Iraq: A nation where suicide bombing is a fact of life

The favourite time for suicide bombers to strike is about nine in the morning. There is the crash of a distant explosion and the windows of my hotel room rattle in their frames. Sometimes, I go to the roof and see oily black smoke rising above the palm trees somewhere in Baghdad. No city in the world has suffered so frequently from suicide bombers. Four bombs detonated in London, but this is becoming an everyday ocurrence in Baghdad.

Last Friday, there were no fewer than 12 attacks killing at least 28 people. The studied cruelty of the bombers gets worse by the day. Last week, a man driving a car packed with explosives blew himself up beside a US Army Humvee and killed at least 18 children playing in the street. A distraught man called Qais who was mourning his children said: "I have had to move from my home because I cannot bear to look at the place where my two sons - Ali was five and Abbas was six - were playing before they died."

It seemed it could get no worse. Then on Saturday evening, a bomber with explosives strapped to his chest blew himself up beside a petrol tanker in the truck-stop town of Musayyib south of Baghdad.

The explosion incinerated people walking in the market and visiting a Shia mosque. After the bodies were taken away, there was the usual debris of charred shoes, broken bicycles and pools of dried blood. The local hospital estimated that 98 people had died and 156 were injured.

Iraqis in Baghdad concentrate on day-to-day survival. Events such as the announcement yesterday by a special tribunal that it was laying charges against Saddam Hussein is of marginal interest. The former Iraqi leader is accused of ordering the killing of 140 Shia from the village of Dujail north of Baghdad in 1982. Their murder followed an assassination attempt on Saddam. Understandably people are more interested in those who died last week and will die in the weeks to come than in the dead of 23 years ago.

In the capital, many people believe the simplest way to stay alive is not to leave home. They cut their car journeys to the minimum. The streets are much emptier than usual. Many people with money have left the country. The main meeting place for Iraqi businessmen, frightened of kidnapping as well as bombs, is the hotels of Amman in Jordan. The same is true of much of the government. Ministers are notorious for their interest in foreign travel.

Staying at home is not easy. Much of Baghdad is getting only five hours of electricity a day. People must buy fuel for their small Chinese-made generators. But queues by the petrol stations are two or three kilometres long. As people wait in their cars, they are vulnerable to bombers targeting US and Iraqi government patrols. There is a growing water shortage, forcing people on to the streets to look for supplies.

There are other dangers. US troops treat every Iraqi driving a vehicle that gets near them as a potential suicide bomber. They fire on suspicion. Almost every Iraqi family I know has a friend or relative who has been accidentally killed by edgy American soldiers. Notoriously dangerous places such as the entrances to the Green Zone, which have been attacked so many times, are protected by elaborate fortifications of enormous concrete blocks placed in rows. These blast walls have become the grim symbol of the new Iraq.

For most people in Baghdad, poor, crowded into small houses, enduring 45C temperatures there is nothing to protect them. Their children must play in the streets because there is no room at home.

Sometimes, death strikes very close. I was in Arbil in northern Iraq in April looking at the news wires when I read that my friend Marla Ruzicka had been killed on the airport road by a suicide bomber who crashed his car into a US convoy when she was driving close by. A Californian in her mid-twenties, she had been trying to extract from the US Army figures on how many civilians they had accidentally killed. She helped poor Iraqis get compensation when their relatives were killed or their businesses destroyed. I remembered her frequent e-mails, gloomy or effusive, always affectionate, recording her small victories and defeats, and a final cheerful note saying she knew the danger of returning to Baghdad but not to be critical of her because she would not stay long.

It is not just the number of the dead and injured that makes the bombings in Baghdad so much worse than London. A single incident of danger is easier to endure than relentless attack and the knowledge that the bombers were here yesterday and tomorrow they will return again.

* The three British soldiers killed by a roadside bomb in Amarah on Saturday were named yesterday as Second Lieutenant Richard Shearer, 26, from Nuneaton; Private Leon Spicer, 26, from Tamworth in Staffordshire; and Private Phillip Hewett, 21, also from Tamworth. All were members of the 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment.

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