The ageing Nissan 4×4 is racing and rattling through the potholed roads of the Mansour district of Baghdad. The young driver, his hand glued to the horn, is taking instructions from his “boss” in the front passenger seat. Frantic exchanges of Arab male voices fill the car.
As we screech around a bend opposite the remains of one of Saddam’s palaces, the road ahead is gridlocked with three lanes of morning rush-hour traffic. The boss (who wishes to remain anonymous) takes immediate action: he pulls out his Heckler & Koch 9mm pistol and squeezes his upper body through the window. With the gun in his hand we hurtle towards the oncoming traffic. Welcome to minicabs, Baghdad style, or as close as you can get to them in a war-torn city.
Then, just as I think things can’t get any worse, they do. Out of the cracked windscreen I spot a roadblock ahead. It is not just roadside bombs and the threat of random attack that make driving in Iraq perilous. You must also contend with the numerous checkpoints that line most main thoroughfares. These may be manned by the Iraqi police or army, a ragtag collection of militia or US marines. In many ways the checkpoints are most dangerous for westerners: the minute the car stops you are vulnerable, but if you don’t stop you run the risk of the soldiers opening fire on your car. It is the ultimate Catch22.
At this point the boss went into meltdown. As we passed a bus, I could see an old Honda in front of us whose driver had clearly not seen or heard us approaching his rear. I caught the sound of the boss pulling back the slide mechanism of his pistol. A gunshot rang out and the Honda swiftly swerved to the right as we powered on.
There are many things that it is inadvisable to do when approaching a checkpoint manned by heavily armed personnel, especially at speed in an unmarked car. But firing a pistol out of the window probably comes top.