BAGHDAD - Taxi driver Ali Haydar, 36, has to be careful about choosing his customers. Two of his fellow drivers were killed recently when suicide bombers used their cabs to get close to their intended targets and detonate themselves.
"Once a guy got into my car and asked me to just drive him around the city. I found it strange but I needed to work so I couldn't say no. But then I started to feel that this man was dangerous and was trying to find a place to carry out an attack. I asked him what was wrong and he simply told me that he was looking for a place to explode. I stopped at a traffic light and ran from my car, leaving him inside," Haydar said.
"Can you believe it? He was bold enough to tell me that in my face. When I came back to my car, he had left and the police were there. They then accused me of being a terrorist and beat me until some people who knew me intervened and explained to them that I am a taxi driver," he added.
Suicide bombings occur every day in the capital, and cars and taxis are a popular means to this grisly end.
When Haydar stops to pick up a passenger, he has to decide quickly whether the person is a potential threat or not. He looks at their face, checks what they are carrying and thinks about the location they want to go to. He said women and children were always a safe bet.
Haydar has been a taxi driver for more than 15 years, but said the days of when it was safe to drive in Baghdad are gone. He said his old Volkswagen Passat car was imported from Brazil by former president Saddam Hussein's government along with some tanks Iraq was buying.
He worries about it breaking down in crowded places, typical targets for daily bombings. And as his car is his means for his livelihood, he does his utmost to keep it in good condition. "It is an old car, but like every taxi driver, we have no choice but to keep it going because people need to be transported," Haydar said.
Another problem Baghdad's taxi drivers face is the logistical nightmare of getting through the roadblocks and congestion. Over the past two years, many of the capital's main roads have been closed for security reasons, particularly near important buildings, making the already heaving city even more chaotic.
"Places which took 15 minutes to get to before, now take an hour or more - if you are smart enough to take side streets and stay clear of government buildings," Haydar said. "But the number of taxis has decreased in Baghdad after the increase in violence, so I am lucky and can always find someone to pick up."
While passengers are readily available, they do not always have enough money to pay. With no fare counters, haggling in advance is the norm, he said.
"Taxi fares have increased since the price of petrol increased. People are having difficulties paying and there are days when you give to them [by giving them a free ride] rather than them giving to you," Haydar said.
He said he works 17 hours every day, from 6am till 11pm, in order to make enough money to feed his two wives and six children. "I didn't choose to marry a second wife but my family forced me to after my brother was killed and his widow needed a husband," Haydar said.
"When I go home at night, my wives are waiting in worry for me, afraid that something might have happened to me because working as taxi driver in Iraq today is like fighting in a battle," he said.
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