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Savoring Baghdad, where each night is a battle

BAGHDAD » Who owns the Iraqi night?

As Iraq’s violence ebbed, it seemed that the country’s tea-sipping, hookah-smoking revelers had reclaimed the evening hours, casting off the siege mentality of the war’s worst days as they repopulated nightclubs, speakeasies and public parks.

Then came a recent barrage of attacks that clawed apart scenes of Iraq’s reawakened nightlife. Insurgents blew up restaurants and cafes, public squares and shopping stalls, in what felt to many Iraqis like a deliberate attempt to drive them back behind their front gates after the sun sets.

And so, a new struggle for Iraq’s nightlife has begun to play out in Baghdad. It pits the resolve of Iraqis to stroll their streets against insurgents who have used car bombs, suicide vests and automatic weapons to stalk them where they unwind.

"Whenever I leave the house," said Alan al-Kuri, 27, "it is like going to war."

A night on Baghdad’s streets offers little certainty about which side is prevailing.

On Thursday night — the end of Iraq’s workweek and just two days after the latest attacks — shoppers filled the sidewalks of Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood. They peered into the gleaming windows of furniture stores and perfumeries. Merchants unfurled bolts of flower-painted fabric, and vegetable-sellers haggled over the price of eggplants and tomatoes. Men clustered around fire pits and masgouf, the barbecued carp that is a favorite among Iraqis, and mothers tugged their children away from arrays of pirated DVDs.

"Day or night, life has to go on," said Nebra al-Attar, as he held his 5-month-old daughter, Nardine, on his knee in a gleaming new four-story restaurant. "If we only thought about bombs, we would never do anything. We have to stand up for our rights." Plush new nightclubs and restaurants have been opening across Baghdad, and Iraqis who spent many evenings ensconced in their homes in past years have been going out.

But full as the sidewalks were on Thursday, few people paused anywhere for more than a moment. Teahouses where men gather to smoke shisha and argue about Iraq’s dysfunctional politics were all but abandoned. Tables at street-level restaurants were empty, and bored waiters leaned against the walls or rearranged the cutlery.

And when they ventured out, several people said they tried to avoid large crowds, and that they had gotten in the habit of sending a stream of reassuring text messages to nervous family members at home: Yes, we’re all right. We’re eating now. Everything is OK. We’ll be home soon.

Heidar Laith, 23, saw the residue of fear in the empty patio of his Ice Pack ice cream parlor. On any normal Thursday, he said, the tables would have been crowded with families and clusters of young couples and single men.

It had been a bloody week. Nearly 60 people had died Sunday night in a siege on a Syrian Catholic church not far from Laith’s shop. Two evenings later, 16 bombs ravaged neighborhoods across the city. Karada was spared more bloodshed, but the police swarmed the streets and ordered people home under an emergency curfew.

"You see it now," Laith said. "It’s almost empty. They want to keep people in their homes, like a prison."

He estimated that sales at this shop had fallen 75 percent in the previous few days, and said that he was too worried about being killed to check in on his two branches about 20 minutes from Karada and its relative stability.

"I’m so afraid," he said, and recounted how he had almost died a year ago when a mortar round fell onto a friend’s home. "In one second, it could be gone, just like that."

Iraqis savoring the cool night expressed notes of defiance and fatalism. The government, they said, is hopeless, too wrapped up in its own leadership struggles to protect Iraqis or even turn on enough lights so people can navigate the dark streets. Attacks will come when they come. Until then, they said they would step out into the dark.

"No one can stop us from loving Baghdad at night," said Haidar Abu Fatma, 39, smoking cigarettes at a friend’s otherwise empty outdoor cafe. "No one will stop us from living."


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