COURIER-MAIL: Life is a war zone

Former Courier-Mail reporter Michael Ware, now Time magazine's Baghdad bureau chief, finds the Iraqi capital has everything and nothing in common with Brisbane

'You have your gun. The rest you have to leave to Allah'

The tell-tale thud of an explosion ripples through the baking afternoon air. The sound rolls over housetops like a beach break, washing over a woman in a headscarf draping laundry on a balcony and boys chatting with a guard nursing an AK-47. A moment later it laps the farthest edges of the western suburb of al-Mansur, dissolving into the traffic din. No one looks up, save for one of the boys, who glances over his shoulder.

The chattering of automatic weapons a while later is barely a distraction. Unless luminescent tracer rounds whiz overhead and the firing moves this way, it's not a concern. Explosions and the punchy staccato of brief firefights or bursts from a weapon are daily beats in the rhythm of family life. This is nothing; this is Baghdad.

Mansur is an attractive suburb, like the Kenmore of Baghdad. Quiet, palm-lined streets carve up blocks of well-kept middle-class homes. It's home to good families from educated, professional backgrounds. Most here were members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party. They had to be. Any half-decent job required it. It doesn't mean they were complicit in the regime; they just had to survive it.

With the rest of the city, Mansur now suffers under the weight of American occupation and endures a war-ravaged economy stripped by years of sanctions, outdated and continually sabotaged infrastructure, social disorder and the fear and loathing that comes with it. Basic services barely function; electricity is rare and random, the police are ineffective, hospitals struggle to make do. Simple errands become a grind. It's life lived in the midst of a guerilla war.

Near Mansur runs a highway, serving Baghdad much as the Western Freeway does Brisbane. It's the main route to what was Saddam International Airport, now a formidable US base. American convoys ply the laneways. The resistance -- a collection of Ba'ath loyalists, Fedayeen Saddam fanatics, disgruntled citizenry and Islamic militants -- use it as a killing ground. The GIs have dubbed it "RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) Alley". Improvised bombs are planted by the road, remotely detonated for passing Humvees, triggering ambushes by hidden fighters who blast away with RPGs and machineguns before melting back into the population.

The resistance strikes everywhere. This month a bomb slipped under a parked Humvee sparked a three-hour gun battle in a bustling shopping district. There's no pattern, no discerning where is safe, where is not.

The constant sniping attacks play on the soldiers' nerves. "We know every time we leave the gate it might be us that's hit with the next RPG or IED (improvised explosive device)," says an exhausted Sergeant Carlos Gomez.

The stress parlays into jittery mistakes. On July 27, Zaid Imad Khazalalrubai, a stringy 13-year-old, was in a small white sedan with his brother Mohammed, 16, collecting the family's monthly food ration. The boys stumbled on a makeshift checkpoint of Humvees sealing off a house as the Americans' elite and shadowy Task Force 20 -- the Saddam Hunters -- raided in a hail of fire.

As Zaid's car edged past the "Checkpoint Ahead, Move Slowly" sign the jumpy soldiers opened up, pouring a torrent of high-velocity rounds through the windshield. The boys survived by ducking down, but as Zaid leant out of the car to brush the glass from his hair, a bullet pierced his forehead, killing him instantly. Four other civilians died that afternoon in a few mad minutes.

"First there was this," a woman cried at the scene, gesturing to a scar of land where houses were hit by missiles in the war, "12 of us slaughtered. And now there is this, five more dead. This is too much."

It was too much for Zaid's brother Mohammed. "I'll take revenge from those American sons of bitches. The Americans will not escape with impunity," he swore by Zaid's coffin the next day.

More was to come. Shortly before 11am on August 7, the suburban quiet was ripped apart by a terrible shudder that slammed doors and splintered windows. A thick black tower of smoke loomed over the treetops to the east. The Jordanian embassy, 1.5km away, had been hit by a massive car bomb.

Scorched bodies littered the footpath outside the embassy. Streams of injured, clutching gaping wounds, staggered in the haze. Neighbours with garden hoses hopelessly battled flames roasting cars on the road. As many as 19 people were killed, more than 50 hurt. Walking from the scene, former businessman Ali Shaheen shook his downcast head.

Ali, like everyone in his street, is a prisoner in his home after dark.

There is no law, no order. Police patrols roam the streets but they are too few, and the looters too many.

Homeowners defend their properties themselves. There is no 000 number to dial for help. Every house has at least one AK-47 and a cache of ammunition. Crimes are reported by pulling the trigger.

"You have your gun," says Ali. "The rest you have to leave to Allah."

Last October Saddam emptied his prisons of every murderer, rapist and thug, all of them time bombs primed to go off with the fall of the regime, when not a single cop was on the streets.

It's impossible to gauge the scale of the crime wave, though Marwan Sadeeq has a measure. He bought a second-hand Mercedes-Benz before the war for $US5200. Carjackings are so rife, and deadly, he hasn't driven it for months. "Mercedes are a prime target and no one wants to be caught in one. I can't sell it out for more than $US4000," he laments.

Rape and the kidnapping of women are at obscene levels. Last month a young woman frantically pleaded for the police to look for her friend who'd just been snatched. They did nothing. Desperate, she implored an American patrol to help. The GIs returned to the spot but the abductors were long gone.

Yet somehow some vestiges of normality are returning. The US-run Coalition Provisional Authority has rallied crews from the vast army of the unemployed to sweep the streets for a handful of dollars a day. Garbage trucks are making their rounds and construction workers are scurrying over destroyed buildings. University exams have been completed and results posted.

Much is still to take hold. Stores are brimming with cheap electrical goods and new satellite dishes are sprouting in shopfronts like mushrooms. Yet there are too few with the cash to buy them. "Window shopping is doing a booming trade," quips Ali.

For Baghdad's inhabitants the electricity supply is the barometer of the US administration's success. With short, irregular spurts of power -- two hours here, three hours a day later -- they are scornful of CPA chief Paul Bremmer and the fledgling government he is forging from the rubble.

They have been sweating on him to get it right. Through July and August temperatures sat above 50C every day, falling to the mid-40s at night. The city didn't sleep. Tempers frayed. Industry faltered.

Former electrical engineer Omar Kamal is watching his friends go out of business, their plants idle, starved of electricity. "My neighbour operates an industrial gas production plant," he says, "supplying the metalworkers and all kinds of businesses. Before the war he pumped out 1500 cylinders a day; now he's managing 200 a week."

Foreign firms are not venturing into Baghdad. A US contractor was killed delivering mail near the city of Tikrit. The international aid organisations are pulling out or scaling back in the wake of the devastating bombing of the UN headquarters earlier this month. Iraqis working with the US military and journalists are branded collaborators, traitors. Their names appear on death lists. Many have been assassinated.

Foreigners are not immune. A Red Cross worker has been killed and journalists are targets. A correspondent was gunned down at the national museum by a man who stole up behind him in a crowd and put a pistol to the back of his head. A Reuters cameraman was shot by US soldiers, his camera mistaken for an RPG launcher.