An Iraqi family patiently adapts to life in the danger zone

Car bombs and violence have killed some 500 Iraqis in the past three weeks, making Baghdad's streets as mean as ever.

But those streets are where 11-year-old Mahmoud has spent six hours a day, every day, after school, selling bottles of chilled Pepsi to passersby. Earning about $1 a day, he says he dreams of buying a bicycle. And he's got his pitch down: "Pop-si!" he shouts. "Pop-si!"

But Mahmoud's mother - Karima Selman Methboub, a widow with eight growing children - has different plans. She jokes that she will save her youngest child's cash, to one day turn him into a local soft-drink magnate with his own shop.

Until then, however, Mahmoud's earnings help with rent, school fees, and food - and a search for a new apartment that can more easily fit this family the Monitor first began reporting on in late 2002. The Methboubs' saga opens a window on everyday life for Iraqis. Despite the danger they press on, looking for work, scrambling to pay rent that has doubled since the 2003 US invasion, and even searching for true love.

This downtown neighbor- hood, widely considered safe, can be dangerous. Two hours before I visited the family, a suicide bomb shook the Methboubs' cramped apartment. The night before, a car bomb was defused across the street. Two weeks earlier, another car blast on the next road shattered the kitchen window. "We are getting used to it," says Mrs. Methboub, describing how the high hopes for change that she and her family invested in the election of Jan. 30 has not yet improved things.

"We didn't see anything good after this election, from this new government. It's been the opposite - it's gone from bad to worse," says Methboub, sitting amid several teenage daughters, as one serves tea. "They say they keep capturing [insurgents], but it's the same problem every day. It is terrifying."

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari vowed on Monday to tackle the insurgency, saying his new government, formed on April 28, would "strike with an iron fist," and that "the death sentence will be implemented."

Relief cannot come too soon for Iraqis like the Methboubs, who are shocked by the extraordinary levels of violence they find on their television screens, and all around them.

With a complaint that echoes across this city, Methboub says that each time she takes her 15-minute walk to work as a cleaner at a hotel, "I am afraid." The children say they frequently hear explosions while at school.

"I am so sad about the families who have lost their boys and girls," says Amal, a 16-year-old diarist who is working on her English by watching movies - and admits to having a crush on Brad Pitt. "Every family has been affected. Every day we face explosions, but we are patient."

If such difficulties are common across Iraq, they are compounded for poor families like the Methboubs. The skyrocketing rent has prompted a search for new housing. Everywhere they have looked is too expensive.

But at least Methboub has a job - supplemented by older son Ali, who works serving tea, and even Mahmoud's daily contribution. Another son in his early 20s, a carpenter, has not worked for four months. Statistics released by the United Nations last week found that per capita income across Iraq slipped to $144 last year, from $255 in 2003; unemployment of educated youths tops 37 percent, the study found.

Another addition may be some income from Ali, who will soon be Methboub's son-in-law. Ali is a former Republican Guard soldier who now works as a policeman and is engaged (the actual wedding may happen after the current exam period) to daughter Zainab, 17.

But policemen are the most frequent targets of insurgent bombs. Ali received a threat letter two months ago, which showed a militant wearing a head scarf that showed only the eyes. It warned him that he had three days to leave his job.

Already in Ali's small team of six or seven, one policeman has been killed; the wife of another was also murdered. Half the group left their jobs. "He didn't care. He's brave," says Methboub, with more than a twinge of worry in her voice. "Everything comes from God. He says: 'The day of my death depends on God.'"

Accepting that fate is beyond their control is a tool used by many Iraqis to set aside their fear and get on with their lives. A loud blast just a block or two away is not enough to disrupt shoppers.

That is what has enabled Mahmoud for the past two weeks to take to the street, where Iraqis hurl expletives from the sidewalk at US troops passing in Humvees, while emptying a crate of bottles into a Styrofoam box packed with ice. And that tool keeps alive the usual, often laughable, moments of a family with five girls, as they come of age. "When girls get bigger, there are more problems," laments Methboub, with a knowing smile. "More maintenance."

That includes the intrigues surrounding Fatima, the 19-year-old who last year broke out of a marriage arrangement at the last minute, at the courthouse. Gold and money for the dowry had to be returned.

Fatima has had six or seven more suitors in the last few months, and turned down every one.

"I can't tell you how many men are interested in me!" Fatima says coquettishly, her face showing a pink blush of embarrassment when pressed by her sisters. "I have refused so many."

Among them was a former major in the Iraqi army, from an influential tribe in western Iraq. He was rejected last week, almost before the offer could be made. "I called him 'father,'" Fatima says with a confident laugh, indicating that the match could never be.

Explains Zainab, as if still in shock: "He was 50!"

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