Cabs reflect security improvements in Baghdad

Washington Post:

Haider Abbas, a 36-year-old taxi driver, had only a few moments to answer what is often a life-or-death question in this city: Would he drive a passenger home?

The home, on that scorching afternoon last month, happened to be in Adhamiyah, a notoriously dangerous neighborhood where several cabbies had been gunned down. Abbas hadn't been there in two years. But the fare pleaded that it had become safer, so the cabbie reluctantly agreed to go.

"To tell you the truth, I thought I had just traded my life for 5,000 dinars," or $4, said Abbas, who was shocked when he arrived in the traffic-jammed streets of Adhamiyah to see shops open and people strolling in the road. "Then I suddenly realized that security really is returning to Baghdad."

In a city where few residents believe official statements on declining violence, whether from the U.S. military or the Iraqi government, some of the most reliable figures on security improvements can be found on the odometers of Baghdad's taxi drivers.

After years of sectarian warfare whittled down the list of neighborhoods where they could safely work, cabbies are once again crisscrossing nearly all of Baghdad. Every day they assess the constantly shifting boundaries between danger and security, hoping that life will return to normal, but mindful that this is still a city where anyone could be killed at any moment for no particular reason.

...

The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says the number of attacks in Baghdad has plummeted from 1,442 in April to 323 last month. But instead of official pronouncements, the cabbies rely more on friends, family members, fellow drivers and what some consider a sort of innate intuition about the roads.

"We call the taxi driver in Iraq a roving reporter," said Haider Abbas, the driver who was surprised by the bustle in Adhamiyah. "We know every single neighborhood, and we can read the minds and hearts of the people who hire us."

Cabdrivers still disguise their identities to pass through neighborhoods of the opposite sect. Omar Hussein Fadhil, a Sunni with a first name that clearly identifies his sect, said he takes passengers to every area of the city, but often pretends to be a Shiite to do so.

Fadhil carries a fake ID card bearing a Shiite name. He leaves cassette tapes with Shiite music in his car. And he follows the Shiite custom of tucking a piece of green fabric in his shirt pocket.

...

Cabbies gripe that the improved security situation also makes it harder to eke out a living. A growing number of Baghdad residents now feel comfortable driving their own cars around the city, obviating the need for taxis. The skyrocketing cost of fuel has made it harder to make ends meet. And high unemployment has led many young men to plop a yellow "TAXI" sign atop their vehicles, adding to the competition for passengers.

...

Muntasir Rasheed, 24, who worked for two years driving Iraqis to Damascus, said he is now unemployed. Almost no one is going to Syria anymore. The demand is so high in the reverse direction that $500 taxi rides from Damascus to Baghdad now cost $1,000, he said.

...

A story told by the cab drivers of Baghdad suggest that things have really changed in Iraq. It is too bad the Democrats are not on board with those changes. they might understand just how wrong they have been about the situation in Iraq. But, I am not sure I want them to make that leap yet. It is better that the rest of the country realize just how wrong the Democrats have been about Iraq first so they can reject them at the polls.

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