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Baghdad and the bombs

Judit Neurink, BaghdadMay 23, 2016

The "Islamic State" group has stepped up its suicide-bombing campaign on Baghdad. For many Iraqis it's become a common occurrence - but young people are trying to get on with their lives as Judit Neurink found out.

Irak Bombenanschlag in Bagdad - Distrikt Sadr City
Image: Reuters/K. al Mousily

"Look, we are still alive," said one of the young onlookers of a car rodeo in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, echoing a sentiment that is widespread among the youth of Baghdad.

Young locals, mostly men, have come together in the Zeyouna neighborhood to show off their fast cars and their driving skills in what they refer to as "executions." Stepping on their brakes and revving their engines, their BMWs, Challengers and Mustangs make pirouettes in a concrete rodeo ring, sending wafts of smoke into the air.

From the road, the smoke and the smell of burned rubber is reminiscent of a bomb going off, but the shrieking of tires, the roar of engines and the sound of laughter quickly defuse the tension.

car on street copyright: Judit Neurink
Young Iraqis go about their business and pleasureImage: DW/J. Neurink

A recent bombing campaign killed over 200 people in the Iraqi capital and yet people are desperately trying to get on with their lives. There have been no remembrance services, no calls for civilians to stay indoors.

The Sunni-dominated "Islamic State" (IS) group, which is waging a war against the Shiite majority that took over after the fall of Saddam Hussein, still has many underground cells in the city.

Change of tactics

However, over the last few months, IS has been forced to change tactics. It's been evicted from almost half of the terrain it gained in Iraq, with important cities like Tikrit and Ramadi wrestled from its hold and the liberation of Falluja and Mosul seemingly getting closer. As a result, it's stepped up its bombing campaign against Iraqi civilians and cities.

Locals now see no other way to live with the terror than to somehow ignore it. Even on the day when attacks hit three different Baghdad neighborhoods, killing around 100 people, the riversides were as busy as ever with men sitting in the cool evening breeze, smoking a water pipe, drinking and talking.

And even though most of the bombs hit crowded areas, the men keep coming at the car rodeo in Zeyouna. "We love cars," organizer Ahmed Faruk told DW. Before, there were real races in another part of town but after the government prohibited them, he rented the piece of land behind the mosque, laying down asphalt and building a stand for spectators.

Likewise, the threat of bombings does not keep Iraqi families from going out for an ice cream in the Sunni neighborhood of Mansour, or to shop for western goods in the brand new, luxurious Mansour Mall. For women, this is one of the few attractions available outdoors and some young policemen outside the mall sing Arabic pop songs to attract their attention

shopping mall at night copyright: Judit Neurink
Enjoying the distractions despite the constant threat of further bomb attacksImage: DW/J. Neurink

And even though a leading Iraqi Shiite called on residents not to party, guests of newlyweds were seen dancing to loud music from their car radios on one of the long bridges over the river Tigris before heading off to the wedding party.

Meanwhile off licences have reopened and many of the men who come together in the evenings at the riverside enjoy a beer or whiskey. Yet today the police are out in force to arrest those who consume alcohol in public. "They just need money," shrugs a young man watching from his car.

Corruption rules

Coping with corruption is keeping Iraqis even busier than the attacks and every Friday thousands take to the streets to protest against corruption and the lack of services offered by the authorities.

Basem Alawi, who runs a stationary shop near the famous Mutanabbi Street where Baghdad's intellectuals meet weekly, says he's disillusioned and will no longer take part in the protests - even though his niece, a mother of six, was killed in the recent triple attacks in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City.

"I was hoping that we could change something by demonstrating," he told DW. "But then the Islamic parties took over the protests and tried to change us!"

He accuses the authorities of not paying much attention to the victims. "They think the lives of Iraqis are cheap." Electricity and water are still in short supply and the waste disposal service works sporadically at best. The disposal units ask locals to pay them - on top of their salaries - which many are unable to do and as a result waste piles up on the streets of Baghdad.

Like many others, Alawi also complains bitterly about the lack of security. "The checkpoints just do not work. They should collect information to be more successful."

Despite this combination of corruption and a lack of security, locals have just had to get used to the bombings, says Alawi. "It's not like in Europe, where you keep away from a place that has been bombed. Once the market is cleaned up after an attack, everybody goes shopping there again. We just live with the bombs."