Baghdad streets now safer, say taxi drivers
BAGHDAD (AFP) - - Abu Mohammed has been a Baghdad taxi driver for almost half a century. At 64, the strongly built Shiite is a veteran who had a brand new Dodge nearly 50 years ago but is now happy with a battered old Toyota.
His has been one of the riskiest ways to earn a living in a city wracked by brutal sectarian violence over the past two years.
Bomb blasts and gun battles had become routine in this capital of about five million people as insurgents and sectarian militias brought terror to its streets and alleyways.
But now Mohammed feels that security in Baghdad has improved.
"I can drive anywhere now," he tells an AFP reporter in a taxi that stinks of petrol. And every time Mohammed hits the brakes, the entire rear seat lurches forward towards the front.
US and Iraqi forces launched a massive security operation in February in a bid to halt the daily bloodshed which engulfed the city after an attack on a Shiite shrine in the central town of Samarra in February 2006.
Since the shrine bombing, tens of thousands of people have been slaughtered, mostly in Baghdad, as Shiites and Sunnis engage in brutal tit-for-tat sectarian attacks.
Military commanders say that the violence has ebbed over the past few months since the full deployment of an extra 28,500 American soldiers across the nation in June.
The Iraqi head of the Baghdad operation, General Abud Qanbar, recently declared that the security plan had been "successful."
Data collected by Iraq's interior, defence and health ministries show that the number of people killed in October was 887, more than the 840 murdered in September.
But the October figure is still significantly lower than in January, a month which saw the death toll peak at 1,992.
Mohammed and his fellow taxi drivers like Abu Saif are ready barometers to assess these military claims. As they drive through the city they, probably more than anybody else, have witnessed the security plan being implemented.
Saif says that he too now feels safer as he drives the city streets.
"I feel more secure when I move from one neighbourhood to another," the 38-year-old says.
The brutality of the sectarian conflict was so widespread at one stage that residents of a Shiite neighbourhood would not dream of visiting an adjacent Sunni area, or vice versa.
But Saif says that these days he can operate in all neighbourhoods.
Mohammed echoes his views: "For two months now security has improved," he says.
"There was a time when nobody could drive into some dangerous neighbourhoods such as Dora, Saidiyah or Amel and even Ghazaliyah. But now I can go anywhere."
He cites central Baghdad's Shorja market as another indication of improved security. The most popular market in the whole country has shops which now stay open until late in the evening.
"Before they used to close at noon," Mohammed says, taking a deep drag of his cigarette.
Spending long hours behind the wheel is an economic necessity for the father of eight.
These days he can earn more by working late into the evening after the easing of the night-time curfew since the recent Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is now effective between midnight and 5:00 am (0200 GMT).
When the security crackdown was first launched in Baghdad, the curfew was enforced between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am.
Mohammed says that more and more people are now staying out late, including women.
"I have driven women many times now, even in the evening. Earlier it was impossible for a woman to be alone on the streets of Baghdad."
Mohammed, who has lived through three coups and three wars in Iraq, says his clients do not talk about sectarian differences.
"They think it is a conspiracy against Iraq," he says as he negotiates a main road with adjacent walls plastered with posters of religious leaders.
The same walls once displayed posters of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
But the improved security has also caused problems for Abu Saif and Abu Mohammed.
"Customers now complain about high fares," says Saif, adding that most of his clients are unemployed. "Women and girls even flirt with me to get a good discount!"
Baghdad streets now safer, say taxi drivers - Yahoo! Singapore News