IT IS a sign of changing times perhaps when posters spring up in Sheraton Hotel Baghdad announcing that its barber shop is now re-opened.
A cup of tea at the hotel costs four times more than it did at the height of the war a month back.
And bellboys, street peddlers and taxi drivers alike have started demanding US dollars for tips, goods and services.
So after 28 days in Iraq, I decided it was time to come home. But it was with mixed feelings that I left the capital because the Iraq story was still unfolding by the day.
At Fallujah, barely 30km from the capital, US troops were coming under intense pressure and shots were being fired between the occupying powers (United States) and Iraqis who want them out.
Security had still not returned to most parts of the country. Power and water supply was still not restored, threatening a possible humanitarian crisis if it remains that way for another five weeks or more.
And the expected tussle for political power by the Shiites (who make up 60% majority) and the Sunnis (who had been holding power so far), too, had yet to take place.
But it will take months at least, if not years, for things to settle in Iraq.
The battle may be over in Iraq but not the war or the story. But how long does one stay on for the story?
Having made the decision to leave, the only way out was still by road.
When I came to Baghdad on April 1, the danger then was from US fighter planes bombing or throwing missiles at “suspect” cars or buses along the highway on the Iraqi side.
But now, the danger was from Iraqis themselves robbing passengers and cars on the highway.
In any case, it was safer now to get out than it was just after Baghdad fell when the looting and shooting were so widespread and uncontrolled.
At the Sheraton and Palestine hotels where foreign journalists are staying, drivers were taking advantage quoting outrageous prices like US$2,000 (RM7,600) or US$1,000 (RM3,800) for the 1,000km ride into Amman, Jordan, citing danger from looters.
Not willing to pay that price, I was thrilled to find a reliable taxi company under one of the many bridges in Baghdad which was willing to take me right to the doorstep of my hotel in Amman for US$200 (RM760).
The taxi ride was interesting. After two hours on the road, Muhammad (surname not known) was going real slow at 80kmh while looking left and right as if in search for something.
My yalla, yalla (let’s go, let’s go) Muhammad” did not seem to work on him. Another two hours later, I discovered his plight.
Despite starting off with a full tank, he was now running low on benzene (petrol) and there were no petrol stations functioning along the highway.
Everywhere we pulled in to ask for benzene (petrol), the answer was la (no). What an irony for the country with the second largest reserves of oil in the world.
Finally, the desperate Muhammad stopped by the road, waited and flagged down another passing cab and vehicle.
The two gave him some of their spare petrol.
After an hour or so, we managed to buy some petrol by the roadside.
And it was another two hours before we found a functioning petrol station and managed to get a full tank.
As there was still no immigration at the Iraqi side, there was no exit stamped on the passport when crossing the border into Jordan.
All in all, it took 13 hours to get to Amman.
It was my first night out of Iraq in about a month and my thoughts kept drifting back to the people there. I had the option of leaving Iraq; most there did not.
I also wondered how 12-year-old Ali Ismail is doing. He lost his arms, suffered 25° burns on his stomach and his whole family was killed in a missile attack in Baghdad.
He can’t play football anymore but insisted he wanted to be an officer in the army when he grows up to kill US president George W. Bush for killing his family.
My mind wandered over to Tikrit, north of Iraq. The people were trying to free political prisoners stuck in an underground concrete prison.
A bomb had jammed the prison door and they did not have the equipment to burrow into the concrete walls.
In Basra down south, I thought of the Shi'ite family I stayed with and their stories of the cruelty of Saddam Hussein and how they were happy to see US troops knock out the regime.
“When the US planes came shooting rockets here and I thought I was going to die, I shouted ‘please God, don’t let me die, before we are liberated,” said the woman of the house who did not want to be named.
Her husband Abdul Karim Kassim said although he and his family were thrilled to be released from Saddam, “I am not really happy because I don’t know what is going to happen in the future. One can only hope.”
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