Baghdad Under Siege
Two things became clear as the negotiations to form a government dragged on: American pacification efforts have stalled, and the euphoria accompanying the January 30 elections is beginning to evaporate. "The insurgents are increasing, and the reason is that the new government has not met yet--it encourages them to go on with their attacks," said Said Rashid, a political science professor at Baghdad University, just before the March 16 opening of Parliament. Baghdadis have grown resigned to life under the state of emergency that was declared in November. Spokesmen at the oil and electricity ministries say attacks on their employees and infrastructure averaged at least one a day last year and will rise this year.
"The war is getting worse," says a furniture dealer who spent years in exile in London but returned to help pull down the statue of Saddam in central Baghdad's Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, a shot broadcast around the world. "I thought after the war it would be OK to open a business here. Now I can't even negotiate with my customers -- I'm afraid that if I say no, they might kidnap or kill me. I was optimistic before, but now I think I will return to Britain."
Iraqis hope the 275-member national assembly will bring change. It is charged with writing a permanent constitution and setting up a system to elect a permanent government in December (likely prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told me last month he would like to see direct elections for prime minister and the national assembly rather than the representational ones that have led to much of the wrangling since the January elections). But Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the two main parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition that garnered the largest share of January's vote, has another burning issue he expects the assembly to address.
"We are working to make the American forces and the non-American forces no longer exist. There is no nation in this world that's free and has dignity that would agree to have foreign forces on its land," Hakim told me in an interview last week. I asked him if this includes the apparently permanent US bases that are being built all over the country. "Iraqi people want a full pullout of the American forces," he replied.
Hakim blamed US and British policy for the country's continued instability and said Iraqis can do better. "They depend on figures with connections to the previous regime and didn't give the chance to the honest, good Iraqis to take part to be in charge," he said. Hakim and other members of the UIA have been extremely critical of US-appointed prime minister Iyad Allawi's repeal of US proconsul Paul Bremer's de-Baathification order. Essentially, Hakim plans to gut the Interior Ministry, replacing the current administration with his own people. Whether this will work or create further division within the government remains to be seen.
But the real trick will be winning over a dubious populace. Like millions of others, Ahmed Hassan, a businessman, risked his life by voting on January 30. As he sipped coffee in a Baghdad cafe, he lamented the lack of progress since then and compared the mindset of the populace now to that under Saddam: "To be honest, we are just fooling ourselves that it's getting better. In the past, we used to say 'the embargo will be lifted today or tomorrow,' but it never was."