Life In Hell: A Baghdad Diary

In more than 20 trips to the ravaged city, TIME's Aparisim Ghosh has navigated countless perils. His extraordinary story offers a rare insight into the daily life of Iraqi citizens

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Welcome Home: Time Baghdad correspondent Aparisim Ghosh returns to the Iraqi capital.

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In the Red Zone (the name given to the rest of Baghdad by Green Zoners too nervous to venture outside the walls), the sporadic spurts of violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis have given way to a steady stream of blood. Partisans on both sides are arming themselves for battle, and ordinary folks are looking for ways to defend themselves. Owing to soaring demand, the price of a Chinese-made AK-47 has quadrupled, to $200, since the start of the year; the Russian-made version has doubled, to $600. The U.N. reports that nearly 6,000 Iraqis were killed in May and June, more than in any comparable period since the fall of Saddam. These days, almost all the killing is Iraqi on Iraqi. Many people are abandoning neighborhoods that were harmoniously mixed for centuries, instead seeking the safety of all-Shi'ite or Sunni-only districts. The government says more than 180,000 people have become refugees in their own country; tens of thousands of others are fleeing Iraq altogether. The political leadership, from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on down, lacks both the stature and the will to bridge the chasm between the two communities. Caught in the middle, the U.S. military is unable to halt the bloodshed. Wisam is right: Iraq's news these days is all bad.

As a result, Iraqis have little time for other people's tragedies. The news from Lebanon has dominated Arab channels like al-Jazeera in recent weeks, but it hasn't resonated much with Iraqis. Politicians, especially Shi'ite leaders with ties to Iran, have issued predictable broadsides against Israel; some, like the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have blamed the U.S. too. He orchestrated a large pro-Hizballah demonstration in his Sadr City stronghold last week--a protest against the bombing in Lebanon but also a piece of political theater designed to showcase the strength of his support (and a response to a muscle-flexing rally organized earlier by a rival Shi'ite leader). For the most part, ordinary Iraqis, although sympathetic to their coreligionists in Lebanon, have shown little interest in a conflict that seems both far away and from another era--a leftover war from the 20th century. Not only are the protagonists familiar, but so too are their tactics and weapons: Israeli artillery, Hizballah rockets.

Those looking for parallels in Iraq will find few. The war in Iraq is about 21st century issues, like terrorism and extremist Islam. The very survival of a nation hangs in the balance. It is a murky battlefield, where combatants are hard to identify and alliances shift constantly, so nothing and nobody are predictable. Even the weapons are postmodern: improvised explosive devices, car bombs, suicide bombers. And the Iraq war is far deadlier; on almost any given day, casualty figures in Baghdad alone dwarf those in Lebanon and Israel combined. At the house TIME uses as its base in Baghdad, our staff of 25 Iraqis snort disdainfully as news broadcasters announce the daily death toll in the Levant. "They count their dead in dozens. We count ours in hundreds," says Ali al-Shaheen, our bureau manager. Only when Israeli bombs killed 28 people in the Lebanese village of Qana did it register on al-Shaheen's radar. Watching the images of the carnage, he declares, "Now they know how Iraqis live."

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