BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Baghdad’s minibus taxi drivers are returning to once deadly routes as security in the Iraqi capital improves, allowing them once again to drive between Sunni and Shi’ite areas and link divided communities.
As Iraq drifted towards civil war in 2006 and early 2007, many areas in Baghdad became sectarian no-go zones. Minibus taxi drivers found themselves on the front-line, targeted by militias who wanted to entrench divisions through fear.
“The criminals tried to separate and isolate areas ... but they could not do it,” said Abu Ala, who drives a minibus taxi between the Sunni Arab town of Taji, near the capital, to Kadhimiya, a Shi’ite area of northern Baghdad.
At the height of the violence, minibus taxi operators risked being stopped at fake checkpoints where death squads abducted drivers or passengers from the wrong side of the sectarian divide. Some turned up dead days later. Many are still missing.
“The militants focused on fighting the drivers just to separate the districts of Baghdad. But they absolutely failed,” said another driver Nazar Abdul-Karim.
Security in the city has improved since mid-2007 when U.S. and Iraqi forces began to crack down on militias, and many minibus taxi drivers have now ventured back onto previously hazardous routes.
U.S. forces, which invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, say violence is at four-year lows.
Abu Ala credits checkpoints manned by Iraqi security forces and U.S.-backed neighborhood patrols for making it safe to drive, although the checkpoints cause traffic jams. It can sometimes take up to two hours to cover 15 km (10 miles) at rush hour.
Adel Abdul Kadhim, 30, returned to the Kadhimiya-Taji route two months ago after he decided security had improved enough. He carries a mix of Sunni and Shi’ite passengers.
“The passengers feel safe. They refuse to talk about sectarianism or politics on the way. Thank God everything is OK,” he said.
Iraq’s sectarian tensions exploded in February 2006 after a revered Shi’ite shrine in the northern city of Samarra was bombed. The government blamed Sunni Arab al Qaeda insurgents, setting off a wave of reprisals and bloodletting that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Baghdad, religiously mixed for most of its history, became increasingly segregated into Sunni Arab and Shi’ite districts.
It was a dangerous time for taxi drivers, and passengers like Um Hassan, an elderly Sunni Arab woman living in Taji.
She was sick but no minibus taxis were willing to make the risky journey from her Sunni Arab town to a hospital in the Shi’ite district of Kadhimiya in Baghdad.
“We just stayed at home for more than a year. It was a difficult time,” she said. She said her illness was serious but did not want to give any further details.
“Until two months ago, I was not able to reach the hospital, but I can go and come back alone now,” she said as she waited for a minibus to leave Kadhimiya.
Ahmed Ulaiwi Hussain said he stopped driving minibuses between the Shi’ite district of Bayaa in southwestern Baghdad and the Sunni Arab town of Abu Ghraib when four drivers disappeared, including a relative who is still missing.
“I started to feel safe since June 2007 and the security situation is getting better now,” he said.
U.S. officials credit a troop buildup ordered by President George W. Bush in early 2007, growing confidence among Iraq’s security forces and ceasefires by various militias for the drop in casualties. But Iraq remains a violent place.
Last week, a truck bomb, parked next to minibus taxis, blew up in a Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad, killing 63 people in the worst attack in the capital in three months.
Thaier Abdoun, who also drives between Bayaa and Abu Ghraib, stopped work after the Golden Mosque bombing in Samarra. Six minibuses returned to the route late last year and now there are about 26 minibus taxis, he said.
“My cousin is a minibus driver on the same Bayaa-Abu Ghraib route, but he was kidnapped with his vehicle and we do not know anything about him so far,” said Abdoun.
Abdul-Karim, another driver on the same route, was once forced to stop his minibus at a fake checkpoint where gunmen seized three men from his bus.
“I was scared. I pleaded with the militants to leave the three men but they shouted at me. I could not do anything.”
The fate of the three men is unknown.
Abdul-Karim stopped working the route for several weeks at the height of the sectarian violence but returned because, even though he is single, he supports a large family. He tried to keep his work secret, however.
“My parents and others pressed me to leave it. They did not want me to risk my life.”
At that time, he worked just three hours a day, but now he is back to working 12-hour days. “Now the security checkpoints are protecting the streets and sectarianism is much less than before,” he said.
Writing by Michael Georgy and Adrian Croft; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile