It’s a Thursday and we are in the middle of rush-hour traffic, on a dusty avenue of outdoor shops and small cafes, interspersed amid a forest of wilting, frayed power lines. The patrol takes up a defensive position around the broken down vehicle, and one vehicle repositions itself to hook up a faded green tow bar. I unlock the combat lock, take off my seatbelt, dismount, and step out into the hot afternoon sun. Over my right shoulder, I glance to the rear. The traffic has stopped 150 meters out, the rear .50 caliber machine gun's intimidating muzzle leveled at the street behind us. The machine gun and the Iraqi's intimate knowledge of our rules of engagement act as an effective deterrent, and the cars wait patiently for the Americans to finish their business.
To our front, cars drive past the intersection, slowing down to let passengers look at the American soldiers. One small, battered, rusty blue car passes with an old man behind the wheel, and a woman dressed in black from head to toe in the passenger seat. I stare… the entire car is missing from the front axle forward. It looks as if the entire front has been torn off.
Suddenly, the distinct rat-tat-tat of an automatic weapons fire comes from the street to our front. I move slowly to take up cover behind a concrete wall trying to pinpoint the sound. It is quiet for a second, and then the rat-tat of automatic fire continues. I reach the concrete wall and raise my rifle to the “low ready” position. As if in slow motion, a man shuffles by on my left, clutching a plastic bag of plums. I scan the road to my front, and the rooftops of the buildings ahead of me, still trying to locate the source of the gunfire… as it is getting closer, and then suddenly it becomes clear.
A red bus drives by packed to the gills with screaming people. It is heavily decorated with tinsel and aluminum strips. People hang out of the windows of the bus waving and shouting and yelling. I notice a trumpet coming from an open window in the back of the bus, the lone horn sounding over the yelling and engines and gunfire. The bus turns the corner and the people see us and yell louder. Then, there is another car and another… all packed with people screaming and yelling and waving. I catch a glimpse of a woman in white, with a veil over her face, and next to her, a dark, proud man. A wedding. In the final car, the source of the gunfire. Several Iraqi Police officers either clearing traffic for the convoy, or firing celebratory shots into the air. A wedding. I relax my grip on my weapon, and see the other soldiers in my convoy relax as they identify the source of the shots. I manage a weak wave for the departing wedding celebration, but can’t help closing my eyes and shaking my head at the sound of the automatic weapons firing into the air. Automatic weapon fire in downtown Baghdad. A wedding. Madness.