Letter From Baghdad

Letter From Baghdad

The failure to provide for postwar needs has deepened distrust of US intentions.


The children came out to cheer, and the adults waved from their doorways, as Staff Sgt. Jason Pond of the 101st Airborne Division led a patrol of infantry through the northern Baghdad district of Kasra. “They [the Iraqis] are friendly to us, and we’re friendly back. They come to us with their problems, and we try to fix them,” Sergeant Pond said about his work. Teenagers approached his patrol to report looting at a nearby government office, parents asked him where they might treat a son suffering from an accidental gunshot wound, residents of a middle-class neighborhood complained of squatters who had moved into an abandoned youth center. In some cases, there was little that Sergeant Pond’s patrol could do, but the residents appeared happy that at least one outside authority had taken an interest in their well-being.

Revisiting the same streets the next day, I listened to an outpouring of grievances–not about the US troops, whom residents consistently described as “very polite,” but about life in postwar Baghdad, where there’s one hour of power all night, where salaries are unpaid, where gangs hijack cars at night on the roads and where gas is in such short supply that frustrated drivers pull pistols on each other at service stations. “It is very difficult without a government, very difficult,” said schoolteacher Hamid Jassem. Another resident, who identified himself only as an oil-sector employee, was more militant: “America came here saying they wanted to help the Iraqi people, and we helped them defeat Saddam Hussein…. Well, we’re going to organize popular resistance against the Americans, like the Palestinian intifada, if they don’t give us some help.”

Nearly a month after Saddam Hussein’s statue came down in Firdous Square, an event that has come to mark the collapse of the old order, Iraqis offer very mixed reviews of the US invasion. The swift melting away of Baathist resistance in Iraq’s capital has made it unnecessary for the United States to maintain the kind of tight security measures that make life under other military occupations so onerous. Moreover, US soldiers and Marines appear to honestly believe themselves liberators. I have yet to see any of the humiliations inflicted on the occupied that are part of life in the Palestinian territories.

For some, the fall of Saddam fully justifies the uncertainties of the present. One old Communist whom I met in the Shiite holy city of Karbala wished to deliver a personal message of thanks to George W. Bush for “ridding us of that tyrant Saddam.” He was missing two fingers from his right hand, cut off during Saddam’s crackdown on the party in the 1970s. More common than gratitude is ambivalence. Tha’er Abdel Kader, a computer specialist, turned to me with delight when, driving through one of Baghdad’s commercial districts, he first laid eyes on an item that a month ago would have earned its owner a stretch in prison: “A satellite dish! That’s freedom.” Yet for Abdel Kader, as for many of his compatriots, it’s an article of faith that the United States invaded Iraq for the oil. He respects the work of the military but worries about what will happen when fast-living contractors begin to replace the hard-living soldiers as the most visible US presence on the ground: “When we see the Americans going around in big cars and eating in the expensive restaurants while we are going hungry, our feelings will change.”

There are parts of Iraq where the United States is simply not welcome. In a brief visit to the town of Falluja, just west of Baghdad, I saw banners hanging across the main street warning US forces to withdraw or be killed. An Apache helicopter hovered overhead, as the US garrison watched from behind a double row of concertina wire. Several days before, protesters had marched on a US-occupied school; the soldiers, claiming they’d heard shots from the crowd, opened fire, and sixteen were killed. Today, a colleague of mine who stopped to pray in the local mosque was told by worshipers that they are preparing a jihad to drive the occupants from their midst.

Falluja is an exceptional case. Part of the old regime’s Sunni support base, its citizens extol the Saddam years as a time of plenty. Asked what set off the original demonstrations, residents spoke of US soldiers using night-vision equipment to peer into people’s homes, or the annoying buzz of helicopters overhead–not the kind of grievance, one would imagine, that would lead to conflict had Falluja been well disposed to the invaders from the beginning.

Baghdad’s northeastern slums, unlike Falluja, are about as hostile to Baathism as one can get. This sprawl of cinderblock houses and open sewers, formerly Saddam City, has renamed itself Al Sadr City after a Shiite cleric executed by the regime. Saddam brutally repressed the public mourning rituals that are the emotional center of Iraqi Shiism–not least because the rituals commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein, whose rebellion against an unjust ruler lent itself a little too easily to contemporary politics.

I spoke to 52-year-old Hayat Abbas as she drew her water from a pump newly restored to operation by volunteers for the local mosques. “At the beginning we were optimistic about the Americans, but they have failed us,” she said. “We have freedom to worship, to mourn Hussein, but we have no government services.” To slum dwellers, the absence of services can be fatal: During the war, two of Abbas’s grandchildren drank contaminated water, began vomiting and died.

Al Sadr City’s poverty left its inhabitants particularly vulnerable to the disruptions of war. According to local aid workers, families in slums have not been able to supplement the government’s meager food ration with meat and vegetables, leaving their children malnourished and vulnerable to infection. In central Baghdad, a backup pump system kept water flowing at least intermittently throughout the war; here in the periphery, the pipes ran dry and inhabitants were forced to drink either contaminated groundwater from makeshift wells or to scavenge from irrigation ditches and stagnant ponds.

Like Abbas, many inhabitants of the northeastern slums have come to depend on the Shiite clergy–often collectively referred to as Al Hawza Al Ilmiya, after the council of senior scholars based in the southern city of Najaf–for the necessities of life. The Hawza is the de facto government in Al Sadr City and many other parts of Baghdad. Volunteers who pledge their allegiance to the Hawza direct traffic, distribute food and patrol the neighborhood against the armed gangs that are still the terror of Baghdad. Bearded men with Kalashnikovs, indicating Hawza protection, can be found in warehouses, orphanages, the reception areas of hospitals and other public institutions throughout the city. Doctors, aid workers and others at these institutions frequently complain of clerical excesses–medicines seized for mosque projects, outside help refused lest it undermine the Hawza’s authority or female workers required to wear the veil–but few appear willing to challenge them.

For the most part, US military authorities in Iraq have avoided confrontation with the Hawza. The Hawza, however, appears to believe itself to be in confrontation with the United States. The clerics claim, with some justification, that they have not been given a role in the making of Iraq’s new political order commensurate with their status as the most prominent representatives of the 60 percent of the population that is Shiite.

It is easy for the more militant clerics to milk the current state of anarchy in Iraq for political capital. Kut, a Shiite town to the east of Baghdad, is one of the few areas where there has been direct conflict between the local clergy and the US military authorities. Here, a local cleric and businessman occupied the provincial government building before being ordered out under threat of arrest. His supporters told me that US forces deliberately encouraged the looting and arson that followed the fall of the Baath–they wanted to create as many rebuilding contracts for US companies as possible. As for Saddam, he was clearly an American agent–how else could the coalition have overrun the entire country in three weeks?

Such conspiracy theories are common enough in radical Islamist discourse, but even those who are distrustful of clerical authority worry about Washington’s evident lack of concern about restoring order. Kasra resident Suheil Sabri, himself a Shiite, fears that the senior clerics’ push for power will plunge the country into factional warfare. This, he claims, may have been the US intention all along. “After thirty years of suffering from Saddam, Iraqis merely want peace,” he said. “Maybe the United States doesn’t want [peace]. Maybe the United States is satisfied with the current situation so that there is fighting inside Iraq, so they can see who is the strongest, and then weaken him.”

Iraqis’ fear of exploitation runs deep. It could hardly be otherwise in a country where outside powers have first backed, then overthrown, a brutal dictatorship; which sits on a tenth of the world’s oil resources but which suffers from grinding poverty. The overall failure of the United States to either anticipate or provide for the country’s postwar needs has deepened Iraqi distrust of American intentions. The Bush Administration may claim that it has engineered the liberation of Iraq, but it has yet to convince the Iraqis.

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