Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

    Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad's government, most of them ill-equipped.

    Dizzying construction boom relies on migrant labourers who are lured into a life of squalor and exploitation, writes Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.

    In most cities of the world, a person might expect to be feted for surviving a single bomb attack. In Baghdad, survival stories can be found on every street corner. Ali, a survivor of two bomb attacks, tells Ghaith Abdul-Ahad that Iraqis are living in a state of hysteria.

    On the banks of the Shatt al-Arab in southern Iraq, a family business is thriving. For the Ashur, a small clan of 50 families, it's worth several million dollars a week. Costs are steep, especially for security. But profits are tidy and business is booming. The Ashur smuggle oil. For years under Saddam Hussein, they worked as mere guards at Abu Flus terminal at the mouth of the Gulf.

    The Mehdi Army Shi'ite militia vowed on Friday night to conduct revenge attacks on British soldiers in southern Iraq after its Basra leader was killed by Iraqi special forces in an operation supported by British troops. Wissam Abu Qader was described by British officials as responsible for criminal activities and attacks against foreign troops.

    Fadhel is a slim 26-year-old Mahdi Army commander with a thin goatee beard and smoothed-down hair that looks like a flat cap. One day last month he described how he and his men seized a group of three Sunnis suspected of killing his fellow Shia. "I followed the group for weeks and then one of them crossed the bridge to Karrada [a Shia district]. We first informed a nearby Iraqi army checkpoint that we were arresting terrorists"

    Husham is standing on a street corner in his Sunni Baghdad neighbourhood when his cellphone rings. "Yes brother ... Two strangers ... Investigate and take measures,'' he mumbles. He carries a pistol in his right hand. Around him are a half-dozen fellow vigilantes carrying Kalashnikovs or wearing pistols tucked into their belts.

    Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi artists were forced to produce works that glorified the leader. Now the subject they most want to depict is the violence around them. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports.