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For Iraqis, a growing insecurity

In many of Baghdad's neighborhoods, businesses have closed, schools have shut down.

Last year, Khaled Hermiz and his family feasted on apples and chicken wings for Easter. It was two days after the war's end, and the markets were empty. There was no electricity. But they were happy.

"We felt the flavor of freedom, we felt the flavor of Easter," says Mr. Hermiz, stroking his 4-year-old son, who sits in his lap watching cartoons.

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This year, Hermiz's wife is making dolma, a cornucopia of stuffed vegetables: cabbage, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and grape leaves, all packed with rice and lamb. But despite this year's bounty, their holiday was seasoned with sadness. "We don't feel the flavor of Easter, because of the current situation; because of what's going on in Fallujah and Najaf," says Hermiz.

Hermiz and his family live in Kerrada, a bastion of calm in a city that is sliding into disorder. Over the weekend, many Baghdad businesses were closed. In Shiite or mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods, the grade schools and universities have been shut down by Shiite militias for a week now. Monday, US forces surrounded Mustansiriyah University and warned armed students inside the campus to surrender, Reuters reported.

Though it's overwhelmingly Shiite, Kerrada is nothing like the teeming Shiite slums of Sadr City and Hurriya, where garbage chokes the narrow alleys and children play in the lakes of sewage that flood the streets when the electricity goes out.

If Sadr City is the angry young man of Baghdad, then Kerrada is the indulgent uncle who always manages to find treats when you visit. Punctuated by produce stands and coffee shops, its thriving commercial strip is where Baghdad goes to buy anything from foam rubber to frying pans. When the electricity goes out, stores stay open by the dusty golden light of hurricane lamps. Even at its darkest moments, like the day a bomb exploded under the Hermiz family's balcony, killing a neighbor, Kerrada has always kept its cool.

These days, Kerrada carries on as usual. But there is an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear in people's conversations, a subtle change that has started gradually over the past several months and accelerated during the past several weeks. "Everything is normal here. People talk about Fallujah and Karbala, Kut, and Najaf, but it's just talk - they're not doing anything," says Manal Hussein, a 36-year-old homemaker, holding hands with her daughter, a shy 10-year-old named Maiss. "But there is a big difference: people now are afraid. They go back home by 6 p.m. They go home and close their doors."

In other neighborhoods, day-to-day life is evaporating more swiftly. In Sadr City, thousands of men streamed through the streets after Friday prayers on April 9, the anniversary of the war's end, shouting their support for firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In Firdos Square, where the world watched Saddam's statue toppled on live television last year, a Humvee prowled the streets, blasting a warning at psy-ops-level volume that "ANYONE WHO ENTERS THIS AREA WILL BE SHOT."

In Hurriya, a working-class Shiite slum with a sizable Sunni minority, most of the schools have been either closed or moribund since Monday, April 5. That morning, 17-year-old Ali Mohammed was on his way to school when he ran into five men, dressed all in black, blocking the road with a car and some razor wire. "Go back home," they told him. "There is no studying today - this is a day of denunciation."

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"It reminded me of the old regime," says Mohammed, glumly slumped in an armchair. "They used to do the same thing."

The school closings were eerily reminiscent of last October, when a flier circulated throughout Baghdad urged all schools, offices, and shops to close for three days starting Nov. 1. "Anyone who does not abide by these instructions assumes the risk to his life and belongings," threatened the flier, signed by "the Baath Party." Baghdad's rumor mill exaggerated the warning, translating the three-day strike into three "days of blood."

The men in Hurriya didn't say who they were. Some wore ski masks. But Mohammed thinks they came from the Mahdi army, Mr. Sadr's militia. Mohammed walked to school anyway. A gangly, studious youth with wire-rimmed glasses, he wanted to do well in his upcoming finals, particularly English grammar.

But when he got to his high school, the principal and vice principal were standing at the front gate. They told him to go home. "I'm not sure, but I think I saw fear in their faces," says Mohammed.

At Mohammed's high school, the principal is still afraid. The black-clad men had showed up there,too, and commanded him to close the school. "I didn't follow their orders, because I take my orders from the Ministry of Education," says the principal, a portly, balding man with a potted rosebush in his office.

"Not everybody at this school agrees with what is going on," adds the principal, who begged that his name be withheld. "But I can't give you my opinion, because the situation is very dangerous right now. How can the press help us? Please forgive me, the situation is very bad."

Like Mohammed, the principal disobeyed the men in black. He reopened school the next day, Tuesday, April 6. But hardly any students showed up. "They're more afraid of the Mahdi army than they are of failing their exams," says the principal, shrugging sadly.

The "day of denunciation" - the Mahdi army's grandiloquent name for a general strike - followed a week of escalating clashes between Sadr's militia and US-led occupation forces. On March 28, US troops shut down Sadr's newspaper, Al Hawza, for 60 days for inciting violence against the occupation. The padlocking of the newspaper touched off days of protest in Baghdad and Shiite-dominated southern Iraq.

"Everything has become very tense since the Americans closed Al Hawza newspaper," says Hermiz. "They say they want freedom of expression, so why did they close this newspaper? Some people protested peacefully - the Americans tried to stop them, and that provoked the people."

Normally, Hermiz and his family would have had friends and relatives over for a long dinner Sunday evening. But this year Easter dinner was Easter lunch because their family and friends, like most Iraqis these days, are afraid to be caught out at night. "Now we have become used to the explosions, the attacks, and the violence around us," says Hermiz. "We sang and danced, and tried to forget all these things that are happening."


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