There's a hit song that's been blaring out of car radios in Baghdad for the past few months. It's called "The Shotgun," but in spite of the title, the song, by Hosam Al-Rasam, isn't about guns and death in Iraq. It's first a love song. It opens with the words, "The shotgun might miss its target sometimes / but the look in my love's eyes is always lethal."
Beyond the singer's love, this is also a song about a road trip. It captures the moment in Iraq. One of NPR's local reporters, Kais Al-Jalele, played the tune on one of our recent journeys, and it became my favorite. We turn it on whenever we head out of Baghdad somewhere — at least a few times a week these days. For the first time in a long time, in some of the country, the roads here are safe and open.
In Al-Rasam's song, his first stop is the western city of Ramadi. I, too, have driven to Ramadi several times over the past few months. The road through Anbar province used to be one of the deadliest in Iraq. During the worst of the sectarian violence, at illegal checkpoints manned by Sunni militants, drivers would be dragged from their cars and executed at will.
Now, it takes me about an hour and a half to get to Ramadi. The road is filled with Army checkpoints, and I've even spent the night with a family in town there without incident.
All the way in Iraq's south, Basra was for years also a deadly destination. The British army allowed it to fall under the control of various competing militias. Women were routinely killed for not wearing the Islamic headdress. Since an Iraqi army offensive in March, the city has opened up.
The trip from Baghdad to Basra takes a slow eight hours because you get stuck behind trucks carrying produce and livestock. There was a time here when almost no supplies were reaching Baghdad, because the road was so dangerous that truckers refused to make the trip. Now, in an area where you used to speed by and hope that you wouldn't be accosted by bandits, we eat at a newly built rest stop.
Hilla lies at the lower point of what used to be called Triangle of Death. We had a lovely lunch there recently with the family of our driver, who is from Hilla. We used to have a rule whereby we couldn't stay anywhere longer than 15 minutes, the time it would take someone to spot us and organize a kidnapping attempt. In Hilla that afternoon, we enjoyed a lazy meal while they told us all the local gossip in the afternoon heat.
Al-Rasam's song ends in Hilla, but I've kept on traveling most recently to the province of Diyala, along the Iranian border. This isn't to say that we don't take precautions, or that Iraq is completely safe. We do and it's not. All these trips have been meticulously planned. And I am always dressed as an Iraqi woman in order to not attract attention. We are still targets, and something bad could happen at any time. But one of the most frustrating things for all of us who lived in Iraq in recent years — reporters and ordinary Iraqi citizens alike — was that it was simply too dangerous to move around very much.
Whole swaths of Iraq have opened up to us again. And I, for one, can't wait to hit the road.