Welcome back, habibi

Ehlen w’sehlehn, as they say here. (“Welcome.”) To which I should probably reply, “Thanks… I think.” I’m back in Iraq’s capital after two and a half months away, and in that time I faced upheavals in my personal life, and three weeks in Beirut. The two are more or less unrelated. But Baghdad is almost exactly the same as when I left, despite the fact that there’s been a monumental election here — the full import of which has yet to be felt.

BAGHDAD — Ehlen w’sehlehn, as they say here. (“Welcome.”) To which I should probably reply, “Thanks… I think.” I’m back in Iraq’s capital after two and a half months away, and in that time I faced upheavals in my personal life, and three weeks in Beirut. The two are more or less unrelated. But Baghdad is almost exactly the same as when I left, despite the fact that there’s been a monumental election here — the full import of which has yet to be felt.
Well, it’s not exactly the same. I’ve been back a day and I’ve already received an earful on the high price of petrol: 250 dinars for a liter as opposed to 20 dinars it was in the summer of 2003 and the 30 dinar or so it was when I left in mid-November. Fuel subsidies are being lifted and people are feeling the squeeze.
If only there were fuel for the city’s power stations. Electricity is down to about two hours a day in Baghdad, doled out in fits and spurts of 15 mins or so at a time. Sometimes, gloriously, we get a solid hour, but it’s rare. Generators pick up the slack, and since you have rising fuel costs, you start to see the double squeeze that poor Iraqis are feeling.
Add on to that incessant guerilla attacks on the country’s oil infrastructure that has left exports _below pre-war levels_ and there’s no money coming into the government. Insurgents have hit upon pipeline sabotage as a means to cut off Baghdad’s funding, so no matter what the composition of the government — when it’s finally done — it won’t be able to do much. So the new government, which is still being negotiated, will probably be viewed with the same resentment as the current Jaafari government does, except we’ll be stuck with these guys for four years now.
Speaking of the government, word is that the United Iraqi Alliance list, dominated by Shi’ite religious parties and thought to have the blessings of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is deadlocked over who will be their candidate for the prime minister’s office. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, of the Da’wa Party, wants to keep the job, but current vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi (of the rival SCIRI party) is favored by others in the coalition. The Kurds are willing to support whoever will legalize their hold on Kirkuk.
The question is what will the Sunni groups do. Ally with the UIA in a national unity government? Cleave to Iyad Allawi’s rump bloc in the hopes of creating a viable opposition? We’ll see.
The mood here among reporters, I think, is grim. Jill Carroll’s kidnapping is still unresolved, despite hopeful rumors of her release soon. Those, so far, have gone unrealized.
I arrived yesterday and today did little other than get my bearings and plan some stories with the other reporters. Tomorrow will be taken up with more logistics and media credentialling business. Wednesday, I sit down in the Saddam Circus, or should I say, “Trial.”
On the way in from the airport yesterday, I counted more marriage convoys than I had in months (three.) Why? Because tomorrow is the start of the Islamic new year and the beginning of _Muharram ul Haram_, the month in which religious Shi’ites refrain from marriage or other celebrations. (It must suck to have your birthday this month.) So, everyone was trying to get their last-minute wedding plans in. In 10 days, we’ll be faced with Ashurah, the marking of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Iraq’s Shi’ites in Najaf and, especially, Karbala, mark it with bloody parades in which they beat, cut and flagellate themselves in a sign of grief for the death of Hussein. It’s going to be a tense month, for while fighting is generally frowned upon during this month, Salafist/Wahabi Muslims consider the Umayyed Caliph Yazid, who sent the army that killed Hussein and his followers, a righteous figure while Shi’ites naturally detest him. In other words, the potential for violence is high.
Yes, Baghdad is the same as always. As the tagline to “Jarhead” goes, “Welcome to the Suck.”

Returning to Iraq

I have been on a long break, the longest since I moved to Baghdad in May 2004, but it is soon to end. I will be returning to Iraq at the end of this week, looks like, assuming my passport issues get resolved here at the embassy.

BEIRUT — I have been on a long break, the longest since I moved to Baghdad in May 2004, but it is soon to end. I will be returning to Iraq at the end of this week, looks like, assuming my passport issues get resolved here at the embassy. (It’s nothing serious, just waiting on extra pages and a secondary passport.)
With the kidnapping of my friend, Jill Carroll, and the looming year, I can’t say that returning fills me with anything approaching joy. It’s not that I’m more afraid because of Jill — I’m used to the kidnapping threat now — but I’m faced with the prospect of locking myself up in a compound or embedding, neither of which is a particularly pleasant working environment. It’s grim in the Hamra compound these days, from what I hear from my remaining friends.
And also, I wonder just how many more times I can go through seeing a friend on TV surrounded by gunmen. Of course, that doesn’t even begin to compare to what Jill’s family is going through. It’s just that I’ve seen it so often: “James Brandon”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2004/08/james_brandon_r.php, Michah Garen, “John Martinkus”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2004/10/my_friend_the_k.php, “Marla Ruzicka”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/04/our_heart_and_c.php and “Rory Carroll”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/10/rory_carroll_is.php (no relation), just to name a few of the 36 journalists kidnapped I know personally. More than 60 journalists have been killed, including Enzo Baldoni and “Steven Vincent”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/08/steven_vincent.php. Iraq is a damn dangerous place.
Anyway, I’ll be back later this week and more regular blog updates should commence shortly after. I also have figured out how to do a radio show using iChat and Garage Band, so A., my office manager and I will be taking questions, once I get the final logistics settled. These “mortar side-chats” will then become regular podcasts, _inshallah_.