An Unquiet Peace

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Looters at Saddam Hussein's main palace in Baghdad

I only stopped because the man looked so incongruous, running along the bank of a drainage canal, wearing a flowing black dishdash and holding aloft a flaming torch like some athlete carrying the Olympic flame. I should have known better than to get out of the car for a closer look: all the other vehicles on the fly-over into the western Baghdad district of Al-Ghadeer were speeding away. Mohammed, my driver/translator, shouted at me to stop, but I assumed he was warning me about the approaching traffic. I didn't sense danger until I approached the green verge alongside the canal — where I noticed the people in street alongside were ducking into their houses and slamming doors shut.

Too late, I saw why: the man with the torch had set alight a cache of ammunition. I got close enough to tell that the mound was mostly made up of artillery shells and rocket-propelled grenades. There were also chains of anti-aircraft shells, coiled up like a nest of brass pythons. Even though I was at least 150 feet away, the shock from the first blast knocked me off my feet. Lying on the ground with a mouthful of grass and sod, I watched as the earth erupted with shells and grenades, many of them flying off in random directions. The big artillery shells went off with ground-shaking booms, and the shockwaves pressed me into the turf. But much more frightening were the anti-aircraft shells, which fizzed about — some along the ground, some in the air — in lethal balls of orange flame. A few of the rockets took off with a great hiss, like supercharged Chinese fireworks.

Looking around for an escape route, I noticed a second pile of artillery shells, 300 feet off to my left. I also spotted another, a smaller cluster — mostly mortar shells. The nearest cover was the walled compound of a domed church, along a narrow alleyway some 60 feet behind me.

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After a string of explosions that lasted at least 10 minutes, there was a brief lull, and I began to back away towards the wall. I had only gone a few meters when a new round of blasts began. A rocket, flying no more than a meter off the ground, smashed into the mound to my left, setting off even louder explosions. Again, I was flattened on the ground, my clothes rippling from the shockwaves.

By the time I got to the wall, the two mounds were erupting like a pair of small volcanoes, with big bangs that produced mini-mushroom clouds of white and gray smoke. Shrapnel fell on the road and slammed against the wall. Somewhere behind me, I heard glass shatter. After one particularly loud blast, I heard a woman scream in fear from inside one of the houses along the alleyway.

It was an hour before the first mound fell silent; the second roared intermittently for 15 more minutes. By this point, Mohammed, having convinced a local man to guide him to the explosions by a safer route than mine, had arrived at the church compound by the alleyway. We backed away along the lane, keeping an eye out for shrapnel. Where the alley met the main road, we turned out of sight of the explosions.

As we leaned against his parked car to catch our breath, Mohammed began to shake. With relief, I thought, but no, it was rage. "Why you do this?" he shouted, "Why? Why?" He was too well brought up to curse, but I could see he was tempted. I couldn't offer him any sensible explanation.

I waited for the second mound to blow itself out before going back, hoping to speak to the people living closest to the caches. But they were too frightened to answer the door. But when I returned several hours later, Al-Ghadeer had reverted to its true self, a sleepy middle-class residential neighborhood in the western outskirts of the Iraqi capital. Blackened holes in the ground were all that remained of the two caches. The local kids had gathered up most of the shrapnel and were now playing soccer in the compound. The residents of the houses closest to the explosions were out in the alley, chatting with neighbors.

Naturally, the explosions were the only topic of conversation that afternoon. Badriah Mohammed, 45, said most folks were relieved that the flying shrapnel hadn't hurt anybody. The only physical damage was to some windows. "But in our minds, we know it could have been worse," she said. "And we know it can easily happen again."

For Badriah, the explosions had been confirmation of her worst fears. At the start of the war, the schoolteacher had taken her family to their ancestral home in Diyala province, hoping to spare her aged mother the trauma of the bombing. When they returned, three days after the fall of Baghdad, she found the mounds of ordnance along the canal. Even closer to home, there were clusters of artillery shells on a patch of gravel at the back of her modest two-story brick and concrete home. "We thought the war was over and we would be safe," she said, "but I look outside my window and I know we're not safe."

All too many Baghdadis have Badriah's view: the retreating Iraqi Army and Republican Guards left arms caches in almost every district of the city. The American forces are trying to deal with the problem, destroying many caches in controlled explosions — massive blasts that can be heard across the city. But many of the caches are in residential neighborhoods and must be removed, very carefully, one shell at a time. The Americans don't have the manpower to do that.

And so the caches lie there, making large parts of the city highly dangerous. In the approach to the vast slum known as Saddam City, for instance, two large missiles, possibly Al-Samouds, sit on an abandoned flatbed truck. In tonier New Baghdad, children play with unexploded shells, picking them up, dropping them and mimicking the sounds of explosions — a ghastly accident waiting to happen.

But what happened to the caches in Al-Ghadeer was no accident. Who was the man with the torch? Dental technician Amjad Sha'ab, 30, who saw the man running away, speculated that he was a member of the Saddam Fedayeen. Amjad's brother Ahmad, 36, said it was "a foreigner," shorthand for the Arab volunteers, mainly from Syria, who remain at large in Baghdad.

Whoever it was, his objective was clear: mayhem. "He wanted to frighten us," Amjad said. "And to show the Americans that Baghdad is not yet safe, not for them, not for anybody."