October 31, 2005

An Egyptian View of Baghdad and Iraq

Al-Ahram Weekly just published this view from Baghdad. We have created such a sad reality for Iraqis and ourselves. Here it is, reprinted in its entirety.

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Baghdad: 2002-2005

In Baghdad for the first time after three years, Dina Ezzat finds an Arab capital consumed by ugly signs of American occupation

Under harsh and suffocating international sanctions, the echo of two draining wars -- with Iran and the US -- and the rule of Saddam Hussein, a dictator by all accounts, Baghdad in January 2002 came across as a sad if not miserable city. It was a city dotted with massive granite statues and huge portraits of Saddam that people looked at with quelled anger. It was, indeed, a city with unmistakable signs of poverty that is unbecoming of the wealth of Iraq.

However, unlike October 2005, in January 2002 when Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa arrived in Iraq on his successful mission of convincing Saddam to allow the return of international weapons inspectors, Baghdad was a city where foreign visitors, especially journalists and diplomats, could walk freely and go for late dinners by the riverside, provided they refrained from quizzing individuals about their views on Saddam or engaged in confrontations over security clearance measures with the Iraqi police.

In January 2002 -- 14 months before the US war on Iraq -- Baghdad was a city where people walked to markets and through streets without fear, even if they had to be careful of every word they said.

Almost four years later, in October 2005, Baghdad is not just a sad city ruled by the fear of a self-idolised dictator or beaten down by sanctions-brought poverty. It is a city crushed by the ugly signs of the American war and occupation that has turned a proud Arab capital into a stage for perpetual military operations that target both innocent Iraqis and US soldiers and that have driven the Baghdadis to either escape or hide. It is a city where journalists and diplomats are kidnapped -- if ever they go there. It is a city where fear and poverty have been coupled with anger at the US presence and the humiliation inflicted by way of the insensitivity shown by Americans to Iraqi social values.

The Green Zone, the fortified neighbourhood of the US- supported Iraqi government, the US Embassy and several American military bases, occupies a once-upon-a-time rich neighbourhood of Baghdad. "This has almost always been an off-limit neighbourhood. Under Saddam it was a zone cordoned off for his palaces, his children and his security personnel. Today, the Americans, and members of the new government who came with the Americans, are using this same neighbourhood to run the city," said an Iraqi driver whose name, like the rest of all other sources speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, is withheld for reasons of his safety. He added, "however, unlike Saddam neither the Americans nor the new government can really rule the city. They just rule parts of it; for example, the Americans cannot get anywhere near the militant Sunni-controlled neighbourhood -- they fear to be shot down by militants."

Few others go to these areas either. An Egyptian journalist posted in Baghdad since the early weeks following the fall of the city to the US invasion on 9 April 2003 argues, "the war is still ongoing somehow, but it has become a war that people co-exist with." According to this journalist the direct confrontation between Americans and Iraqis have receded a great deal, but the "battles still happen". They are, he said, not necessarily military battles. At times they are just battles of daring to kill. "It has become very common that when American soldiers try to stop an Iraqi driver in a rude fashion, some drivers would deliberately ignore the aggressive instructions. They would drive on only to be stopped after their bodies and cars are cut into small pieces by the volley of bullets coming out of the lethal weapons carried by American soldiers." The American soldiers, he added, have become very frustrated and exhausted by their long and seemingly unending stay in Iraq. "They feel desperate and threatened by the attack of fearless Iraqi militants. They see a potential attack in every defying or inattentive speeding car. Their instant reaction has become one of shoot-to-kill."

This is a story that several Iraqis who spoke to the Weekly during the heavily secured visit of Moussa to Baghdad on Thursday, Friday and Saturday confirmed.
"I lost three friends to the bullets of fearful American soldiers who use their lethal weapons far too often," said one Iraqi diplomat. The three friends of this Iraqi diplomat did not die alone. One died with his pregnant wife as he was rushing her to the hospital to deliver their first baby. "And the baby was not saved. Of course he was blown into pieces in his mother's womb." The other died with a group of friends and the third died with a brother-in-law on their way back from a family dinner. "It is insane. Those who died were not militants. They were civil servants who just hoped to lead a normal life and who had no intention of attacking anyone. They did that under the rule of Saddam and thought they could continue to do so under the US occupation."
Despite his severe words of criticism of Saddam, this diplomat, who was recruited after Saddam was toppled, said he was not sure if toppling Saddam was the best thing that happened to his country. "He was certainly a brutal dictator. He would kill anybody who disagrees with him or who dared challenge him," he stated. He added that when Moussa visited Baghdad in 2002 to talk to Saddam, many Iraqis secretly hoped that the senior Arab official would convince the dictator-president to step down, even though they knew it was impossible. "But today I am not sure if things are really better without Saddam. They might be better in some aspects, especially for the Shias and Kurds who were persecuted by Saddam, but I am not sure about the entire country." According to this diplomat who lives in Baghdad, security has become very unpredictable. "Things might seem calm on the surface but all of a sudden there is a big explosion and so many people die."

Women are particular targets, this diplomat added. Under Saddam, he admitted, some families feared for their beautiful daughters or sisters; you might have been afraid that she would be kidnapped and raped by some of Saddam's thugs who used to frequent girls schools to pick their victims. "But today the threat is much wider. Women have now to cover their hair for fear of being targeted by radical militants who also have forced almost all women hairdressers to close down their businesses. They have to be escorted on every errand they run if they are going out after sunset."

The risk is so high in some parts of Baghdad that some families have prevented their daughters from going to school at all. "I asked my sisters to study at home and to only go to school to sit for the exams. And when it is exam time, an armed group of friends and I accompany them to secure the school while they take their exams. This would never have happened under Saddam," said an Iraqi escort.

And it is not just women who are subject to excessive threats. Today, doctors too are prime targets in Baghdad. One physician told the Weekly that since the beginning of the US invasion 30 doctor friends had died in unexplainable circumstances. They would just be shot at the entrance of their houses, in their cars or near universities. "Some of our best doctors are killed and many others have fled to Jordan. Now if someone wants to get good medical attention from their Iraqi doctors they need to go to their new clinics in the Jordanian capital, Amman," one Iraqi doctor said.

This doctor added that under Saddam if one stayed away from politics one had a good chance of being spared from the dictator's wrath, but today "one has to be willing to approve of everything the Americans want to do to the country so as to be spared." This physician added that doctors of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds were targeted; and so were scientists especially physicists and chemists. The same goes for industrial engineers. "The Americans want to deprive Iraq of its wealth of scientists; they want to liquidate the one good thing that Saddam has done: his investment in high-calibre human resources."

Other Iraqis who spoke to the Weekly in Baghdad this week recalled similar stories of American attempts to deprive Iraq of its scientific minds and wealth. They offered accounts of schools of physics and chemistry being robbed of their rare books and expensive laboratory equipment. Others said that entire schools of science were burnt down and rebuilt with elegant interiors but without sophisticated laboratories. There were also stories of factories dismantled or burnt down. Members of the Iraqi government say these stories are exaggerated but they do not say they are completely false.

Protection for the few remaining high-calibre Iraqi physicians and scientists is one thing that some Iraqis hoped the reconciliation conference proposed by Arab League Secretary- General Moussa during his visit to Iraq this week would address. Otherwise, there are serious fears that more will either flee the country or be liquidated.

According to the assessment of the few Baghdad residents open to speaking to the Weekly, it is not just physicians and scientists who have been escaping the Iraqi capital. "All those who have the means are out of the country. They went to Syria and Jordan or to Europe. Some even went to relatives who have been in the US, to escape the rule and wrath of Saddam," said one Iraqi security officer. He added that those with limited financial resources have tried to go to relatives living in other parts of the country. "I do not have accurate figures, but I can safely say that the volume of the inhabitants of Baghdad has dramatically decreased during the past three years." Numerous signs of "For rent or sale" which can be spotted on the fa├žades of houses along every single street that the motorcade of Moussa cut through were testimony enough of the veracity of such assessments.

"When the war started there was heavy bombardment. We stuck to the city hoping that once the war was over things would somehow get better. Today, the war does not seem to be really coming to an end, and our capital is terrifying, even if it might seem safe at times," the Iraqi security officer lamented. This security officer does not reveal the nature of his job to his neighbours. "I tell them I am trading with exported goods. If it is known that I am a security officer I could be killed by militants or my family targeted."

While his work is by mandate coordinated with and linked to the US forces in Baghdad, this officer and many of his colleagues dislike, or simply hate, the Americans. "I hated Saddam but I hate the Americans more," said one member of the Iraqi Special Forces. "Our government say they are not occupation forces but I am telling you -- and I know because I work with them -- that they act like true occupation forces and everything they say about preparing the Iraqi army and police to replace them is simply dishonest; they are so weak, so they want to hide behind us, but they do not want to go. They are just afraid. At least Saddam was a man and he was never afraid of anyone -- not even the Americans."

This and other officers who spoke to the Weekly complained that the US soldiers use advanced weapons to which Iraqis have no access. "They treat us like a second class and our government tolerates this. This explains why there are so many militant groups who fight the Americans." The battle waged from the other side requires collecting and providing information to US generals in Iraq about potential Iraqi targets. This is something that many Iraqi officers, according to those who spoke to the Weekly, find morally wrong -- or at least perplexing.
"I do not provide information, arrest or kill any Iraqi except if I know for fact that he is a thug. There are thugs who make a living off kidnapping and killing people on behalf of foreign countries," one officer said. This officer, who is in his early 20s, is not hopeful that the Americans will get out of Iraq even before he turns 70. "They are here to control the oil, water resources and the people. They will never get out," he said.

Blaming Saddam for the sad destiny of his capital and, as he said, of himself, is what this officer does. "Saddam was fooled by Donald Rumsfeld to get into a war with Iran that took eight years and drained so many of our resources that we could not complete building an underground metro that he initiated in 1980. He was then fooled by the American ambassador to invade Kuwait. Once he was of no use to the Americans he was toppled and they came to occupy the country. But it is us, Iraqis, who have been losing all along."

Like other Iraqis speaking to the Weekly in Baghdad, this 24-year-old said he did not know what to feel when he saw Saddam addressing the prosecuting judge on TV on the opening day of the war crimes trial last week. "I know that he did horrible things. I know that he killed so many Kurds. I know that he was mad and evil. However, I believe that despite all the horrible things about Saddam he was the lesser of two evils compared to the Americans."

He added, "the American officers tell us that had it not been for them we would never have gotten rid of Saddam. This is probably true. But now how will we get rid of the Americans?"

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