hole on the opposite side, facing the entrance.

Hasiba, yet another war widow, has breast cancer. Her wish is for good health, she says, before throwing a stone.

And for a car.

By Andrea Bruce

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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 09/15/2008

A Baghdad Trailer Park for Widows and Children

VIEW GALLERY (Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

Their traditional black abayas dragging at their feet, the widows seem to drift on clouds of dust between rows of trailers standing straight and metallic in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah neighborhood. These are their homes, unlike anything elsewhere in Iraq.

Noria Khalif Abdullah, 41, pulls her abaya up to her knees to mount the steep step into her trailer, where her five children are waiting. Nineteen-month-old Zahara cries at the sight of her mother, chasing her, arms up, demanding to be held. The youngest son, Hyder, 6, runs by with a broom, threatening to sweep his naked brother, who is hiding behind a door and is still wet from a shower. Maha, 13, tries to control things, hushing all of them. And in the corner, Ahmed, 11, sits on the floor, the closest approximation to privacy that he can find.

The children's father was killed in Basra because he was Shiite, Ahmed says without encouragement, slowly shedding his shyness. Then he begins to speak quickly, becoming breathless, overanxious, appearing both proud and traumatized. A year ago, his mother had found their father at the morgue -- he'd been tortured with sharp metal rods, his head and stomach pierced, before being shot dead.

"It was a time when everyone was shooting and everyone was killing," Noria adds softly, watching her son's reflection in the TV that sits dark and unused, a power cord wrapped around its base. The trailers have no electricity.

The Iraqi government opened this community of 150 trailer homes in late July to house widows and their children. Like many of the women here, Noria stayed with her parents after her husband died. But after a year with more than 25 people in one house, she and her children had worn out their welcome. She had no choice but to move her family into these foreign-looking trailers.

In the walled park, services such as electricity and water have been neglected by the government, she says. Many families left, deciding to risk their lives squatting in the empty houses nearby.

Noria cleans okra for lunch and looks out the door, which is always open to release the heat trapped inside the metal-walled trailer.

Outside, the park is quiet. Very few children are playing. Noria says she keeps her children indoors to avoid the dust and sewage. But also, she adds, just to keep them close.

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