Sunday, October 22, 2006

Baghdad bakers and barbers at risk

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By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

It has been a disastrous week for the US military in Iraq, which has suffered its highest weekly casualty rate for nearly two years. But even that is insignificant when compared with the number of civilians who are being killed in an increasingly vengeful sectarian conflict.

Iraqis stand around a pool of blood following an insurgent attack
Scores die in daily insurgency and sectarian attacks

This is a snapshot of life for two people in one Baghdad neighbourhood. Before I introduce you to the baker and the barber though, a little background...

They both work in Karrada which sits on the east bank of the river Tigris.

It is one of the wealthier parts of the city and right now it is seen as something of a haven. In this case that means bombings and shootings only once or twice a week, rather than every day. This is a majority Shia area, but many of its residents are Sunni, and there are large numbers of Christians too.

So far though it has avoided the fate of other traditionally mixed neighbourhoods which have become ever more homogeneous, as death squads and militias drive out whichever group is in the minority. The question though everyone in Karrada has at the back of their minds is: how long before it starts happening here too?

Fresh bread
Hussein, the baker, is a Shia. Sami, the barber, is a Christian. These are not their real names.

Bakers have become the latest casualties in Iraq's seemingly unstoppable slide into communal blood-letting.

There is nothing fancy about Hussein's bakery. No cakes or pastries on sale here, just one kind of traditional flat bread. He works incessantly as he answers my questions, flipping diamond-shaped pieces of dough from a tray and onto a long wooden paddle. Once full, he plunges it into a cavernous oven beside him.

I soon feel myself starting to sweat with the intense heat coming from within. Hussein keeps cool though with the aid of two large fans attached to the wall behind. It is not long before he whips the paddle out again. Almost in the same movement, he sweeps the freshly cooked bread down a chute and starts filling the paddle again. A colleague at the other end of the chute scoops a bundle into a bag and hands it to a customer waiting at the window. It is a wonderfully efficient process - it is just minutes between the dough going into the oven and a customer walking away with steaming-hot bread for the evening meal to break the Ramadan fast.

Easy target

Hussein is a tough-looking character, with a boxer's face and forearms shaped like bowling skittles. But he is nervous. He is not just keeping watch on his bread. His eyes flick constantly towards the street outside.

An Iraqi baker
Bakers in Baghdad, who are traditionally Shia, fear attacks

Because bakers have become the latest casualties in Iraq's seemingly unstoppable slide into communal blood-letting. The reason is simple - traditionally most bakeries in the city have been run by Shia families. So, for Sunni insurgents trying to stir the sectarian demon, or seeking revenge for Shia attacks on their own communities, bakers make an easy target.

The stern face of one of the most revered Shia Imams staring down from the wall leaves no room for doubt as to the kind of Muslims who work here. "We will stand up to these people," says Hussein.

"We are doing a good thing, making bread for the people."

"The government has to protect us," he says - his tone suggests though he has little hope it will. It is hardly surprising - Iraqi government and American security plans for Baghdad have come and gone, but the killing only increases. We don't stay long. They are concerned that the presence of our foreign faces will attract undue attention. Hurry, hurry, says the man at the bread chute, as I finish talking to Hussein.

At risk
Sami has the same concerns when we visit his barber shop a few streets away. He is also at risk now. Although you would not know it when you walk in - business is good. He snips away as he talks. The leather seats are full of waiting customers, including a screaming little boy with his father.

An Iraqi barber
Barbers have been accused of breaking Islamic codes

But in recent months, a growing number of barbers have been killed or intimidated - on religious grounds. They are accused of breaking Islamic codes by cutting hair in a certain way and shaving men's beards, an echo of similar edicts issued by the Taleban in Afghanistan. The threats are coming from both Sunni and Shia extremists - the same people are behind much of the sectarian violence.

"I am very worried," says Sami. "I know what has happened to barbers in other districts." For the moment though, he is benefiting from these attacks on his profession.

Because in some areas, all the barbers' shops have now closed and their customers are coming to areas like Karrada. But, like Hussein the baker, he keeps an eye on the street outside. "It's very sad," he says.

"Before the war, we would just cut hair the way people wanted. Now we're not allowed to." And he went on: "Before we would never talk about whether someone was Sunni or Shia or Christian. You would never hear those words, we all lived peacefully. I don't know what is going to happen now." Then, with another furtive look at the street outside, he calls for the next customer, the father with his small boy, still screaming, to come and take his place on the red leather barber's chair.

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