Three months after the end of the war, Iraqis express a growing sense of disappointment in the new, American order—or, to be more precise, the lack of order. There is no dictatorship, but there is also no electricity, work, safety, or government.
Imad al-Mussawi, a Baghdadi journalist, recently told me a story I can’t get out of my mind. A group of thugs hijacked a train. They vandalized it and cut off all means of escape. The kitchen was turning out meager meals. Suddenly, the police stormed the train and the engineer fled. The train was stuck in the desert with no one to run it. The lights went out and people started to rob one another under the cover of darkness. The cops were chasing the robbers up and down the length of the train to the chorus of passengers cursing because this is not the kind of freedom they wanted. This is Iraq today.
The more time I spend in Iraq, the truer his words seem.
Come Back the Day after Tomorrow
Several Iraqis looking for work have been waiting since daybreak in front of the conference center where the American occupation forces have set up a press office. Around noon, a soldier approaches them: “There is no work today, try back the day after tomorrow, 7 a.m.” He enunciates clearly, but in English. The men glance at one another, uncertain. Finally, a passerby translates the soldier’s words into Arabic and the men disperse slowly, their heads low. “Yesterday they said, ‘Come back tomorrow,’ ” they complain.
Nearby, two men lucky enough to have found work are unhurriedly painting a curb around a lamppost broken in half. Why? They shrug, “They said to paint, we’re painting. What matters is they gave us work and two dollars in return.”
It could be said, if somewhat maliciously, that this is what the rebuilding of Iraq is like, for now. In any case, this is how the Iraqis see it. Three months after the war their country hovers somewhere between normalization and anarchy, occupation and democracy, dissolution and potential prosperity. People struggle to make sense of it, to predict whether good or evil will prevail in the end. So far they are sure of one thing: Their “liberators” have not been able to meet their basic needs. Hunger is always a more distinct feeling than freedom.
The Americans Are Breaking Us
“Americans took over Iraq in three weeks but they have not been able to restore the electricity in three months. What kind of power is that? They promised us democracy, but where is the government?” asks Yassim. He says that the soldiers sometimes venture into the old part of Baghdad where he lives, Abu Safijan, but they do not talk to the people, do not ask about their needs and wishes.
“We hate Saddam, but under his rule it was safe, at least,” adds Yassim’s 70-year-old mother, Umm Jamil. “Once you could have slept in a bed set outside the house. Now, our daughters are afraid to walk to school. The gangsters rob, rape, and shoot,” the old woman laments. All around us children laugh and shout, “Saddam Ali Baba! Bush Ali Baba!” which is to say that both are thieves, each as bad as the other.
There is a thick crowd in the center of the city, outside one of the offices where Americans are to hand out aid to former soldiers and recruit potential policemen. The atmosphere is tense. No one knows anything: whether the Americans will give out any money, whether they are still recruiting men, whether it is worth it to wait in this heat. Seeing a journalist, the men begin shouting, showing their battle scars from the war with Iran. “After the war with Kuwait, Saddam rebuilt Iraq in four months. Now we haven’t had work or money since March; the bosses took the payroll funds and ran! The food rations [still given out by the United Nations] are smaller than they used to be. All America cared about in this war was oil! We caught the bandits who were taking the railroads apart, but the Americans asked, ‘What proof do you have?’ and let them go—under Saddam they would have been in jail for life! True, we were oppressed then, but we were safe.”
At Saddam University, now renamed the University of Two Rivers (after the Tigris and the Euphrates), final exams are taking place. Teachers are among the few groups who have started receiving paychecks. “When America took over Iraq, we were happy,” says the mathematics professor Wissam Jodah. “We saw them as liberators. Now we see them as invaders. We have freedom, but without security it does not mean much.”
The students sitting on the fence in front of the café are eager to talk. They try to convey their reasons calmly, but as they speak, they become less logical. Clearly, just as the rest of their society, they do not quite understand what is going on. “Americans are withholding gas and electricity on purpose,” Jabar Abdullah, a computer science student, says. “They want to break us, so we’ll accept any government. But we will not let that happen. Iraq is not Afghanistan. Our patience is running out,” he explains. And what kind of government do you want? I ask. “A democratic one, but in compliance with the rules of Islam,” is his answer. “Actually, it doesn’t matter. It can even be Jewish, so long as it does a good job.”
The immensity of changes taking place in Iraq can only be compared to those in Germany and Japan in 1945. The change in Iraq is complete: It affects each person and every aspect of life; it is chaotic because the mechanisms of control are still unformed; and it is ambiguous—the old cliché about a glass half-empty or half-full fits perfectly here.
On one hand, life in Baghdad is returning to normal. The streets are filled with people and cars, there are lots of open stores, snack stands, restaurants, movie theaters—even the philharmonic has reopened. On the other hand, you can only walk the streets by day. After dark, armed gangs rule the streets: You can be mugged; you can be mistaken for a looter or a rebel and shot or arrested; or you can be the victim of a random shooting. The phones do not work. The cars run, but their owners spend countless hours waiting in line at the gas stations. There is a shortage of gasoline in a country with vast oil resources, though gas can be purchased on the side of the road at a much higher price. Stores are filled with merchandise, but 99 percent of it is imported. Power outages have meant that Iraq’s factories cannot operate.
The lack of electricity is the biggest problem in Iraq now. Baghdad has electricity for a few hours each day—before the war it was about 20 hours. In the 120-degree-plus heat, those without a generator or money for the black-market oil suffer in the heat. A desperate man wielding a gun recently stormed into a power plant and demanded that the workers supply his neighborhood with power.
The United States blames saboteurs loyal to Saddam Hussein for this state of affairs. Power plants and power lines are frequently attacked. It is also common knowledge that the Iraqi workers at the switching station withhold the supply, hoping for bribes—if the neighbors chip in, they will have electricity.
Freedom, for Better or Worse
The Iraqi people eagerly take advantage of the freedom bestowed on them. There are all sorts of demonstrations in the streets every day. Here, the relatives of the former parliamentary leader, Sadun Hamadi, demand his release from jail because “he was such a good man.” There, a new party called the Free Society of Iraq wants to announce it has formed and that it supports the democratization of Iraq. Elsewhere, a marching crowd is wielding a sign that reads, “No electricity, no water. Saddam, come back!”
The number of local newspapers established in Iraq over the past few weeks is probably unequaled anywhere. Pornographic movie theaters are sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain. The current absence of tariffs, which disappeared along with the rest of rules and regulations (today, America passes all laws), has resulted in the mass import of anything imaginable, mainly used cars. In Baghdad, the vendors have taken over the sidewalks, which was forbidden under the old regime, and are peddling VCRs, along with children’s tricycles, soap, almost-genuine Rolexes, Coca-Cola, dates, and satellite dishes, which were banned until recently. Because of the heat and lack of electricity, all manner of vermin are multiplying—the guy selling poison that promises to eliminate “rats, scorpions, spiders, and American cockroaches” has tapped into a vein of gold.
Anarchy is rampant. On one side of the street American commandos are guarding some thing or another, while across the street, behind a wall, thieves are selling stolen air-conditioners. In the markets, guns are selling very well, and no one tries to be secretive about it or ask about permits (the Americans award them to a select few).
Where Are the Police?
Many parts of the city are haunted by blackened skeletons of buildings that once housed government offices and banks, struck by bombs during the war or looted soon after. The only recently renovated building pointed out by my guide during our tour of the city was the home of the now-defunct state television network. No work is going on anywhere in sight (with the exception of the curb-painting), aside from repairs to private homes. Yet the war damage in Baghdad is not very extensive and the renovation of the charred government buildings can wait.
Public transportation has not resumed officially, but drivers of the double-decker buses have decided to ferry passengers on their own and for their own profit. The traffic lights do not work, and Americans have closed some streets to traffic (Baghdad’s residents point out that Saddam Hussein’s family used to do the same thing), so the intersections are clogged by giant traffic jams. The Iraqi traffic police, who recently reappeared on the streets, are completely helpless. People complain that the cops pocket huge bribes and everyone takes a long lunch break at 1 p.m. There are no other Iraqi police visible on the streets, though the occupation forces boast about having hired another 30,000 police officers recently. The Iraqi policemen stay sheltered in the precincts and protest that they will not venture into the streets until the Americans give them weapons.
The presence of the U.S. Army in Baghdad is visible though not overbearing: Tanks and transporters are parked outside the most important buildings; military convoys can be seen moving along the streets; sometimes a helicopter flies overhead. There are very few foot patrols. Americans are still trying to apprehend all the gangsters, street fighters, and prominent figures from the old regime. The Iraqis complain that soldiers storm into their homes at dawn and burst into the women’s quarters. Reports of U.S. soldiers’ improper conduct travel quickly, even if they concern isolated incidents. “I have seen a soldier waving to the children, pretending he wanted to give them some candy. When they ran up to him, he drove away, laughing,” Moyassar Basil Chadi, a student of biotechnology, tells us. “Others throw candy on the ground. It’s humiliating. They took away my friend’s badge with a picture of Saddam during a search. What is going on?”
The U.S. soldiers may react rashly to situations because they feel threatened. Since the day President Bush announced the end of the war, 31 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire [figure current as of July 10]. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander the coalition troops in Iraq, says that his soldiers come under attack an average of 13 times a day—mainly in the Sunni areas north of Baghdad, but increasingly in the city itself. L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, assures journalists that this is only “a small group of ‘bitter-enders’…trying to turn the tide of history.” But some believe that it may be the beginning of an uprising urged by Saddam Hussein himself via videotape.
We Are Waiting for a Government
The Iraqi people remember the promises made by American politicians during the war, their promises to “return Iraq to its citizens as quickly as possible.” This has yet to happen. A few meetings of the Iraqi exile opposition groups have taken place under the aegis of the United States, but they have not amounted to much. The Americans merely appointed several city councils with limited power, most recently in Baghdad [On July 13, three days after this was published, a national Iraqi governing council selected by the U.S.-led coalition met in Baghdad—WPR].
The United States was better prepared for a war than it was for the rebuilding and democratization of Iraq. “They do not understand the way the Iraqi people think,” says Wisal Najib al-Azzawi, the new chair of the political studies department at the University of Two Rivers. Al-Azzawi is a fervent proponent of putting power in the hands of the Iraqi people, but she defends America’s reluctance to do so now. “Saddam brutally quelled any opposition, therefore Iraqis do not have leaders,” she explains. “The parties are fragmented. None of them are supported by more than 5 percent of voters. Constructing a democracy takes time.”
It seems that the process of reconstructing Iraq’s political institutions has taken a small step forward. Bremer has announced creation of a “governing council” consisting of 25 Iraqi politicians and Iraqi exile leaders. The council will appoint ministers (subject to U.S. approval) and work on creating a new legislature. But its main responsibility will be the creation a constitutional assembly [The council first met on July 13—WPR]. Bremer hopes the constitution will be ratified in a national referendum next summer, then Iraqis will elect leaders.
Time will tell whether this is feasible. In Al-Azzawi’s opinion, the creation of the council is a good idea, though it should consist of more local citizens and fewer returning exiles who do not understand Iraq. The students wave their arms to gesture that they have something to say. “All these councils are a facade. We are waiting for a government,” they say.
So far as the Iraqis are willing to give America the benefit of the doubt when it comes to political matters, they want the practical problems—lack of electricity, work, and safety—solved right away. And despite indications to the contrary, they do not demand for the coalition army to leave Iraq immediately. Even simple, uneducated people understand that the country would plunge into internal battles over power and money, with even worse effects than after the last war. “The Americans have to stay here or else there will be a bloodbath,” says the journalist Imad al-Mussawi. “But if they continue to rule the way they have been, if they do not improve the living conditions, the nation will rise up against them…even without Saddam’s prompting.”
After a long pause, Al-Mussawi adds, “You know, despite everything, when I wake up in the morning, I’m happier, because I finally don’t have to look at Saddam, don’t have to listen to him. Even the weather seems nicer than it was last summer, even though it’s just as hot. There is such a nice breeze…”
„Gazeta Wyborcza”, July 10, 2003, translated by “World Press Review”