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Baghdad Digs Out from Large Sandstorm

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

It was an unusual day in Baghdad. For once, suicide bombs and political infighting did not make headlines. As NPR's Philip Reeves tells us, the city was focused on another matter.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It reminded me of being a child and waking up to discover the world being transformed overnight by an unseasonable fall of snow. This morning the entire landscape was buried beneath a covering of powder, only it wasn't white. All of a sudden, with absolutely no warning, Baghdad had turned orange. This city was engulfed by a gigantic cloud of sand. The weather people said the sand blew in from the west. Somewhere out there on the far side of the Euphrates River lies a vast expanse of desert populated only by nomads and their flocks. It's called the Syrian Desert, though it straddles parts of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria as well as western Iraq. Now, temporarily airborne, it straddles Baghdad, too.

The city almost at once ground to a halt. Most shops closed. Flights were canceled. The few cars that took to the streets crept around as slowly as hearses with their headlights on in the middle of the day. And the place was and remains unusually quiet. I mean, just step outside and listen.

(Soundbite of electric generators)

REEVES: Hear that? Nothing, just the usual whirr of electric generators. All day the air smelt of freshly baked bricks and everything was covered by a thick film of dust, as fine and soft as talcum powder. Even inside our office the dust snagged the throat. In the hallways we could see the particles hanging in the air. Outside, the Iraqi guards who watch over our fortified compound became silhouettes, hazy and huddling figures behind the razor wire and barricades. Some of them took to wearing surgical masks as if about to do open-heart surgery, an odd spectacle given that they also carry Kalashnikovs. Others pulled scarves over their mouths and covered their eyes with enormous goggles like competitors preparing for a vintage motorcycle rally.

(Soundbite of coughing and ambient noise in hospital)

REEVES: Iraqi TV broadcast pictures from a city hospital, sad scenes of elderly Iraqis coughing painfully, being administered oxygen. There are times when you wonder where these people find the strength to carry on. Today was one of those occasions when fate and the elements seemed to be picking on them through pure malice.

For the rest of us, the visitors to this troubled place, we wandered around with dust-packed, spiky hair and skin as dry as walnuts. Even now, as the sandstorm subsides, everything feels gritty. There's still a bit of the Syrian Desert between my teeth.

There is an upside to all this. Today, mercifully, the sun did not bake this city to its usual hellish temperatures. It tried in vain to penetrate the veil of dust but only managed to make it glow. That, by the way, is why everything went orange. Better still, by early evening there'd been few reports of insurgent attacks.

But there's a downside, too. This was no day on which to write a new constitution for a nation. Iraq's leaders only have one more week to get the job done. Today they were supposed to meet again to resolve their differences, but the worst dust storm in years got the better of history making and the meeting was postponed, snuffed out by what the Iraqis call in Arabic the poisonous wind. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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