Baghdad celebrations muted in a city under siege

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Two policemen were killed in an ambush, and bodies of 12 men who had been abducted were found stuffed in a sewage station. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the shooting down of an American helicopter, an attack which killed two marines. In fact, a relatively quiet day by the standards of the Iraqi capital.

It was the Sunni day for the end of Ramadan. Those celebrated by Shia Muslims often differ, and this year theirs will take place on Friday. But whereas in the past the two communities would often join in, raw sectarian divisions were clearly in evidence this year. At the Shia Kazimiyah shrine, imam Hazimal Araji, waving a Kalashnikov in the air, led a large crowd chanting for the country’s liberation, not from US and British forces, but Sunni "terrorists".

Clerics at Sunni mosques warned against the supposed Shia hegemony enshrined in Iraq’s new constitution, but the main thrust of the sermons was to protest against continuing foreign domination. At al-Mahseen in west Baghdad the preacher asked the congregation to give generously to help " the orphans created by the American occupation".

In the Mansoor district a stooped old man stood at an intersection with a cardboard sign saying: "Happy Eid For President Saddam Hussein". A remarkable number of cars stopped to give him money under the noses of armed policemen, some in balaclavas to avoid identification. One of them shrugged: "He is not doing anything illegal, why should we stop him." Before the days of violence, the streets, markets, cafes and restaurants would be buzzing to commemorate the end of the month of fasting, as would be the parks where families and friends would meet for picnics. Yesterday they were largely empty.

The cars hurtling through on the roads were on their way to family gatherings behind closed doors. "We should go out and enjoy ourselves, after all it is Eid", said Kamil Rashid, a 39-year-old electrician, loading his family into a car in Arasat. "But suppose there was an explosion, one of my children got killed, how will I forgive myself? We have just got to get used to the fact that we are not going to be safe outside. We are going to my brother’s home".

A few children were queuing to get on a small Ferris wheel, a swing set and a horse drawn carriage at an amusement park in Azamiyah, with US and Iraqi troops standing guard.

Zuhair Shihab, a 45-year-old food stall owner said he did not feel much like celebrating because he had just heard that the body of his friend, who had been kidnapped, had been found in the street.

"What kind of Eid can we celebrate in the presence of US troops?" he said. "They brought all this misery on us." The Americans, apart from soldiers on duty, were staying put behind the blast walls, barbed wire and the tanks of the Green Zone. Bored, unhappy looking Georgian troops at sandbagged entrances, speaking no Arabic and very little English, said they knew nothing much about Eid. One did show a little command of English however: "This is a fucked up country," he remarked.

Inside, a few foreigners ate lunch at the Rashid Hotel and a Chinese restaurant, apprehensive about the next mortar attack and aware that the Iraqis in the zone could be insurgent spies.

A distance away, behind another set of walls, with another group of armed guards, people were gathered at the Hunting Club, once a haunt of the Baathist elite including Saddam Hussein’s family and now effectively the only place where the affluent of Baghdad can socialise in public.

Women and teenage girls walked around, their heads uncovered, in real or imitation designer dresses. Men smoked cigars and drank beer and whisky. "Yes this is nice, very nice and also safer than anywhere else", said Ibrahim al-Saad, a lawyer. "But this is also my last Eid here; I am moving with my family to Jordan. The rest of the city is just too dangerous."

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