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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Hassan's business interests keep him coming back. Yet for many Baghdad residents, the only hope for a decent life is to escape altogether. Since the school year ended in June, thousands of families have been heading to safer parts of the country, like the Kurdish north, where an economic boom carries the promise of jobs. Those who can afford it are going abroad, mainly to Syria and Jordan. "The middle class is evaporating," says Iyad Allawi, who served as Iraq's interim Prime Minister in 2004 and part of '05. "Every Middle Eastern country I go to, they tell me immigration from Iraq is rising fast."

Mahmud, my Iraqi colleague who fled Amariyah, has sent his wife and four kids to Amman. Whether they will return when schools reopen will depend on the security situation. Mahmud is not optimistic. "I should have made them pack winter clothes," he says.

Sunnis like Mahmud now feel vulnerable in Baghdad, which for centuries was the citadel from which they lorded it over Iraq's Shi'ite majority. For the first three years after Saddam's fall, much of the violence in and around the capital was committed against Shi'ites by Sunni insurgents and jihadis. But since the beginning of this year, Shi'ite death squads--widely believed to emanate from militias like the Mahdi Army and the Iran-trained Badr Organization--have become the main practitioners of terrorist violence. Each side has its signature style of murder. When Iraqis hear news of car bombings or suicide bombers, they don't need to be told that Sunni jihadis were involved; when bodies bearing signs of gruesome torture (like the use of electric drills) turn up in a garbage dump or in the sewers, it's assumed Shi'ite militias were responsible.

What makes the militias especially dangerous is the impunity with which they act. Since many policemen and soldiers are their former comrades-in-arms, militiamen are often allowed to roam unchecked. They are routinely accused of conducting "joint operations"--a euphemism for murderous rampages that police watch or even join. Sometimes police are accused of moonlighting as militiamen, using official vehicles and weapons. A three-car convoy belonging to Sunni M.P. Tayseer al-Mashhadani was stopped last month by 30 gunmen in a Shi'ite suburb. Al-Mashhadani and seven bodyguards were bundled into unmarked cars and driven away. An eighth bodyguard escaped and reported that the abductors had police-issue weapons. Al-Mashhadani hasn't been released. An even more audacious snatch came soon after: men in uniforms grabbed the chief of Iraq's Olympic Committee and 30 other sports officials. (Ten have been released, but the chief remains in captivity.) Men in uniform snatched 26 men last week from two offices less than a mile from TIME's house.

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