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All aboard the Baghdad Metro! Plenty of seats . . .

Susman and Ahmed are Times staff writers.

Don’t be put off by the sign, which reads “Cent al B ghd d Stat on.”

And don’t worry about the gun-toting men who emerge from the dark and board the train as it sits in predawn silence at the huge, domed station that has seen grander days.

They’re there to protect passengers riding Baghdad’s first commuter train, an experiment in urban renewal in a city as broken as the rusted station sign but struggling to pull itself together.

Since the commuter train service began about a month ago, ridership has been spotty. Few people seem to know it exists. After all, who would imagine such a thing in Baghdad, where going from one end of town to another was, not that long ago, an invitation to be killed?

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But the Ministry of Transportation wanted to relieve Iraqis of the chaos of Baghdad’s streets, where checkpoints, speeding convoys and almost daily bombings cause massive traffic tie-ups. Thus was born the Baghdad Metro, as the men who gather for each day’s 5:30 a.m. departure have dubbed the service.

“If this succeeds, I think they’ll open more lines inside Baghdad,” says Thafir Salim, the engineer on the route, which leaves the main station and weaves about 15 miles through west and south Baghdad on just two round-trip journeys a day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Like most employees of the state-run Iraqi Republic Railways Co., Salim found himself with little to do after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Train travel, like much of life here, ground to a halt as violence took over the country. Bombs were planted on tracks. Conductors were yanked out of their engines and beheaded. Riders were scared off.

Last year, passenger service between Baghdad and Basra, a 13-hour trip south, resumed. Other than that, the Baghdad Metro is the only regular train service, and the trip offers a close-up view of the upended lives of Iraqis since the war.

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Squatter communities filled with people displaced by sectarian violence bump up against the tracks. Women tend bean fields planted haphazardly in the shadow of a giant refinery belching black smoke. Crossing gates and guards are nonexistent, continually putting the train on a potential collision course with cars and military convoys. Cows and sheep meander dangerously close to the tracks, as do children, who sometimes throw rocks at the passing green cars.

Then there are the armed guards, two per trip, each carrying a pistol and an AK-47, who fire into the air to chase off stone-throwers or any other threat they perceive.

“We’re out of bullets by the end of each trip,” jokes one, Ali Badri.

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At 5:25, Badri and his colleague, Aqueel Moragab, arrive at the central station to start their day. The Big Dipper and Orion are hanging in the sky as the two walk beneath the station sign, down the platform and into the train for the first leg of the morning trip: a one-hour ride to the southern suburb of Dora.

The two deep-green passenger cars date to 1983 and are showing their age. The green vinyl seats are comfortable but worn, and by afternoon they are covered in thick layers of dust blown in from the sliding windows. Some of the window panes are cracked.

On this morning, like every morning in a city where commuter traffic is pretty much one-way, no passengers will get on until Dora, where people heading to central Baghdad for the return journey climb on. That leaves Badri, Moragab and the rest of the crew to enjoy their morning ritual in the engineer’s car: a teapot is set on a hot plate; bread, teacups, sugar, cheese and jam appear.

As Salim eases the train slowly out of the Baghdad station, blaring the horn, Badri gets to work fixing breakfast for everyone. Across the Tigris River, the dim lights of the Medical City hospital complex glow in the dark. Branches from trees growing near the track brush the engine car. Stray cats and dogs scatter.

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The men are joined up front by Salim Jassem, the shift director who keeps the train and its staff running on time.

“I’m very committed to my schedule,” says Jassem, who explains the importance of timeliness: This train shares a track with the train running between Baghdad and Basra. That train is barreling toward central Baghdad as the commuter train is leaving and arrives about an hour after Salim leaves the station. Staying on schedule helps prevent collisions.

“We’re coming now! Clear the way for me!” Salim yells into his radio to alert employees at the first station out of central Baghdad -- Mansour -- of his approach. As he nears the station, a shaggy black dog appears on the track, barking furiously at the oncoming engine. At the last minute, the dog darts to the side.

Salim and the others laugh. They know the dog. He’s there every time.

On the left side of the track, a man faces the oncoming train, his left arm held high. One of the guards leans out the door and snatches a slip of paper from him. It’s an affidavit stating that the train is running on time.

Farther along, a man in a corduroy jacket kneels at the point where two tracks meet, using a tool to adjust the rails to steer the train to the left, off the main track and onto the Dora-bound one.

Safety on this train depends on somewhat primitive methods, something that riles Salim and Jassem, especially when the train crosses intersections where there are no gates.

“The cars don’t expect us,” Salim gripes as he leans on the horn while nearing what he says is Baghdad’s busiest intersection. The relatively few cars out at such an early hour -- it’s just past 6 a.m. -- slow, but many do so only after seeming to hesitate. Many of the people in cars look at the train in wonder.

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As the train nears another intersection, a convoy of U.S. military vehicles begins crossing the track, their gun turrets twisting every which way. Salim doesn’t slow, even when an Iraqi soldier standing in the intersection waves his arms.

The train enters the intersection, passing between two of the armored vehicles. “I’m used to it. I deal with this every day,” says Salim, who complains that the stress of the job has given him hypertension and diabetes.

To reduce the chance of accidents, the train slows to a few miles per hour when crossing intersections and through neighborhoods of illegally built homes. According to Jassem, the track by law should have about 75 feet of space on either side. That’s clearly not the case. “Look, you can practically touch the houses,” he says, waving his arm out the engine door as the train passes no more than a couple of feet from some dwellings.

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The sun is up by the time the train reaches Dora, whose outdoor market was a destination for all of Baghdad until sectarian violence turned the neighborhood into a no-go area for most. The train station sits next to the slowly reviving market, as well as to a taxi stand where scores of minivans wait each morning to take passengers to central Baghdad.

The train is competition for the taxis, which charge about the same as the 1,000-dinar (85-cent) train fare but can take more than an hour to reach downtown if traffic is bad or security issues cause road closures. Still, it’s a hard sell for the railway team, faced with a population that has never had a commuter train and that loves its cars.

“Allawi! Allawi! Allawi!” one of the rail workers shouts repeatedly through a bullhorn as he paces the platform trying to lure passengers. Allawi is the name of the transportation hub next to the central train station, from which people can catch taxis and buses to their final destinations.

Taxi driver Yassin Hameed hops aboard just to check out the competition. He isn’t convinced people will take a train for short trips. “They probably think a taxi is faster,” he says, eyeing the vinyl seats and the dusty windows. “It’s good for longer trips, but not in the city. And it looks slow. Is it slow?”

At 7:15, the train begins heading back toward central Baghdad with a handful of passengers. More board at the three stops along the way, until there are about 20 total.

“It’s beautiful, but it’s slow,” says Mohammed Ali, a Baghdad University student who normally takes the taxi from his Dora home to school. But the first-time rider says he will keep taking it. “I think it’s more secure than the taxis,” he says. “What’s good here is there are no checkpoints, no traffic, no explosions.”

Another first-time passenger, Emad Abdullah, who works at the Ministry of Communications, says he hopes to commute on the train but worries that passengers aren’t frisked before boarding. “Once it starts to become crowded, anyone could bring a bomb on it,” he says as the train slows for its arrival at the central station.

It’s right on time -- 8 a.m. -- and passengers trickle out. Since the train left on its morning journey, the station has come to life. In the marble rotunda, a worker mops the floor. A small market selling coffee and food has opened. Outside, Jassem and his crew walk slowly up the long platform, past the lines of carriages shining under the morning sun, to await the next departure of the Baghdad Metro.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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latimes.com/baghdadtrain

A Baghdad Metro photo gallery is available online.


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