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Pregnant Iraqi women fearful of Baghdad's dangerous roads

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Knight Ridder Newspapers


BAGHDAD, Iraq - The dark of night holds special terror for expectant mothers in Baghdad.

Lamya Kadum, 26, who's in her seventh month, wanted to have her baby naturally so she could see him come out of her and then hold him. But the gunfire and explosions on Baghdad's dark roads might take her life and the life of her baby, whom she called her "ray of hope" in this place of misery. A planned Caesarean delivery could be one way to avoid that danger.

Huda Hussein, 20, didn't have that option, she said recently as she riffled through the pink and blue blankets she'd bought for her son. She wanted a natural labor, plus she and her husband couldn't afford a $200 to $400 Caesarean on his salary as a waiter at a hotel. She prayed that her baby wouldn't come at night.

"I'm so afraid," she confessed as she fingered the lace on the side of her future son's crib. "Maybe he'll have a better future."

In the end, complications forced a Caesarean anyway.

The war in Iraq is forcing fearful choices on expectant mothers. Relatively well-off women are opting for Caesarean delivery to avoid the roads at night. After curfew there's even less assurance than there is during the day that Iraqis, who are ordered to stay in their homes after 11 p.m., won't be killed by mistake. The roads are rife with checkpoints, insurgents and jumpy Iraqi and U.S. soldiers.

Dr. Iman Ibrahim, 38, who works at Saint Raphael, a private hospital in Karrada, in south-central Baghdad, said her pregnant patients came to her afraid. Two of every 10 patients ask for Caesareans to avoid the roads and about half of them ask for labor to be induced during the day.

Most women who can't afford Caesareans opt to spend nights in the hospital waiting for their babies to push out of their wombs, or they induce labor a few days before their due dates. Some wait for the contractions, then call the police. Ambulances stop running at night.

Police Capt. Sabah Ahmed has risked his life for pregnant women who go into labor in the dark.

"Most of the women who call me have limited income," he said, and can't afford operations.

Sometimes he's refused the calls, fearing an insurgent trap. "We are targeted," he said. But he feels guilty, and he always wonders if he left a woman stranded.

Once, as he approached a woman's home in Doura, an insurgent-infested neighborhood in Baghdad, he was stopped at an Iraqi National Guard checkpoint. Beyond the soldiers, the sounds of a gunfight filled the air.

He turned around and called the woman's home to tell her he wouldn't come.

But an 8-year-old girl answered the phone in tears.

"My mother's in pain," she told him.

He changed out of his uniform, got into a civilian car with his partner and took a different route.

As the pregnant woman screamed in pain and fear, he maneuvered through the roads, steering away from the sound of bullets being fired. By 2 a.m. she was at the hospital.

"I risked my life and the life of my colleagues," he said, explaining why he was disciplined afterward. "But the little girl answered" when he'd called.

Sometimes women scramble to find midwives nearby. He's seen many babies stillborn, he said.

Government hospitals often refuse to administer Caesareans without medical reasons, so women have turned to more expensive private hospitals.

Ibrahim said that recently even poor women from the slums of Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood had shelled out the $200 for Caesareans in her hospital to avoid the dangers of the roads.

As the election for a four-year government in Iraq looms, she expects the hallways to fill with pregnant women close to their due dates. The roads will be closed for at least three days during the elections.

"At anytime wherever we go, the threat is always there," she said. "We're threatened by explosions and flying bullets."

Razeq Zubaidi, 20, and her husband, Natheer Manaseer, 35, hardly slept at all in their upscale home in Zayuna, a southeast Baghdad neighborhood, during the final month of her pregnancy.

She had pains in her back and belly, and she would cry.

What if the baby comes now?

What if we get shot on the dark roads to the hospital after curfew?

Even when his wife slept peacefully, Manaseer sat awake in the dark. If she went into labor, what would he do? He didn't know how to deliver a baby.

When the sun first peeked over the horizon, relief set in. Now he could take her to the hospital. Then darkness returned and he lay awake. Night after night he tossed in their cherry wood-framed bed, until the month had passed.

Five days before Yahya's birth a neighboring family was shot and killed as they drove on the dark roads at 7 p.m. American soldiers shot the mother, father and two children, thinking they might be terrorists, Manaseer said.

Zubaidi's own father had been shot and killed by U.S. soldiers while he was driving, the first reported civilian killed by American forces after Baghdad fell, she said.

Manaseer got in touch with a private hospital, arranged a Caesarean and a stay at the hospital for $1,000, and Yahya was cut out of his mother's abdomen.

"Other mothers can just enjoy this," she said waving her hand toward her son. "I'm suffering. I have to worry about my child, about the security, about everything. I think about my baby and my other babies that will come in the future."

At night they still worry. When Yahya gets sick they wait for the morning to call a doctor. Even the night he had a rash and blood in his urine, they waited for the light of day.

Maybe the tiny gold charms with the name of God, a verse from the Quran and a gold and blue eye that protects him from the evil eye will be enough to keep him safe, Zubaidi said.

"God guard him from everything," she asked as she rocked the wooden cradle, placed away from the window in case the glass was blown in by an explosion outside.


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Shatha Alawsy contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


(C) 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.. All Rights Reserved

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