Iraq: A Taxi Driver’s War

Taxi driver Ammar Salman had been navigating Baghdad's bloody streets long enough to know that what seemed like an ordinary traffic jam might have a sinister cause. So when he came upon a congested road one day in 2006, his mind ticked off the checklist of usual dangers: perhaps an IED, possibly a car bomb. In either case, he thought he should check in by mobile phone with his brother Mohammed, who he knew was nearby. Mohammed was, indeed, in the area—and injured by the side of the road. "I've been shot five times," Mohammed yelled over the phone, struggling for breath.

Gunmen had lured Mohammed to their car with an offer to buy the gasoline he was selling on the curb, and then they opened fire. "I saw him covered with blood," recalls Salman. The police refused to help, because they were too afraid the gunmen would return, so Salman drove his brother to the hospital. Mohammed died three weeks later.

Salman's big brother, 38 when his life ended, had been persistent, resourceful and lovable. He ferried people around the dangerous city until his car was hijacked by thieves who cold-cocked him with a pistol but, on a whim, let him live. Then he scraped together the money for a 1980 Toyota. A beater even by Baghdad standards, it was too unreliable to use as a taxi but fine for waiting all day in gasoline lines, filling up and then reselling fuel to those who had more money than time. "Everybody loved him. He would deliver the gas right to their houses," Salman recalls quietly. And everybody called him "Sayed Mohammed," because even though he was poor he was from one of the large Shiite families descended from the Prophet Muhammad. It was that honorific, Salman believes, that made his brother's presence intolerable to the Sunni extremists in the area.

No wonder then that when Salman, 29, lists the priorities for Iraq after five years of street carnage, "security is before all else." That means it's certainly more important than free speech or the democratic election of some ineffective government. It's the conclusion reached by a father of four who became quickly disenchanted with a war he once hoped would bring a bright future. He hid, scared but satisfied by the toppling of a government most Shiites hated, when the U.S. troops engaged in a street battle near his house during the invasion. Then he was shocked at the orgy of looting he feared would "destroy the future of Iraq." At home electricity dropped from running nearly all day to barely a couple of hours. His own southern district of the capital became a sectarian battleground, prompting him to flee to a safer address. It all offers little hope for a high-school graduate making about $10 a day, using his private car to carry fares. "A lot of people, educated with degrees, are jobless," he says.

Known to friends as shy, the slight, diminutive man takes a while to open up. He becomes more loquacious, though, when he is asked to describe some of the violence he has seen. He starts slowly with the relatively recent 2007 shooting of a policeman in a car on a road about 100 yards ahead. Gunmen cut off the officer's car and opened fire through his windows. Next Salman describes the shooting of a hefty middle-aged street sweeper a couple of months before the police murder. Gunmen fired on the sweeper from their passing car—a nearly inexplicable, but occasional, occurrence during the sectarian killings in which city workers were identified as sympathizers with the Shiite municipality. "They shot him in the chest and then, when he fell, in his leg," Salman recalls. "He died with his broom in his hands."

Prompted again, he points to his temple and says, "Now I am remembering more and more … There are more than I can count." On one occasion he saw unmasked men trap a lawyer in his car at midday and shoot him in front of his children. An acquaintance at the local hospital told Salman the lawyer later died. And there was the bus raked with gunfire by about nine men on the street. Salman later heard that 21 died there. "I could see blood dripping out of the door," he remembers. By now the memories are fresh again. "For a long time I had a reaction to it, but what can I do?" he says. "It's really hard to live normally, but it's my duty to live a normal life for my wife and children. They really worry because I work in the streets."

Salman has seen security improve in the capital over the recent months, bringing "order to the streets." The turf he can safely cover delivering fares is expanding. But he believes conditions were better in Saddam's time. Citing the scarce power and water at home—utilities he sees as "rights"—he says he can see why some fight the American troops. Nor does he see much downside in a quick U.S. withdrawal. "We'll have some tensions, but the strong ones would get everything in their hands," he postulates. "There should be somebody who is very strong, who can control everything."