Welcome back, habibi

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.”

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