Clutching for Answers in Baghdad

BAGHDAD — The streets of Baghdad are prickly with pointed questions, as residents pick at my sleeve and beg me for answers I cannot give.

“Why is there no water?”

“The river is too high and will soon flood. When will the Americans do something?”

“We need electricity and security, where is it?”

“Where are the prisoners?” asked a man who gave his name as Muhammed. “It’s a simple question. What is the answer?”

All of these are asked of me, as I pick my way through the crowd outside the Hotel Palestine in downtown Baghdad. Each time I am forced to give the same answer: “I don’t know. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

Two photographers, Jason and Juan Carlos, and I have driven down for the day. The drive in is pleasant, with the occasional T-72 Iraqi tank parked by the road, seemingly abandoned by the crews. Once we get to the outskirts of this sprawling city, however, the tanks and other military vehicles are bombed out and destroyed.

Baghdad itself, low-slung and dusty brown, is bustling with activity. A haze of dust clings to the ground, and mixes with the auto exhaust from the thousands of vehicles on the street. Icons of Saddam are mostly lacking; I’ll bet they have been removed by U.S. troops and Baghdadis. The few posters and murals that remain are largely untouched, though. Driving in, we can see the effects of the looting and the bombing damage. Buildings marked with the Ba’ath Party eight-point star show scorch marks or are partially collapsed. Much of the city seems intact, however. Even downtown, a target-rich environment, seems more or less intact. The “precision bombing” seems to have been more or less aptly named.

The occupation is not making many friends among the Iraqis, however. In marked contrast to the welcome and friendliness we always receive in the north and in Kirkuk, the looks here are guarded and even cold. We smile and wave at people in the cars next to us when the traffic grinds to a halt, but our fellow drivers look at us and don’t smile back.

There seems to be a constant demonstration going on in front of the press balcony of the hotel and as I pass, one man holds up a sign that reads, “The Americans are Lyers.” Another hands me a note in both Arabic and English that reads:

Letter to Conference, Baghdad.
Dear Leaders, USA and Iraq: We are Al Shaab Native Free Party. We wanted to [attend the] meeting in Iraq with the leaders USA and Iraq. Thanks, Best.
Saeed Alifaashmi
Leader, Al Shaab Party

It seems an opposition movement to the yet-to-be-installed interim government is already taking root.

The Marines here have a tough job. The populace is angry at the lack of services — no phone, water, electricity or work — and the troops are getting increasingly aggressive in the face of mounting public anger. Everyone is on a hair-trigger. The Palestine is an armed fortress, ringed by concertina wire, about 150 troops and a dozen LAVs or so. The Marines push the Iraqis back — not always gently — as they press forward to tell their stories to a trooper, the press … someone who might listen.

At one point, a group of Iraqis began shouting at the Americans guarding the press entry point to the Palestine. The Marines began shoving the Iraqis back as they chanted louder and louder in Arabic. Then, the crowd sat down on the sidewalk. “No Saddam! No Saddam!” they yelled out. They were protesting the use of Iraqi police officers and demanded the Marines provide security instead of the organs of the old regime.

“We want the Americans to cooperate with us,” said Muhammad Abdul-Rasul, 46, an interpreter. “We need work. Who is in charge?” He then demanded “Mr. Bush” to turn on the public services within 48 hours.

The city is awash with conspiracy theories, the preferred method of analysis in the Middle East.

Ehsan Abud denied that Iraqis were the ones responsible for the looting and instead it’s the Kuwaitis coming up to take revenge for the 1990 invasion. And Arabs, not Iraqi Arabs, went into the University of Mustemsrya in Baghdad and burned all the books. And America has trained 500 Iraqis and other Arabs in the United States, parachuted them into Baghdad (nee Saddam) International and turned them loose on the city to burn and pillage.

The Marines based around the hotel declined to comment on these accusations.

The Americans are “useless” because they have been here for 10 days and they have done nothing for the city, said Abud. He said security in some neighborhoods is provided by armed volunteers guarding the streets.

There’s no doubt Baghdad is wooly at night. Marines told me they “took a guy down” last night when he was attempting to break into a media truck. Iraqis tell of the pop-pop of automatic weapons fire from all directions when the sun goes down.

The Interior Ministry is also a favorite source of rumor. This was the dreaded nexus of Saddam Hussein’s security state, and many people think there are underground prisons where loved ones who disappeared 20 years ago suffer still.

“Why don’t they dig under the Security building?” asked Ali Abid Khafaji. “Americans are guarding it and not letting the prisoners out.”

Muhammad, the man who asked about the victims of Saddam’s regime, said thousands of people are waiting to hear about their relatives and friends. Where are they? They have disappeared. “We want to know where they are,” he said. “You are the media. You can tell the world. Please, help us.”

What now for Iraq?

EN ROUTE TO BAGHDAD — Someone asked me why should I question J.’s optimism and how many Iraqis kissing me would it take for me to be convinced. There’s no question many, many Iraqis (especially the Kurds) are happy that Saddam is gone. But it’s not so simple as that.
In Tikrit, and in other places such as Mosul, a lot of people aren’t happy to see American forces — and not just because those forces have failed to provide security. The situation in the cities is volatile, and ethnic hatreds could flare into civil war without too big of a push. Already, we’ve heard reports that Kurds have begun driving Arabs out of villages around Kirkuk, reclaiming their old lands. The recklessness of the PUK and the KDP in post-Saddam Iraq could bring Turkey into the mix when the United States draws down its forces. No one knows what’s going to happen, and the initial giddy optimism I encountered is giving way to guarded anxiety about the future.
I don’t believe the United States went to war to make the Iraqis happy. It didn’t go to war to free them. The United States went to war for geopolitical self-interest (See “Why Iraq?” on B2I for a look at some of the reasons.) If the question is “Are the Iraqis happy that Saddam is gone?” the answer is undoubtedly yes — most of them, anyway. But that opens up a host of other questions that will have to be answered in time. It is much, much too early to declare the peace won and the sacrifice in blood and treasure a worthy investment in Iraq’s and the United States’ futures.
The anti-war crowd (in which I usually include myself) has often underestimated or understated the genuine good that came out of this war, i.e., the removal of a tyrant. But the pro-war crowd has equally underestimated the dangers of the aftereffects of this war: instability in the region, alienation of allies, increased risk of terrorist attacks, etc. Yes, the Iraqis are free — free to turn on their neighbors and kill them. Yes, the fear of visits from the Ba’ath Party has been removed, but now they fear armed gangs stealing their homes. This is still a nation in terror, and a stable, inclusive government is a long way off.
If the goal is establishing a representative democracy, powdered wigs and all, that’s likely to fail. Iraq in 10 years will more likely resemble authoritarian Egypt than friendly, parliamentary Canada. Would that be better than Saddam? Of course, absolutely. Is that what the Iraqis expect and deserve? Emphatically no. Would such an outcome make the region more stable and the United States safer? No one knows, and anyone — including me — who says they do is speaking from beliefs and assumptions rather than a possession of data.
I’m en route to Baghdad today (Thursday) and will file back what the situation is there.
*Technical Note*
Due to a snafu with the sendmail program on my server, two dispatches may have been missed. I believe it’s been resolved now. I apologize for the inconvenience.