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Sandstorm is God’s warning to US: Iraqis

Baghdad, March 26: The wind’s howl buffeted Imad Mohammed’s window yesterday, suffocating the peal of bombs from Baghdad’s outskirts.

Across the sky, the black haze of burning oil trenches mixed with desert sand from a savage storm to wrap the city in an otherworldly glow. Paper, bags and cardboard were blown across the street. Traffic lights and palm trees swayed. A soldier hunkered near the Tigris river, a black scarf draped over his head like a veil.

To Mohammed, the relentless sandstorm was foreboding, a portent of divine will.

“The storm is from God,” he said, looking out his trembling window. “Until the aggression started, never in my life did I see a storm like this. We all believe in God, we all have faith in God. And God is setting obstacles against the Americans.”

During six days of war, Baghdadis looking to the heavens for omens have had much to contemplate. A terrifying cascade of US bombs has been followed by the apocalyptic smoke of oil fires lit by Iraqi forces, so dense that cars almost collided.

The smoke was joined by yesterday’s storm, which abruptly ended Baghdad’s struggle to reclaim ordinary life. Shops again shuttered and streets were deserted as a sickly yellow cloaked the sun.

Weary residents spoke of divine intervention, and in the storm they saw God’s determination to aid Iraq. Beneath the surface were churning emotions — of fear and flight, of fatalism and bravado, of grief and dread. With few exceptions, Iraqis still consider political discussions taboo, especially with a foreign journalist shadowed by an official escort. But the storm seemed to give voice to concerns about a future no one seems willing to predict.

“Whatever will be will be,” said Adnan Khalid, 28, as he negotiated the $2 fare for a private taxi to the northern city of Mosul, where he sent his wife before the war. “What can we do' If we survive, then we go on living.”

Khalid was leaving Baghdad yesterday for what he called “a change in atmosphere.”

Across the parking lot, the winds coated cars, taxis and buses with a veneer of dust. Drivers cried out their destinations — “Tikrit!” “Baiji!” “Mosul!”

In one hand, Khalid carried a bag with clothes for three days; with the other, he nervously dragged on a cigarette. By night, he said, he would be far from Baghdad and its bombs, far from the sandstorms and oil fires, far from what comes next.

“I want to be safe. I want to be with my family,” Khalid said.

“Is there anybody who likes war' Who doesn’t want to live peacefully, to live an ordinary life' I want to go to work, I want to finish my business. No one likes war.”

An ordinary life is a phrase heard often in conversations in Baghdad. It perhaps resonates because there is so little ordinary here.

On the eve of war, Baghdad’s stores shuttered windows and placed iron grates or hastily built brick walls over their doors. When the initial assault proved less devastating than feared, a few businesses reopened — vegetable vendors, working-class restaurants, cafes and grocery stores. Among them were barber shops.

Yaacoub Ahmed, with a full head of grey hair, plopped down yesterday in the barber’s chair in Sadriya. The cost: about 15 cents. He paid a visit every month, and neither bombs nor storms would keep him from a haircut.

“Where’s the bombing' Up until now, I don’t see it,” he said, with a touch of bravado. “All we do is hear it. I don’t see it.”

But he acknowledged sending his wife and five children to what he considered the safety of Diwaniya, a city in southern Iraq.

He stayed in Baghdad to earn a living, making 50 cents to $5 a day selling onions, garlic, potatoes and eggplant.

Sitting with friends at the shop in the working-class neighbourhood, he expressed the fatalism that is so pronounced in Iraqi life. Over the clock hung a sign that read “God.”

“The future is by God,” he said. “No one knows the future. We’re not fortune tellers.”

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