Back in Baghdad
BAGHDAD — I returned to Baghdad on Monday. The city is as chaotic and choked as ever, but the level of violence in the last few days has been less than I expected. I’ve only heard two explosions near my house in eastern Baghdad, and they were far away. I get the impression that the Green Zone is not attacked as much. Perhaps I was wrong to pooh-pooh the Fallujah offensive… Or perhaps the insurgency has just gone to ground for a while.
For the average citizen of Baghdad, however, things are not great. Queues for petrol are hundreds of cars long — up to five or six kilometers in some places. The wait is hours long because of the cold weather that is settling in, made all the worse by a worsening electricity situation.
In October, when I left, most people I spoke with said it was up to a four-hours-on, two-hours-off schedule. Now we’re back to one- or two-hours-on, five- to six-hours off. And generators can only run for six hours or so at a time before having to sit idle for a little while. It’s unclear why the electricity is so bad after it seemed to be improving for a while. The electrical heaters that more people are running use more juice than air conditioning, so perhaps that’s the reason.
The mobile network is collapsing, too, but everyone knows the reason for that: Insurgents are targeting the transmitters. Half the time, the phones don’t work at all, forcing us to rely on our satellite phones. Of course, the average Iraqi doesn’t have one of these, so they get an unreliable landline or nothing.
Yesterday was my first full day back in the city, and I started out by planning to take a ride-along with the minister of Housing and Construction, Dr. Omar al-Damluji. Things didn’t quite work out as planned.
My photographer and I got to the ministry at about 10:30 a.m., later than I wanted. Traffic (izdiham, in Iraqi Arabic) has become so bad that it takes 90 minutes to two hours to go anywhere, whereas before, during the summer, one could get anywhere in the city in half an hour, tops. Anyway, we got there, and didn’t get to see the minister. We were kept waiting for 30 minutes or so until armed guards and other aides suddenly rushed into the foyer and hustled us out the door into a courtyard. “Yella! Yella!” (“Let’s go! Let’s go!”)
We were bundled into one of the cars in the convoy — a fleet of white SUVs which might as well have “SHOOT ME” in big red letters on them — and took off. Within the first few hundred meters the SUV behind us rear-ended us causing our driver to swear into his radio at his colleague behind him. It was not something that inspired confidence. Nor did their behavior in traffic. It was amateur hour. The drivers tried to surround the minister’s vehicle, which was conveniently a different color than the others for easy spotting through RPG sights, but they consistently left large gaps between vehicles wide enough for the proverbial large truck. This is very bad driving when it comes to protective convoys. They seemed to think high rates of speed and liberal use of the horn would protect them. I sat in the back and fretted about an ambush.
This was not part of the plan. The plan was to follow along at a discreet distance in our own cars so that if something happened, we wouldn’t be part of the convoy. Now, I was in one of the vehicles — the unarmed one. I also imagined big irony arrows pointing at my vehicle. I had just arrived the day before. My photographer was leaving the next day. If fate has a sense of humor — and it often has a demented one — we were the perfect kidnapping targets.
But we made it to the inspection site without incident, although not without some hair-raising moments of reckless driving. But the “inspection site” was actually the al-Hamourabi Construction Co., which is fully owned by the Ministry. Again, we had to wait. Again, I didn’t get to see the minister as I was promised and again, I fumed out in the lobby.
Finally, a flunky brought me and my photographer into the room to behold His Excellency. He was holding a meeting and didn’t bother looking up as we came in. For 90 minutes he listened to his subordinates and answered their questions about concrete and tar factories. Then he told them he wanted all the factories profitable so they could be privatized and sold on the Baghdad Stock Exchange, noting approvingly of Margaret Thatcher’s actions in Britain in the 1970s and ’80s. Later, in the few minutes I had with him after the meeting, he admitted that he also wanted foreign investment but that he worried that if the companies weren’t profitable, there wouldn’t be any buyers.
Now, this is a big issue in Iraq. Many Iraqis point to former Iraqi Proconsul Paul Bremer’s economic program — such as it was — as a source of resentment, which fuels the insurgency. His policies led to widespread unemployment as Ba’athists of every stripe were kicked out of their jobs and the Army was shut down. Now, unemployment is bad enough that even a few hundred dollars to shoot an RPG at an American humvee is worth the risk of being attacked by soldiers’ .50-cal, which does terrible things to human flesh.
“The insurgency is fueled by unemployment,” al-Damluji said. “The workers need good salaries, dignity. Otherwise, someone from the outside will pay them $300 to attack here and there. And they will do it.”
But considering the role the state has played in Iraq’s economy for the last several decades, a program of privatization is likely to be unpopular. I’ve not had time to do any deep reporting on this, but I suspect there’s a good story there.
After this conversation, we decided to leave early, but because of the lack of phones and our own transportation, I sent my translator to go back to the Ministry, get our phones and send our drivers back to get us. We would all meet at the house. Unfortunately, some time after my translator left, His Excellency tired of inspecting the al-Hamourabi Construction Co. and decided to go home. The Ministry was closing up. We couldn’t return to the Housing Ministry with him because by now, my translator was already on his way home and our drivers were on their way to pick us up. And we couldn’t wait for the drivers because, we were told, we couldn’t wait in the company’s compound. Everyone wanted to go home. It was 2 p.m.: Quitting time in Baghdad. We were welcome to wait on the street outside the metal gates, however.
That didn’t seem too smart, and the irony arrows glowed ever brighter. So, after discarding my mother’s advice to never get into a car with strange men, we ended up taking a ride with some guy who worked at the company. He was named Ali, and he was nice enough, but I was very worried that at any minute we would learn that we had, actually, been kidnapped. However, fate’s sense of humor was otherwise engaged and we returned home all right, and Ali even tried to refuse the small payment I offered him. (He ultimately accepted when I insisted.)
It was an interesting day. It reaffirmed my belief — sorely tested over the last few months — that kindness and honor isn’t dead in Iraq, even toward hapless foreign-looking guys like myself. It also caused me to wonder whether things might now be getting better in the realm of security, while infrastructure again takes a downward turn. Of course, I may be fooling myself about the security, for as I wrote this, I heard more explosions and nearby gunfire. It’s probably nothing serious, but it’s worrying nonetheless.
Ah, welcome to Baghdad.