On my first day back after a break in Beirut we walked the streets of Kadhemiya near the Shiite shrine. Vendors sold pickles from colorful bowls and women and children shopped for silver, gold, food and toys. Street vendors sold everything from rosaries with clay beads taken from the holy Shiite city of Karbala to modern leather belts with skulls and cross bones. It was the first place I visited almost three years ago when I came to Iraq. Something about it always makes me feel at home.
At the shrine Iranian tourists took pictures and searched for their compatriots and a man offered to take pictures of you in front of the gold-domed mosque for a price.
Inside Abu Ali's silver store he picked out pieces to show us. I picked out beautiful silver charms with verses from the Q'uran, a paper prayer encased in a glass case like a tiny scroll and another filled with holy water from Mecca.
But before we left he looked at me and another foreign reporter and warned in Arabic that times had changed. It's good that we were wearing scarves and the long black Abaya, this is a good cover, he said. People had changed in the market. Their minds did not work the same way, he said. He offered us juice and asked us to come back for a meal at his home.
The day was peaceful and fun, punctuated by searches to ensure no suicide bombers got into the crowds of people.
Back at the bureau big news was looming. The government announced a plan to control Basra. The city is largely controlled by the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, and to a lesser extent a few other Shiite militias. In Baghdad the Mahdi Army was forcing people to stay home from school and work in protest of the Iraqi government. Battles broke out in the south that Monday night and lasted into Tuesday night and today.
A ceasefire that Sadr called for in August and renewed in February seem to be unraveling. And a Shiite power struggle was coming to a head.
Today half of our staff couldn't make it to work because of the forced protest. Ali, who works in the hotel, snuck around the Mahdi Army checkpoints to come to work. He cannot afford to miss a day. He worried about the road home.
"We'll see what happens to me," he said.