I am back in Baghdad after seven years away.
Since 2003, a million people have died in Iraq in the wake of post-invasion violence.1 Sectarian wars have torn the country apart, foreign troops have established huge military bases, and politicians who have sworn to crack down on militias have their own private armies. This once secular nation has been scarred by extremism, with terrible consequences for women, gay people and religious minorities. As Government ministries remain feeding troughs for cronyism and sectarian patronage, national reconciliation remains elusive.
With $53 billion in ‘aid’ seemingly evaporated into bloated projects that only served to line the pockets of foreign contractors and local officials, 70 per cent of Iraqis lack potable water, and unemployment hovers near 50 per cent, officially, and much more, unofficially.2,3 Today Iraq is ranked the fifth most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. And while security has improved somewhat in the last few years, it has come at a huge cost. Sectarian cleansing has changed the character of individual neighbourhoods – divided by the now ubiquitous concrete barriers known as ‘t-walls’ – and the face of the nation. Over two million Iraqis are refugees, and almost three million internally displaced – roughly a fifth of the population. Many are simply too frightened to return, or too heartbroken by what they have survived to believe the posters that now, from every corner, promise security, electricity, jobs and even national unity.
I am here on the eve of elections. By the time you read this, there will have been horse-trading between the minority Government and other leading parties. Alliances will have been formed. Deals brokered between those professing secular, US-backed ‘unity’ and those with powerful Shi’a militias on their side (for those keeping score in the sectarian wars, the majority Shi’a have ‘won’ and many Sunnis have fled). Killers will negotiate with killers and almost certainly the violence will continue, whether in the form of mortar rounds fired from Baghdad suburb Sadr City into the heart of the ‘green zone’ (the walled-off international area, home to a US embassy the size of Vatican City), bombs in markets, or the pervasive sense of fear that descends in many neighbourhoods when night falls. Fear of the police knocking on your door or of local militias or young thugs. The line between officialdom and criminality remains blurry and faith in the army has trumped faith in the nation.
But how life will change for Iraq’s beleaguered citizens remains to be seen. Will the corruption that has plagued the country be stymied? Will divisions be healed and a cohesive sense of national identity regained? Will security and basic infrastructure be restored? And will heads of households, among them Iraq’s one million widows, be able to feed their families? Or will the promise of democracy remain a hollow one, as the gap between rich and poor widens, and basic services and social welfare programmes remain nostalgic memories of a now rose-coloured ancien regime?
These are difficult questions to answer. When I asked Ali Allawi, former minister in two post-invasion Governments and the author of The Occupation of Iraq, what might save the country he said this: ‘The Sunnis must abandon the illusion that the old Iraq was not a sectarian state. The Shi’as must abandon fetishizing their victimhood. And the Kurds must decide whether they are Iraqis or not. You can really only blame the Americans for the current situation up until about 2006. After that, the fault lies with the Iraqis.’
Later I will ask women in a Baghdad beauty parlour – among them Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Muslims – how Iraq can be saved, and they will say: ‘Khelas, we are sick of this lack of security. Before, we could walk in the streets alone and now we are imprisoned in our homes. We need another Saddam to get things under control.’
These are questions to contemplate as I fly into Baghdad from Amman in neighbouring Jordan. Ones to perhaps pose to my seatmates. To my left is a handsome Iraqi man with a humble yet vaguely patrician air. To my right is a tall, blond, tattooed American, in civilian clothes but sporting combat boots. I make the usual assumptions about them, until I strike up a conversation.
‘When I was here before,’ I say to the American, ‘I never asked people whether they were Sunni or Shi’a.’ Indeed, it was considered somewhat bizarre and rather impolite in those days before the US empowered Shi’a death squads (dispatched by the Ministry of Interior) – most notoriously the Wolf Brigade – to pick off opponents, and also supported extremist Sunni militias.4,5 Often referred to euphemistically as a means of ‘counterbalance’, such policies paved the way for civil war, to say nothing of the post-invasion rewriting of the old secular constitution along sectarian lines. Iraq survived the fallout of the Cold War and the games played by Russia and the US only to fall into dangerous divide-and-conquer politics played out this time between the US and Iran. Extremist religious leaders, gaining strength from the chaos that followed the invasion and the power vacuum left by a toppled police state, found easy foot soldiers in a generation of disenfranchised young men who had come of age knowing only war, sanctions and Saddam.
It turns out that my American seatmate has embraced Islam, after a few years spent as an occupying soldier in Iraq. Now he works as a security liaison for the State Department. But he is anti-occupation.
‘It’s still a puppet regime here. Our presence is not helpful,’ he tells me, ‘but if we leave, things could get worse. We have a responsibility to rebuild this place… this place that we have helped destroy.’ I will hear many similar opinions from Iraqis over the next few weeks. Everyone is anxious about what will happen in the aftermath of elections. In 2005, when most Sunnis boycotted the elections, civil war broke out. Now with the withdrawal of half of the remaining 100,000 US troops slated for August, the stakes are even higher.
I turn to the Iraqi on my left, who has been observing my conversation with the American. He turns out to be the director general of the Date Palm Sector at the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. Before the eight-year Iran-Iraq war destroyed not only an entire generation of young men on both sides, but hundreds of farms as well, there were 30 million date palms in Iraq. It is practically a national symbol and Iraqi dates are among the most sought after in the world. But years of war, over a decade of sanctions that crippled the economy and stopped the importation of agricultural chemicals – not to mention an ongoing drought – have decimated the date palm population.
Now the Ministry has a plan to attract foreign investment by offering sweetheart deals to would-be date palm farmers. Planting new farms would in turn help stop the encroaching desertification (if peace ever comes to Iraq, it will be a thirsty one) that has plagued this once-fertile land.
The director general explains all this with some enthusiasm. The American is listening in now and it’s smiles all round as we drift into secret fantasies about the salvation of Iraq. But sadly, later in the week I must cancel a much-anticipated trip to one of the Ministry’s new date palm nurseries because it is simply too dangerous to travel there. Only a short distance from the farm, an entire family will be shot and beheaded by a gang of masked gunmen.
What has happened to this country?
Dog days of the embargo
I remember my first trip here in 1997. It was during the dog days of the UN embargo imposed to punish Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. I had a commission to write a story on the lamentable state of healthcare. A nation whose public health system had once been the envy of the Arab world had seen its infant mortality levels rise to sub- Saharan standards after the first few years of sanctions.
Since the no-fly zone was still in place, my entry point was not the Saddam International airport, frozen in time like some aviatory Sleeping Beauty, kept alive by dedicated Iraqi Airways staff who practised their English and taught eager young flight attendants via in-flight simulation. It was the land border, an eerie, lunar desertscape, made creepier by the ‘I’m watching you’ larger-than-life portraits of Saddam. On the Jordanian side, huge images of King Hussein smiled down, as if you were being handed over from a kindly uncle to a slightly scary one.
After being interrogated by border police and accused of being a Kurdish separatist (all settled for a $10 baksheesh), I drove in a shared taxi through what became known as the ‘Sunni triangle’ – then just a series of hard-scrabble dirt-poor towns on the edge of Baghdad.
Indeed, the Americanized post-invasion ‘map’ of Iraq that seemed to want to separate the multicultural nation into three neat sections – the Kurdish north, the Sunni middle bit, and the Shi’a south – would seem as foreign to me as it did to most Iraqis. Besides the fact that members of Saddam’s inner circle and high-ranking officials of his notorious Baath Party were Kurds, Sunnis, Shi’as and Christians and intermarriage was commonplace, the struggle to survive the twin terrors of sanctions and Saddam united most Iraqis in a kind of siege mentality that belied any nascent sectarianism.
Once in Baghdad, I spent several days in the company of a charming doctor in his sixties who had studied in California in his youth. At the private Catholic hospital where he worked – run by a tough nun who bartered with black marketeers for basic medicines – I sat in his office for hours, as patients from all over the country came in and out. Young and old, rich and poor, Kurds and Arabs, even Afifa Iskander – the former star of Baghdad’s old cabaret scene and mistress of Abdul Karim Qassim (the Iraqi leader who flirted with Russian Communists and was overthrown in the 1963 CI A-backed Baathist coup) – came in for a visit. She was in her eighties then and being treated for dysentery, in a neighbourhood that, less than a decade earlier, had been middle class.
But while the embargo destroyed what economy and middle class there remained after the eight-year war with Iran, it only served to entrench Saddam Hussein’s power. With the private sector in ruins, and a siege mentality at play, the state-issued ration card seriously dampened any remaining appetite for dissent. After all, it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you.
Return, after the invasion
After returning to Saddam-era Iraq several times, I made my first post-invasion trip in August 2003. Arriving at the old Saddam International that had resurfaced complete with makeshift gulag and Burger King, I had my passport stamped by a young Marine, not with the old Iraqi eagle, but with a nondescript Coalition Provisional Authority emblem.
Researching my book Dancing in the No-Fly Zone, I arrived just before the security situation would have prevented me from reporting the way I like to – from markets, churches, mosques and theatres, from people’s homes and neighbourhoods. Despite some close calls, I was able to enjoy a certain freedom of movement and mobility and managed to catch up with many of my old friends and contacts.
Before, we had one Saddam and we knew who to be afraid of. Now we have dozens
My friend Ahlam, a widowed mother of two, had managed to open her own beauty salon, but had very few customers. She had pulled her 13-year-old daughter from school because the walk there and back was just too dangerous. Less than a year later, fundamentalist militias would begin firebombing beauty parlours and churches. My old friend Karim Wasfi, a talented young cellist, had taken a job at a US-backed NGO called the Iraqi Institute for Democracy. And the Jordanian woman I’d met on that first journey in a shared taxi would re-emerge at my strange new hotel as the mother of the internet café manager. Her son Marwan was a plump mama’s boy who after the shock of seeing his university labs looted in the wake of the invasion, had become a newly reborn Muslim. He politely objected to my swimming in the hotel pool, while his moon-faced mama told me that after recent abductions of women in her neighbourhood by armed gangs, she had learned how to use a gun.
When I left the country, I still followed its failing fortunes from afar, documenting its continuing brain drain, as professors, artists and doctors were killed by death squads, and as extremist militias offered fresh new terror. ‘Before, we had one Saddam,’ a playwright friend had told me, ‘and we knew who to be afraid of. Now we have dozens.’
But I never thought I’d come back here. In fact, I nearly didn’t, concerned by the bombings over the past six months, and stymied by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s clamping down on journalists’ visas. It was easier to get one in the bad old days of Baathist apparatchiks. But at the eleventh hour, an Iraqi NGO called the Journalistic Freedom Observatory saved the day, and miraculously arranged for my visa.
Now, after landing, I wait with a group of Tamil workers and a couple of French oil executives to get my passport stamped, this time by Iraqis. Within minutes, I step out into the sunlight of a brave new Iraq, where dozens of potential Saddams stare down at me from election posters.
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