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Ethnic powerbroking, warlords and corruption in Afghanistan’s ‘fairly democratic’ 2004 presidential election


After three years in power, Hamid Karzai – or his Western sponsors – decided it was time that Afghans should have the chance to directly elect him, or an alternative of their choice. Although they were the majority of the population, women’s voices were not really heard in the campaign. Outspoken candidates and activists faced death threats and other intimidation. And the real decisions were made in traditional Afghan power-broking, usually along ethnic lines, away from the few elections rallies and media debates. And, of course, there were widespread accusations of corruption and dirty tricks on polling day.

A soldier and a civilian show they’ve voted on polling day 2004 Photo: Tony Cross

Kabul, Loghar, Panjshir Valley 3.10.04 – 12.10.04.

A huge image of Ahmed Shah Masood looks out from the front of  Kabul airport.

The Mojahedin leader’s assassination just before the fall of the Taliban has made his portrait an icon for post-Taliban Afghanistan and helped legitimise the political influence of those who fought at his side, first against the Russians and then against the Taliban.

Two almost simultaneous flights arrived from Dubai this morning. One was run by the state-owned Ariana, the other, which we were on, by Kam Air, an airline apparently run by an Iranian businessman reported to be a friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Uzbek warlord (and presidential candidate) Abdel Rashid Dostum. A lot of Kam Air’s staff speak English with rolling Russian accents.

Along with Afghans in pakools and shalwar kameez, loaded with bundles of scruffily-wrapped, Gulf-bought goods, both planes delivered a troop of journalists arriving to cover the presidential election.

The airport wasn’t even open when I was last here in 2001. We arrived by road and left on a UN light aircraft from Bagram.

There are other changes.

Many more Kabulis seem to have cars now, giving rise to a lot more pollution, at times combining with the ever-present dust to hide the mountains that surround the city. Beggars slip between the cars to solicit drivers or passengers. They’re often children in rags; sometimes they’re adults who’ve lost a limb to a landmine, or some other weapon; some have lost both legs and slide between the vehicles’ wheels on low carts which look like modified skateboards.

In town there are some Western-style shopfronts, a cut-out muscle-man advertising a gym, quite a lot of mobile phone shops. Western civilisation has brought its own places of worship to this devout land – one shopping mall has been built and another one is under construction.

Another innovation is the bulky concrete blocks which jut far out into the street, forming protective walls around US, UN and international security force compounds in anticipation of attacks, particularly against promised disruption during the election period. The armed guards on the gates are a long-standing feature of Afghan life.

I see fewer women on the streets. Immediately after the fall of the Taliban, nearly all women wore the burkah, or chadri as I’m now told it should be called. There were hundreds of women-beggars, asking for charity because their husbands had been killed and they had been banned from working or remarrying (this last still applies).

Now I see few women, except on the markets. Many of those I do see are totally covered, others just wearing headscarves.  A new habit has appeared of hitching up the front of the chadri onto the top of one’s head to allow conversation or freer movement. It seems to contradict the point of the thing. A local paper interviews girls who are regularly abused because they don’t cover their hair sufficiently.

Women civil servants count the votes Photo: Tony Cross

Soraya Parlika has changed. She now wears a smart green suit and has a stylish haircut. She receives us in the headquarters of the All-Afghan Women’s Association in central Kabul. In 2001, she met a stream of Western journalists at her home. There are no other journalists here today.

We were all interested in her then because she had stayed in Afghanistan under the Taliban, hiding in safe-houses, had spoken up for women’s rights under the mojaheddin rule of the early 1990s and had been jailed under the pro-Soviet régime, despite a family history intimately linked with that of  the Afghan Communist Party.

She’s not standing in the presidential election and now the news-media are queueing to talk to the one woman candidate, Masooda Jalal.

Parlika says that, after the experience of the loya jirga when 10 women, including her, stood for vice-president, she isn’t running in this race so as not to split the women’s vote.

“They did name a woman as vice-president of the loya jirga but that was a symbolic gesture and I don’t accept gestures.”

She refrains from directly criticising Jalal. “Maybe she wants to represent the interests of Afghan women,” she says – but she adds that there is little serious difference between the 18 candidates.

When asked if women will participate in the election, she says that, although it’s an advance that they have the vote, many will just follow their husbands’ orders.

In any case the election was rushed and “we don’t have much time to change people’s mentalities before the election”.

And that’s a big job, starting with the incumbent president.

“I think it’s clear that Mr Karzai will win and he hasn’t said a word about women. How can you change his mentality?

“At the same time, for the future we have to work, not in the towns but in the rural areas, with men and women, to talk about the importance of women participating in society. But we need a lot of time for that and this election has been organised very quickly. Some people don’t even know what an election is and why it’s important.”

As dusk falls and the call for prayer echoes in the little garden below the window, Parlika tells us that the centre in which we’re sitting has been attacked nine times in the last 10 months and that she herself has been attacked four times.


The world’s press is nearly coming to blows for the chance to interview Masooda Jalal, in the groundfloor flat which is serving as her headquarters.

It takes a long wait and a lot of wielding of elbows to get to see her. As we talk to her, a TV cameraman bursts into the room and films the proceedings.

Jalal’s replies seem well-rehearsed, if rather evasive. Like all the other candidates, she promises to tackle corruption and put “professionals” into key posts, although what professions they should hold is never specified. Like the other candidates, she avoids mentioning warlordism and the soaring production of opium.

She also avoids any specific mention of women, until asked.

A male candidate, Abdul Latif Pedram, nearly got himself disbarred for blasphemy for saying that women should have the right to divorce and that maybe polygamy should be banned.

Why hasn’t she raised these questions?

“I raised it (sic) in emergency loya jirga,” she replies. “I put it in my programme and announced as a presidential candidate: I said that, if I get the success, the women of Afghanistan will participate in the leadership of Afghanistan, in decision-making power, equally to men and the women will be participating in designing national strategies and country-wide policies equally with men and, equally with men, they will be present and participating in the implementation of foreign policies.”

Jalal manages to keep a straight face as she assures us that she will win, if no-one tampers with the election result.

“I am welcomed by Afghanistan people with flowers, not with rockets. No security problem I have. I have gone into the hearts of people; they like me.”

She claims to have had no threats of violence and says that she travels without bodyguards.

Why is her experience so different to that of activists like Soraya Parlika?

“Well, maybe because she was … well …” Jalal hesitates and says the word interrogatively, if not insinuatingly, “… a Communist? She was a highlighted figure of Communist government in the past. So maybe she has personal problems with other competitor groups, political groups.

“But I’m an impartial person and I’m not a member of any party and I have no enemy in Afghanistan and throughout the world.”

But, despite apparently enjoying a completely unique popularity, Jalal does have critics. Some of them say that she is in fact close to the Panjshir Valley-based Jamaat-e-Islami party. And some say that she was encouraged to stand simply to forestall the complaints that would have come from outside Afghanistan if no woman had entered the presidential race.

It’s estimated that two-thirds of Afghans are women, over 20 years of war having culled the male population. But the weight of tradition is likely to prevent women making use of this numerical advantage.

This is a society so conservative that girls who’ve returned from Iran pine for their lost freedoms. NGOs report that women have been imprisoned for leaving abusive husbands, refusing to marry their parents’ choice of husband and trying to remarry after becoming widows.

Anyone who questions these practices can expect virulent opposition in high places, as Latif Pedram found out.

A television appearance in which he questioned the justice of polygamy and the ban on women divorcing without their husbands’ permission apparently caused a storm of protest. That’s according to the Supreme Court, at least, which went on to accuse him of blasphemy and try to get him struck off the ballot-paper for challenging the Islamic republic’s sharia law.

The bid was unsuccessful. Pedram is still standing. But he accuses his rivals, and notably the Karzai camp, of sabotaging his campaign, attacking him and his co-workers while he travelled the country in search of votes and even of tying to kidnap him.

Pedram is a tall, courteous man, whose campaign posters break with current international practice in making him look considerably less handsome than he is in real life. He has had a chequered career, ranging from poetry to politics, from Maoism to working with Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood.

He lived in France for some time and picked up faltering French to go with his faltering English.

His programme opposes “needless and unbridled privatisation” of assets such as banks, roads and railways, calls for free education for all, a campaign against narcotics and laws to stop violence against women and children. He has attracted some support among young voters with a proposal for a ministry for youth. He also advocates non-alignment. Even though the manifesto makes the mandatory promise to work with the “the world community … against all forms of terrorism and extremism” and accepts that capital and free markets are “an undeniable reality”, one guesses that Pedram is not Washington’s favourite candidate.

He shrugs off the pressures that he’s come under.

“A woman is working, when she comes home, she is under the orders of her husband, her husband can hit her because she doesn’t have full rights. That’s why I accept this risk.”

But the profound conservatism of Afghan society, especially on the status of women, brought down one reforming king and played a major role in bringing down the pro-Soviet régimes.

Pedram accepts this and that his support-base, mainly urban middle-class youth, is narrow but insists that he’s not running to win but to help create a movement that can work for change.

As we leave, I ask him who sent the bouquets of flowers that lie on shelves behind him. He looks slightly embarrassed and replies: “Supporters, maybe ladies.”

A training session for Fefa election observers Photo: Tony Cross


Akbar Khan, who’s fixer/translator for my French colleague Valérie Rohart, hasn’t registered to vote. “Not while my country’s under occupation,” he says. I’d expected this reaction to be widespread but most Afghans seem keen to take part in their first-ever election by universal suffrage.

That’s certainly true of most of the educated middle class.

Mohamed Nyazi, who has set up a monitoring group called Free and Fair Elections in Afghanistan and pronounces its acronym, Fefa, apparently without even thinking of football, almost blushes as he explains how much he hopes that everything will pass off well.

“We have some difficulties, some problems, because in Afghan society the situation is not good,” he says. “We have economic problems, also. But we’re happy for this election because this is the first election and this is an experience for going to democracy. We will see these problems but we will pass these problems and we hope in Afghanistan there will be free and fair elections in the future.”

Professor Kazeem Ahang, at the journalism faculty of Kabul University, is also enthusiastic, even though he believes that Afghanistan is still largely feudal and that there will be tribal and ethnic pressures on the poll.

He proudly declares that he has registered and seems puzzled that most of his family didn’t bother, on the grounds that the result is a foregone conclusion.

And the professor will probably not exercise his newly acquired right. He’s been invited to visit the US and is desperately trying to find a flight out. If his efforts prove successful, he won’t be here on polling day.

Election workers in the country say that they have some work to do to convince peasants that the whole thing isn’t fixed in advance and that its outcome could affect their lives, but on the streets of Kabul only a minority of people say that they’ve refused to register. Most are proud to have done so and ready to declare their voting preference.

Indeed, as incumbent Hamid Karzai apparently boasted when challenged on the suspiciously high registration figures, many Afghans are so keen to vote that they have registered several times.

No-one knows Afghanistan’s population, war having pushed census-taking off the agenda for many years, but it’s believed to be about 27 million. The UN initially estimated the number of eligible voters at 9.8 million. When registration figures reached 9.9 million they revised that figure to 10.5 million. By the end of the registration process the figures apparently showed pretty much every potential voter had registered.

Only 41.3% of those registered are women, although they form the majority of the population, and diplomats claim that the figure is as low as 5% in some parts of the south, where prejudice and insecurity have militated against female participation. The same diplomats say that Hazara women in the north were at first forbidden by local leaders to register but then changed the men’s minds on the grounds that the Hazaras would be outvoted by other ethnic groups if they didn’t.

So the figures look dicey, an impression confirmed by American journalist Christian Parenti, who has managed to buy two polling cards, although how he would convince a polling official that he’s Afghan is unclear.

A traditonal Afghan compound on the road between Kabul and Loghar Photo: Tony Cross

There are signs of reconstruction as you leave Kabul going south. Long stretches of timber-yards seem to be doing business supplying, among other things, scaffolding. There are some large and vulgarly decorated houses just built or under construction. But vast areas of the city, perhaps most of it, have yet to be rebuilt; whole stretches lie in bombed-out ruins and others seem to have always been shabby and down-at-heel.

On the road to Loghar province, you soon pass into semi-desert, with occasional bursts of cultivated land. Stretches of land are pitted with little flags, which signify the presence of landmines. A mine-clearing team is working in one large field.

And there are miles of dust; wasteland dotted with traditional Afghan buildings. Viewed from outside, the architecture is one of the least attractive in the world – a long wall made from mud-bricks faced in brown-grey mud, often with a small tower in one corner and buildings in another. The building material is fragile, which is unfortunate given the country’s history.

A guard at Mohamed Aslam Masood’s campaign headquarters Photo: Tony Cross

Behind the walls, these houses are more pleasant. There’s usually a garden, although its plants are all tinted grey by the ubiquitous dust, and the one-storey homes have windows which let in plenty of light and sprawl to accommodate an extended family.

In such a building, protected by armed guards, we find Mohamed Aslam Masood, lounging in a corner of a bright living room, receiving the heads of villages stuck out in the wilds of Loghar.

He’s been sent here to represent the Karzai campaign and seems confident that he has the province sewn up.

“Here we have people from all over our province, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek. We are all like brothers,” he declares, as mobiles trill, their rings ranging from music to birdsong. I cannot see the distinctive features of an Uzbek among the dozens of people in the building.

Six election workers have been killed in the province during the campaign, some UN vehicles have been blown up by landmines and gunmen have shot at registration centres, but Masood assures us that everything is running smoothly here.

The villagers ask if the campaign will provide transport to ferry voters to the election centres. There are only 25,000 centres spread out across this sprawling, mountainous country, necessitating a long and difficult journey for many voters.

The answer is no, the president’s campaign doesn’t have enough money for that and they must find their own transport. The villagers receive this information with remarkably good cheer.

Faisal Olek Mujadad makes his entrance Photo: Tony Cross

There’s a respectful buzz and everybody gets to their feet, as a huge man, dressed in grey from his turban to his well-used shoes, enters the room. His authority over everyone here is almost tangible but he wears it casually, smiling and shaking hands with joviality. He’s introduced – Faisal Olek Mujadady, the former governor and former mojahedin commandant of the region.

He says that he has given up the gun, having resigned from the army three days ago, and clearly has a career in some other branch of public service lined up.

As the commandant merrily assures us that the province will vote Karzai – “after 25 years of problems, we’ve had two years of peace and brotherhood” – a younger man, bearded and fresh-faced and dressed in white, enters and takes a seat.

This is mullah Ghulam Rassool.

“Mullah dangerous, mullah Taleb,” the commandant says in English and grins. The cleric giggles.

His links with the former Taliban régime haven’t prevented the mullah being given responsibility for the Karzai campaign’s publicity in Loghar.

Indeed they might have helped. He says that the province’s religious leaders sent him to see the president to negotiate the price of their support. It included a commitment to build several madrassas here, to stamp out “prostitution”, which they claim is rife, and to gain the release of Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The mullah is pleased because two prisoners have already been freed, one of them being the former Taliban minister of frontiers, Naim Kuchi.

Mullah Rassool seems to be one of the “moderate Taliban” with whom Karzai has been discussing. One suspects that the definition of the much-abused adjective in this case is “ready to deal with the president”.

The mullah’s puritanical politics don’t prevent him talking to Valérie or being a rather jolly fellow. He giggles when pressed to give a straight answer to a question and when interrupted by the commandant for perhaps being a little too nostalgic when asked how the current state of affairs compares to the previous régime.

“To start with the Taliban government was not bad,” runs the acceptable version. “But afterwards foreign governments came and interfered in our country and terrorism took place.”

The reference to foreign countries presumably indicates Pakistan but, considering that its security services, the ISI, virtually created the Taliban, it’s not clear when “afterwards” began.

When Valérie asks the mullah if he received money from the Karzai camp, the commandant interrupts: “You see, she understands that for the mullahs everything’s a matter of money!”

The mullah giggles again and everyone present feels free to laugh – once the commandant has cast the first disrespectful aspersion.

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Drivers of the highly decorated lorries that travel between Pakistan and Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

At a crossroads down the road, villagers seem to confirm Masood’s confident assessment. The occupant of a van sent from Kabul to hand out Masooda Jalal posters claims to be doing well but everybody who’s ready to reveal their voting intention says that they will vote for Karzai.

Isah Gul is typical.

“I will vote for Karzai because he is a Pashtun and a good person,” he says.

Why are Karzai’s ethnic origins important?

“Because I’m a Pashtun, I will vote for a Pashtun.”

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The road to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

The Panjshir Valley is different.

The drive from Kabul takes several hours, along a good road through the Shomali plains, once the garden of Afghanistan, now largely reduced to a dustbowl, and up into the mountains where the road deteriorates.

As you approach the valley the road improves again and the landscape changes. Jagged rocks from steel-grey mountains tumble into a shallow, green river which races along beside the road. You pass by orchards, climb up a mountain to look past twisted war-wreckage down onto cultivated fields; in one two cows lock horns as a herdsman looks on.

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Welcome to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

The entrance to Panjshir, which was recently declared a province, is effectively a frontier-post. Visitors must stop at a gate made from scaffolding sanctified by a massive billboard of the region’s most famous son, Ahmed Shah Masood, to be checked by armed guards. A decorative tank-shell greets you once you have passed through the checkpoint.

Abandoned ordnance on the road to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

On the way we passed a collection of dilapidated tanks and other heavy weapons lying about on a dusty plateau, the fruit of the disarmament programme which involved buying the various factions’ arms off them.

Just down the road from the frontier, we pass another collection of heavy weaponry, ageing but in better condition and lined up neatly between some buildings under construction and a board explaining that these structures are a gift from the people of Japan.

As I reach for my camera, Akbar says: “Don’t take photos!”.

It could land us in trouble. These weapons are supposed to have been handed back, too, he says.

Panjshir Valley villagers Photo: Tony Cross

The small town of Roha is the home-town of Hamid Karzai’s chief rival, Yunus Qanooni, we’re told. He’s a Tajik and one of the leaders of the Panjshir-based faction of the Northern Alliance, who accumulated enormous power after 2001, exploiting the reputation of Ahmed Shah Masood, their record of resistance to the Russians and Taliban and, above all, the weapons and fighting-men which they brought with them to Kabul to take control of the new government’s key ministries.

Qanooni himself became minister of education, not as crucial  a post as that taken by fellow Northern Alliance chief, Mohamed Fahim, who grabbed defence, while keeping his own militias in reserve. But Karzai seems to have manoeuvred Fahim out of the election calculations, while Qanooni is relying on the Tajik vote to provide a power-base during and after the vote.

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A Panjshir Valley shopkeeper and hiss friend show their loyalty to Ahmed Shah Masood Photo: Tony Cross

Small shops made of wood or converted goods containers line the road, a partridge in a cage often standing in front of displays of cheap goods. Qanooni’s poster is on display in many of them – but so is that of another Tajik candidate, Abdul Hafeez Mansoor, who is playing the ethnic card more blatantly.

As in other rural areas, many inhabitants are strangely reticent about their voting intentions.

“I will vote for the person who fulfils my conditions. He must be a Muslim and an Afghan and must defend our country,” says one man who is pushed to the front of the crowd. These supposedly personal demands are voiced with surprising regularity, leading one to suspect that the speaker has heard them at the local mosque, rather than from listening to the voice of his own reason.

Some of the younger men say that they will vote for Qanooni, “… he’s a Muslim, he was a mojahed, he’s a good person”. Older men explain that they will wait for the shura, the exclusively male meeting of village leaders, to declare its voting preference.

A young man is introduced as Barayolai, a mojahed.

What are you doing now? I ask.

“Now I’m still a mojahed,” he says and lets out a wheezing laugh.

Taken aback, I ask whom he’s fighting now.

“If anyone comes, like al Qaeda, like foreigners, we’ll gladly fight them.”

Is there a risk of that?

“Yes, for sure. Why not?”

But when asked if he has fought any al Qaeda, Baroyalai says that they daren’t come into the area.

His candidate of choice is Qanooni.

A tank serves a peaceful purpose by Ahmed Shah Masood’s mausoleum Photo: Tony Cross

On a ridge sticking out into the valley, surrounded by bare mountains with a view into the fertile area below is a disused tank, stripped of its paint, its barrel pointing into the air, shirts drying on its body.

They belong to a small group – a gardener, a stallkeeper, guards – who make their living at the tomb of Ahmed Shah Masood, whose dark green, plastic-looking roof shines in the sun against the bare, hard creases of the mountains.

Inside, his grave is decorated with dark cloth, gold and silver coloured streamers and Arabic inscriptions. Two men come in and kneel to pay their respects.

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Ahmed Shah Masood’s tomb Photo: Tony Cross

The chief guard on duty, Mekhuer Ahmad, is a man in his 30s, fair for an Afghan and blue-eyed, dressed in battle fatigues but quietly spoken. He was a guard for the guerrilla leader and believes that everything would be better if he was still alive.

“He was completely opposed to the Americans, so if Ahmed Shah Masood was alive there would not be American soldiers in Afghanistan.”

He says that he has nothing against the international force, Isaf, but has nothing but contempt for the Americans.

“The Afghanistan people hate them,” he says and goes on to blame the US for conflicts all over the world, although the only example he actually names is Palestine.


Mekhuer Ahmad has a low opinion of President Karzai, too.

“In the beginning we offered to be his bodyguard. But now he has taken on foreigners,” he says, and indeed at yesterday’s Karzai rally in Kabul, security during the three and a half hour wait for the president was assured by a group with pistols on their hips and machine-guns in their hands, whose spokesperson was an elegantly-coiffed American blonde and whose personnel was largely made up of pink-skinned men with shades and goatee beards.

Ahmad accuses Karzai of being pro-Pashtun rather than pro-Afghan and says that he wants a president with the interests of the whole country at heart. He, too, seems to favour Yunus Qanooni.

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Traditional dance at Hamid Karzai’s election rally in Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Pulling into Kabul after dark, we have to stop alongside the lines of lorries that have been banned from entering the city for the week before polling, for fear of a repetition of last week’s lorry bomb.

The vote takes place in less than 36 hours and many people registered in Kabul are coming into the city, while others, registered elsewhere, are leaving. Another sign of concern over security – armed police check each car, opening all the doors, checking out the passengers and looking under their legs and behind them for weapons and explosives. It’s not ultra-thorough but it’s methodical enough to cause a traffic-jam which seems to be accepted with reasonably good humour by drivers and passengers.

A bridge over the Kabul river Photo: Tony Cross

The solidity of Stalinist architecture didn’t prevent the former Soviet Cultural Mission, which is behind the former Soviet embassy, from being shelled into a wreck of concrete, metal and dark holes where rooms used to be.

It wasn’t reduced to this condition during the war to drive out the Russians but after it, when the liberators fought it out among themselves. The artillery of Abdel Rashid Dostum fired from mountains on one side of Kabul and the artillery of Ahmed Shah Masood fired from mountains on the other side, many shells falling short and destroying liberated buildings or killing liberated Kabulis.

A few kids hang around outside the destroyed building, along with a grey-bearded man, who says that his name is Abdul Hafar and that he is a refugee returned from Pakistan. He takes us through a hole in the wall into what must once have been the cultural centre’s garden.

On the left of the gap through which we climbed are toilets hammered together out of wood and UN High Commission for Refugees plastic covering. On the right is a tent, the ground covered in cheap carpets, clothes and cushions neatly piled to one side, which has served as home to Abdel Hafar and six relatives for the last two and a half years.

Children with scars from infections on their faces stare at us, other men gather round and women come out of homes set up inside the dilapidated building to hang their washing in the polluted air.

Abdul Hafar says that he fled to Pakistan during the war, after helicopters of “the enemies of Afghanistan” shot up his home.

Was it worth fighting that war? I ask.

His answer is equivocal.

“The situation is better than in Taliban times. For a year we’ve had peace in Afghanistan. But I’m not sure that it will last because we had war for 25 years. The new generation has grown up in a country at war so everyone has mental problems, no-one is used to peace.”

As he speaks, the throbbing of military helicopters passes overhead.

One wouldn’t have thought it possible to live in the flattened streets around the ex-embassy. But, in a site where just a few shards of building are left standing, some families have rigged up tarpaulins and plastic sheets to make their homes.

Gul Haidar has lived here for seven months. Under the Taliban his father was arrested after neighbours claimed that he had a weapon in his home. He was released but, following a tip-off that they were coming for him a second time, the family fled to Pakistan. His father lives in this ruin with the rest of the family now and Gul Haidar tries to scrape a living as a street-hawker.

Is life easier here or in Pakistan?

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Buildings creep up the side of the mountains around Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

“It is the same for us. It is hard here and it was hard in Pakistan.”

Gul Haidar, who originally came from the Panjshir Valley, says that he will vote for Yunus Qanooni.

There’s another refugee camp right by the vast football field which stretches out in front of Kabul stadium, where Karzai held his election rally and where, a few years ago, the Taliban carried out public executions. Some government buildings are nearby.

Here tents have been pitched in neat lines or stretched over half-destroyed buildings. Detached lorry cabs and other twisted war-wreckage stand in the midst of the dwellings. A cobbler sits at the side of the road with a group of men around him.

We’re not the first visitors, it seems.

“For the last three years, lots of journalists and people from the UN or the Afghan government have come here,” says Ismail Khan, who introduces himself as the camp’s agent. “They interview us but they don’t help us.”

He supports Karzai, whom he credits with bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan but he believes that the refugees have been neglected by the government.

“I think he wants to bring unity to Afghanistan, too. But ministers drive by every day. They see us but they do nothing for us.  What have we done wrong? Our children get no education. When they’re older, they’ll disturb the country. We don’t want this kind of life.”

Another man, Mir Ahmed, has been here two years, since returning from Afghanistan.

“We came back because we saw that there was peace.” Then, like most of the refugees we talk to, he adds: “We were refugees in Pakistan; now we are refugees in Afghanistan.”

Most of the men here say they will vote for Karzai. But, when a van from the Qanooni campaign pulls up and starts distributing posters, the political debate steps up a notch. People start grumbling about ministers who have “built themselves six houses and done nothing for us”.

A man with one leg, one of the tens of thousands of Afghans handicapped in the decades of war, limps up to our taxi as we leave. Earlier he wouldn’t say anything but now there’s no stopping him.

“At the beginning of the transitional government Karzai said he was going to pay 3,000 afghani per month to the handicapped,” he yells. “Now he’s going to pay 300 afghani. What can we do with that?

“These ministers coming back from abroad have salaries of 50,000 or 80,000 per month. If Karzai can give that to his ministers, why is there no money for the poor?”

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Men queue to vote on polling day in Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

The next day is polling day. It’s a freakishly grim day, unusually cold for the time of year, the sky a gloomy sort of yellow-grey. At 7.30am the streets are eerily quiet. A public holiday has been declared, so no-one’s rushing to work. Traffic has been banned, except for Kabul-registered taxis. As we climb into one, my interpreter, Jamshid, who has already taken a taxi to meet me, says that the driver asked him:

“You know why it’s like this today?”


“Last night one of the candidates made a deal to sell Afghanistan to foreigners. Allah is angry.”

There’s already a long queue at the mosque in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, which today serves as a polling centre. Men tell us that they’re delighted to vote. A smaller queue of women forms at a side-building where they can lift their chadris in private and be checked against their polling cards.

But, as we leave, we’re stopped by an excited group of off-duty soldiers. They thrust their thumbs towards us and shout something.

“Look, we voted half an hour ago and already the ink has washed off.”

It’s true that their hands show no sign of the ink-mark that is supposed to stop multiple-voting.

They proffer their voting-cards which have been stamped.

We stop an Uzbek man coming out of the mosque and get him to rub his thumb with spit. The mark starts to go, although it doesn’t vanish altogether.

At other polling stations the queues are equally long and the enthusiasm as great – one man is carried out of the centre by two friends; despite their help, he’s short of breath, but he pants out an explanation, that he and his wife have flown in from the USA just to vote, he fell ill on the plane and wouldn’t allow that to stop him taking part. But the report of the fading ink has begun to spread. It’s happened at many centres in Kabul and, it seems, throughout the country. Angry men claim that this is a plot to allow people with several voting cards to use them all.

All the candidates, apart from Karzai, leap on this opportunity to demand that the poll be called off. They or their representatives gather at the house of Satar Sheerat, an intellectual who is standing although without much hope of massive support. Apart from Karzai only Masooda Jalal is unrepresented. From her headquarters, she declares that she’s boycotting the poll but won’t have anything to do with her competitors for second, third or whatever position.

A mob of journalists gathers in the garden, as UN representative Manuel da Silva and EU envoy Francesc Vendrell come and go. Da Silva declares that the Joint Electoral Monitoring Board won’t call off the vote and the candidates continue their meeting. The press’s impatience grows and for a moment it looks as if the first casualties of the day will be from our ranks or those of the security guards who are obliged to use physical force, but happily not their weapons, to prevent us storming into the meeting room.

Finally, Sheerat and some of his temporary allies appear on the patio to read a declaration. They detail a number of minor complaints, such as Pakistanis allegedly posing as Afghans at one polling station, and claim that the ink crisis makes the poll untenable. They call for a boycott, although most of the morning is already over and it’s difficult to see how they can communicate the order to their supporters throughout the country.

In the middle of a little clump of reporters, one candidate, Amayan Shah Asufi, launches into a bitter attack on the probable winner.

“The drug-traffickers have an interest in the election of Karzai, because he’s a weak personality and his authority doesn’t go beyond Kabul city,” he says.

Asufi claims that some government ministers and some provincial governors are “directly involved in drug-smuggling” and that drug-money has been used to reelect Karzai.

While the candidates insinuate that this is all fraud by the Karzai camp, the fault seems to lie with UN trainers. Ill-prepared election officials have used ink that was supposed to stamp polling-cards to stamp hands, others have failed to shake before use, others just haven’t made sure that the ink is properly applied.

Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid, perhaps the best-known authority on the region, strikes an I-told-you-so note – he blames the cock-up on the unholy rush to hold this election before the country was ready for it.

“It should have been postponed one or two years,” he says.

The excitement caused by this bungling obscures the fact that the day goes off with no apparent violence in Kabul.

Véronique Rebeyrotte of France Culture and Valérie Rohart of RFI on the way to the vote count with the ruins of the former royal palace in the background Photo: Tony Cross


The day before polling day rockets were fired on the city from the mountains overlooking it but no-one was injured. Harassment of election-workers during the campaign was more serious, with about 30 of them being murdered.

But the Taliban have failed to carry out their threats, posted in “night letters” on mosque walls, to attack every one of the candidates, to punish villagers taking part in the vote and to disrupt the poll itself.

There are relatively few reports of violence on polling day: we hear of rockets killing three children in Helmand province and hitting two polling stations before voting began, of about 32 people, government forces and guerrillas, being killed in fighting in the south and of two attempts at suicide-bombings being foiled in Kandahar province.

Vickram Parekh, an analyst at the International Crisis Group’s modest office in Kabul, believes that the Karzai government has isolated the die-hards by negotiating with so-called “moderates”, while convincing the Pakistani army to finally put aside any sentimental or tactical attachment to their former proxies and hit them hard in the tribal areas along the frontier. The Pakistanis perhaps also had their own reasons for ending the no-go zone in these provinces, which has lasted since the British Raj, in the context of sectarian and religious violence in cities like Karachi and has even threatened the life of President Pervez Musharraf.

The Taliban also seem to have lost a lot of sympathy among the population, even in the Pashtun areas which were their power-base when the movement began.

The politicians’ anger over yesterday’s malfunctions isn’t shared by most people on Kabul’s central market. Hardly any of them want a rerun and most believe Karzai will be reelected.

Relief at the lack of disruption predominates at the press conferences called by election observers.

Fefa outlines a number of abuses and calls for a mechanism to be set up to look into the candidates’ complaints but  says that the “ink problem” was solved in most places by 9.00am, thanks to the work of UN officials.

Fefa also notes a violation of a ban on campaigning on the day by supporters of Hamid Karzai in Gardez, Yunus Qanooni in Jalalabad and Masooda Jalal in Herat.

The organisation’s observers seem to have been made unwelcome at polling stations in refugee camps in Pakistan, where there were 1.5 million potential voters. They were prevented from entering some voting centres. In others their IDs were taken, or documents to help their work were torn up or they were taken out of the centres as the ballot boxes were sealed, which might give rise to some suspicion.

But, Fefa president Mohamed Nyazi regards these problems as minor ones and declares the election “fairly democratic”.

International observers seem to be even more ready to judge the abuses of secondary importance.

The Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative Robert Barry says that in some areas observers and agents were not allowed to enter polling stations; responding to claims that election officials sometimes went into the booths with voters to tell them how to vote, he says that they were urging but not forcing the electors to vote a certain way.

But the OSCE still declares that nullifying the election would “put into question the expressed will of millions of Afghan citizens who came out to vote, carried out voter registration and manned polling stations despite great personal risk”.

Barry does admit that there could still be problems.

“There’s a famous quote by Joseph Stalin that says: ‘It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes.’ So we have to wait for the count to be complete before we make an overall assessment.”

The judgement seems to have been made, however.

Organisers know that a rerun would be practically impossible because of the oncoming winter, which will render much of the country inaccessible, never mind tricky questions like how it would be paid for, whether election workers would have the stamina to go through it all again or whether the population would be ready to turn out to vote again.

Nobody’s even mentioning the possibility of a second round which, according to the rules, has to take place if the leading candidate gets less than 50%. One gets the impression that this didn’t enter into the pre-poll calculations, it being assumed from the start that Karzai would clear that barrier in the first round.

And, of course, there are international considerations. Karzai is Washington’s man. The Bush administration doesn’t want a failure before the US presidentials, nor does it want to further discredit its plans for an election in Iraq in January.  The other power-brokers seem ready to tolerate a certain amount of bungling and jiggery-pokery in the hope that some semblance of stability will follow.

Many election observers seem genuinely concerned not to pour cold water on the enthusiasm of voters who did turn out, even if some of them turned out more times than they were entitled to.

But what about those votes which were cancelled out by the double or treble votes of the multiply registered, or the stuffed ballot boxes, or the intimidation by local armed leaders?

In many other countries these practices would have been declared impermissible. What is the acceptable level of malfunction or fraud and how does it vary between countries?

Outside Kabul stadium before Hamid Karzai’s election rally Photo: Tony Cross

At first glance, the Afghans have had an American-style presidential election, minus the electoral college, fortunately, and the international consensus now seems to be that this is real democracy. Thus Jack Straw, the foreign minister of a country which doesn’t elect its head of state, was second only to George Bush in congratulating Afghans on electing theirs.

But is the Western way the only way? If Afghanistan developed its own form of democracy without outside instructions, would it be in the way agreed in the post-invasion conference at Bonn?

Isn’t it possible to adapt the shura and the jirga, most obviously by the participation of women, to provide an expression of the interests and will of the majority of the population?

In any case, the real campaigning  wasn’t public debates and election rallies, which the candidates reluctantly got round to holding in the last couple of days, it was deals with warlords, provincial bosses, former Taliban and religious leaders, whose decisions on whom to support filtered down to tribal elders and village shuras.

Probably only one candidate stood with the expectation of winning. The other big players hoped to gain enough support to be strongly placed for the after-poll carve-up, usually by becoming the de-facto representative of an ethnic group and/or a region.

So traditional habits live on and will continue to do so. Afghans have chosen their president by universal suffrage but armed militias, corruption, ethnic and regional factionalism and deal-fixing behind the backs of the people continue to flourish, like the opium poppies that Karzai has promised the West to uproot.


Iraq 2003: Families search for Saddam’s victims


This piece was left out of my previous post on Iraq 2003. A strange and heartbreaking feature of the fall of Saddam Hussein was the hundreds of relatives of his victims who were searching for their loved ones, chasing any rumour that gave hope that they light be alive.

The former military barracks near Radwanir is now a field of rubble with just two buildings in a far corner of the compound left standing. There’s nothing left of the gardens which were apparently laid out so that Saddam Hussein and his family could relax under the required security conditions.

But there are people here. A small group of men and women stand in the midst of the devastation, some of them trying to dig into the concrete-strewn ground.

One of them, a sturdily-built middle-aged man with a care-worn face, explains that they are trying to find relatives and friends who disappeared under Saddam’s rule. Like most Iraqis, they believe that the régime built hidden prisons and they’re convinced that their loved ones are down there, waiting to be saved or waiting to die.

“No food, no water … how will they live?’ cries one, plaitively.

Another man insists that four months ago he brought food for his brother with the help of a friendly official and that he saw prisoners here.

A black-clad woman says that her two sons were taken away in 1982 and that she hasn’t seen them since. A weeping man says that Ba’ath party members took his two sons for questioning, promising that they would soon return. That was over 20 years ago.

Why were they taken?

“For religious reasons.”

Are you Shia ?

“Yes, Shia.”

We drive over to another crowd, gathered by one of the buildings that’s still standing. A notebook found on the floor lists the names of soldiers who were posted here. Men take us down a dark corridor with small cells off it. They’re just a few metres square, with no windows. There’s a round window at the end of the corridor behind a door, which hides a toilet and two more cells. A man taps some stone on the floor and an echo rings through the empty space beneath. But there are no voices.

“Please help us. Will you help us?” says one plaintively as we leave.

A few days later a crowd of several hundred fills an underpass in the city centre. Excited men swear that they have heard voicers, as did the searchers at Radwanir, and, also like them, they claim that some of the voices had Kuwaiti accents. Kuwait has sent a delegation to enquire about its citizens who went missing after the 1990 Iraqi invasion.

I fail to hear voices at the places where they’re supposed to have been head, although that could just be because of the surrounding animation

For all the evident emotion, few people seem to be actually digging or seeking help but after a while an ambulance and then a police car arrive.

At one point the crowd gets extremely excited and people claim that a prisoner has been found. An Indonesian TV crew say that they filmed a man crawling out of one of the tunnels. Later it becomes clear that he had just gone down to look for the alleged prisoners and that, once again, no-one has been freed.

The name of the underpass is Liberation Tunnel.


Looting, firefights, occupation … Eyewitness in Baghdad 2003 after Saddam


Saddam  loyalists fought US troops at the foot of our hotel one night, local people pleaded for food, water and medicines Shia pilgrims turned out in their thousands in the holy city of Kerbala, this was the Iraq I saw in 2003. I wrote this account on my return to Europe, in Venice, where many residents had hung flags calling for “Pace” from their windows. 

US soldiers on the road between Baghdad and Basra; Photo: Tony Cross

Baghdad, 11 April 2003

The motorway into Baghdad is littered with the of tanks, trucks, buses and artillery, some still in flames. Piles of spent cartridges lie on the tarmac, glistening in the sun like puddles.

Thirty kilometres outside the city, American soldiers told us that they had just arrived to set up a checkpoint and that there was fighting here during the night. A GI with a down homey accent told our convoy of several hundred journalists from around the world not to « haul ass » down this bit of road in case we were taken for the enemy or we ran over some of their men lying on the ground.

Indeed, the fighting seems to be continuing, even though Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party leadership have gone missing. We pull into the city to the sound of shots being fired almost continuously and our way to the city centre is blocked by American tanks.

Some of the shooting is said to be shopkeepers protecting their businesses from looters. Outside a smoking shopping-mall people make off with poor-quality consumer-goods. Ministries and other buildings associated with the state have already been hit. That includes hospitals, universities and schools.

But there is also military resistance to the US’s capture of Baghdad and it continues sporadically for some time, especially at night. Usually, it’s just the exchange of machine-gun fire. These clashes are often between the remnants of the Fedayeen of Saddam and other Iraqis. But sometimes someone attacks the Americans with rockets or mortars and they respond with artillery or send helicopters to bomb buildings which are left to smoke for several days, the fire brigade being one of the public services which is currently not operational.

I arrived in Kabul in similar circumstances in 2001. There was less fighting, less destruction and less chaos. The American military presence was much more discreet, with commanders from the Northern Alliance taking over the minstries within a couple of days.

Baghdad’s Palestine and Sheraton hotels are completely surrounded by US marines, who control the city to the east of the Tigris. The army controls the west side. Barbed wire closes off the hotels from the square where Saddam’s legs remain attached to a plinth, but at a right angle, like gun-barrels aiming at nothing, after being separated from the rest of his statue in front of the world’s TV cameras. On the riverside the marines have parked about a dozen tanks and other armoured vehicles.

The Sheraton is a den of thieves. You must wait all day to see if you can get a room and then pay a $100 bribe to move in. Electricity costs another $50, cleaning a few dollars more. The lifts hardly ever work. For a few days one of the women workers brings in rice and beans and makes evening meals. But she stops after a furious row with the manager in the lobby. It appears that the boss demanded a cut.

In the lobby human-shields mix with soldiers and journalists, sometimes stopping for an argument with representatives of either group. Mysterious Iraqis occupy some of the rooms and never come out. They’re widely believed to be former officials of the old régime.

Many journalists enter into the spirit of the occasion and check out without paying, passing the room-key on to friends or selling it to more casual acquaintances.

After a couple of nights on the sixteenth floor without electricity, I purchase the key to a room in the Palestine, where the lifts work and moral standards are higher.

A couple of days after that, armed Iraqis march into the room of our technician, Manu Pochez, while he’s working. He gives them money and they go away but we decide to evacuate the encampment and find a small hotel in a calm side-street, guarded by two youths with Kalashnikovs, of course.

There are demonstrations every day in the square in front of the hotel. People paste up figures of religious and political leaders or raise banners demanding help finding political prisoners or asking for information about Kuwaiti PoWs.

And there are daily protests against the Americans. They are never more than a few hundred-strong but they get angrier as time goes by and the population remains without many basic needs. The demonstrators’ principal demand is a government made up of Iraqis and chosen by Iraqis.

“In the government I want Iraqi, not American, not British,” one of them yells over the sound of his comrades’ chanting.

Does he think it’s good that Saddam has gone ?

“No. I need Saddam because I want to kill Saddam!”

Although anti-American sentiment here is far more vocal than in Kabul, it doesn’t seem to shake the faith of most of the marines.

Twenty-three-year-old Marine lance-corporal Fernando Ortiz, from Sacramento, California, says that he “strongly agrees” with George Bush.

“I think it’s a good thing that we came in here to liberate Iraq, » he adds. « I talked to a few Iraqis yesterday and some of them said that they didn’t really like us being here. But we liberated them, so I hope they appreciate it.”

palais de sadam saladin...
One of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, featuring a bust of the leader as Saladdin

Some do. Many, although not all, of the poorest Iraqis praise Bush for toppling Saddam. But those with a little bit of something, manual workers and professionals who can no longer do their jobs in the present anarchy, usually say that the Americans should go as soon as possible.

The chaos, the looting, the lack of water and electricity in most of the city mean that tempers get short. When a lorry-load of mineral water arrives for the Palestine and the Sheraton, there’s nearly a riot. The anti-American demonstrators almost pull the Iraqis on the back of the lorry onto the street. They throw sticks at them and call them traitors for giving the water to foreigners while their compatriots go thirsty.

There’s a widespread belief that the Americans encouraged the looting so as to justify a prolonged presence here. When the museum and library are sacked some claim that this is a Zionist-American plot to wipe out their history.

Iraqis seem more politically sophisticated than Afghans, whose politics tends to follow ethnic or tribal patterns, and who have never experienced a stable, centralised state.

Long experience has taught Iraqis never to believe anyone. They are enthusiastic proponents of the conspiracy theories that are so popular throughout the Middle East. It would be unfair to call this paranoia, given how much persecution they’ve suffered.

No-one believes that the US is here for liberty or any of the other fine sentiments that find their way into George Bush’s scripts. At an oil ministry maintenance depot, where about 200 technicians are milling around bemoaning the fact that their tools and other equipment have been stolen, both managers and workers assure us that Washington is here toget its hand on Iraq’s main natural resource. No-one has failed to notice that the Americans managed to protect the Oil Ministry from looting while letting everything else be ransacked.

The ministry was also spared the bombing. Its Saddamo-Stalinist-style building stands intact in a field of rubble, US tanks at its gates.

The American presence is much more visible than in Kabul. Here there was no Northern Alliance to front the seizure of the capital. The Alliance inspired distrust and even fear among many Afghans, but at least most of its leaders had been present in the country and fighting the Taliban.

A Kurdish-dominated offensive from northern Iraq seems to have been judged inadvisable or impractical, so the invasion came through the south from Kuwait and was entirely foreign.

Boys of 18-25-years-old, carrying their own weight in advanced military equipment stand in the shadows of tanks bristling with barrels and ammunition on every major street corner. Their attitudes to the local population vary from helpful to fearful. But none of them seem to speak Arabic and many make up for this disadvantage by raising their voices and getting annoyed. The liberators look very much like an army of occupation.

One Iraqi who is keen to praise president Bush is Ahmad Chalabi. He’s been away from the country since 1956, during which time his career has involved fleeing Jordan in the boot of a car in the wake of a banking scandal, being adopted by the American hard-right as the man most likely to overthrow Saddam and being the subject of disagreement between different agencies of the American state over his aptitude for the task.

His supporters have set up shop in the Iraqi Hunting Club, which was famously controlled by Saddam’s notorious son, Uday. It’s guarded by men in uniform who say that they belong to the “Free Iraqi Forces”.

Chalabi holds a press conference at the Hunting Club shortly after arriving in Baghdad. He avoids answering a question about who pays the FIF. But he is full of praise for the Americans – and for them alone.

“I do not think that the United Nations is either capable or has the credibility in Iraq to play a major role,” he says. “The moral imperative is on the side of the United States and the Iraqi people now will accept a leadership role for the United States in this process.”

central 2
A telephone exchange destroyed by US bombs Photo: Tony Cross

Not all of them though. As Chalabi is speaking, a car displaying his picture is sprayed with bullets outside the club.

“Since you’ve occupied our country, why can’t you give us medicine and treat our injuries?”  an out-of-work civil servant wants to know. He’s among a crowd outside Baghdad  Town Hall, whose gates are locked and guarded by marines. He has a personal interest in his rhetorical question. His arm is paralysed. He claims that there are two American bullets in it and that he can’t find anyone to take them out. He swears that he was unarmed when the soldiers fired on him.

Small crowds form outside all public buildings in Baghdad. They’re reservoirs of extreme suffering in he generalised misery of the city. Outside the Town Hall, people demand water and electricity for their neighbourhoods, as they do on every street in the city. Others ask foreigners if they can use their satellite-phones so that they can tell relatives abroad that they’re still alive.

Outside the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a father seeks help to send his son abroad for a heart operation, another man brandishes an X-ray of a broken hip and says he can’t afford to have the necessary operation, a veteran of the war with Iran says that he needs an operation on his leg and that he has no money for medicine he needs.

“If I can’t take this medicine I could die. What can I do?”

I suggest that he go to a nearby hospital.

“What you say is of no use,” he tells me.

Nidal is a middle-aged woman who’s proud of the fact that she’s studying for her PhD. Her house was robbed and then burnt to the ground by looters. Now she’s sleeping in the street.

“Only this!” she cries in English, indicating the only possessions she has left – the T-shirt and trousers that she’s wearing.

“Under Saddam Hussein there was injustice,” a man in the crowd says. “But at least there was work, there were salaries, we could go home at night and sleep safely with our families. Now from six o’clock in the evening till the morning, no-one can leave their houses.”

America hasn’t delivered its promises the crowd agrees. They want a government of Iraqis, they say, but, when asked who would lead it, they have no candidates.

The Americans have destroyed the old state but seem not to have considered in advance what to put in its place.

They launch an appeal to professionals to present themselves at the Palestine hotel and a crowd of teachers, engineers and doctors forms. But where will they work and with what equipment ?

One day the soldiers make a dawn raid on several floors of the Palestine, obliging half-awake journalists to splay themselves on the floor while the GIs search for arms caches and potential terrrorists.

Later, a crowd of men in olive uniforms pushes its way through the lobby. They’re senior police officers here to discuss reconstituting the force. They slip down a side-passage towards a hidden lift but there are too many of them to fit into it. After several minutes, I leave them still arguing about who will get out and take the second ride to the conference room. It’s difficult to imagine that senior police officers were unaware of the abuses of Saddam’s régime but the occupying force seems to be ready to work with them.

If the Americans really did hope that chaos would justify a prolonged presence, they may have seriously miscalculated. A combination of popular initiative and religious authority is filling the void left by the destruction of the state.

Local people have improvised roadblocks from the detritus of war to slow down potential attackers. Armed militias man scruffy checkpoints and protect buildings that are important to local people.

At the entrance of the poverty-stricken Saddam City a nervous youth thrusts his Kalashnikov at our taxi-driver. We’ve hired a guide who comes from the area and he gets us through.

There are more boys with guns outside Al Qardisiya hospital. We’re introduced to Saeed Jalil Al-Hasseini, a religious student who has returned to his old home from the Shia moslem holy city of Najaf after the religious council there declared a fatwa against looting and sanctioned the establishment of militias.

He and other religious notables have taken over the management of the hospital. Al-Hasseini explains that there has been a lot of fighting between the militia and the remnants of the Fedayeen of Saddam, some of it inside the hospital itself. He says that they have captured several fedayeen and that they are “of different nationalities, mostly from Arab nations”.

Everyone blames the nightly gunfights on “Arab volunteers”, who came to fight for the old régime and now can’t get out of the country, just as the Afghans blamed “Arabs” for the fighting that continued after the fall of the Taliban. Many Iraqis just talk about “the Syrians”, since most of the foreigners have apparently come through that country.

A group of Malaysian journalists try to enter Saddam City in a Syrian car, in convoy with some Malaysian doctors. Militiamen fire on the car, killing the Syrian driver and wounding a doctor, a journalist and a guide.

The attackers apologise and take them to see a prisoner whom they ask them to film. He reads a declaration saying that he was number 16 in the fedayeen hierarchy and that he was paid handsomely to kill Shia and Americans. Then the captors produce a knife. The two cameramen refuse to carry on, fearing that they were about to record a summary execution.

Along the road from the hospital is a mosque. It’s a Sunna mosque, even though most of the area’s people are Shia. Kassem al-Moussawi, an affable teacher, is standing beside a table strewn with papers. There’s a bizarre collection of objects in the mosque’s courtyard – office chairs, desks, an industrial weighing machine … The Najaf fatwa instructed Shia to bring looted goods to the mosques so that they can be restored to public institutions.

Moussawi is supervising this process, starting with the hospitals. Some of the doctors are amazed at the quality of the equipment that they receive. Looted from clinics reserved for the old régime’s élite, it’s “returned” to medical facilities whose patients are poor.

Thousands of Shia turn out for Friday prayers in the renamed Al-Sadr city Photo: Tony Cross

By the second Friday after the fall of Baghdad, Saddam City has changed its name. It’s unofficial, but nothing’s official at the moment, so who’s to stop the Shia inhabitants renaming it Al-Sadr City after a cleric and political leader who was killed by the former ruler?

Young men brandish guns and pictures of Al Sadr as they make their way down the litter-strewn streets to Friday prayers. We’re stopped by militiamen, but they’re noticeably more relaxed than at the beginning of the week and make an effort to be polite to visiting journalists.

A vast crowd has filled the wide main street in front of the area’s main mosque. Tens of thousands of Shia have come from Saddam City and surrounding areas and are sitting on the dusty ground waiting for prayers to begin.

When they respond to the imam, a wave of sound rolls over the mosque and the surrounding slums.

This is partly a celebration of the fact that the Shia can publicly practise all aspects of their faith after the limits that Saddam placed on it. The Shia have been kept out of positions of power throughout most of Iraq’s history, even though they’re the majority of the country’s population. Most of the poor are Shia.

All of which might have inspired them to vengeance and religious sectarianism. But, in Baghdad at least, they seem to reject the idea of confessional revenge. Slogans on mosque walls and banners call for unity of Sunna and Shia, and sometimes Christians. Leading clerics say that they don’t want a Shia monopoly of power.

Ashura pilgrims in a Kerbala mosque Photo: Tony Cross

No doubt the Shia political movements that operated from exile in Iran have a positive view of the 1970s Iranian revolution but most people I speak to look blank when I ask what they think of it. In politics, at least, they seem to think of themselves as Iraqis first and it is their country, after all, which is home to the most important Shia holy cities.

The annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Kerbala turns into another celebration of new freedoms and old resentments.

Millions of Shi-a, men and women, make their way to the city on foot, beating their chests in rhythm, a few hitting their heads until the blood runs, in penance for the failure to prevent the martyrdom of the prophet Mohamed’s grandson, Hussein, in a struggle for the leadership of Islam.

Women pilgrims in Kerbala Photo: Tony Cross

As the faithful march towards Kerbala, a long American military convoy heads the other way. There are no soldiers in the city, no police and virtually no guns. It’s a shock after Baghdad. But there seems to be perfect peace. Most pilgrims sleep in the street. They’re fed in communal kitchens set up by Kerbala’s residents.

Islamic discipline is strictly observed, meaning little crime but also a drastic dress-code for women, all of whom are entirely covered in black apart from their faces. A stray lock of hair brings sharp reproof, even for foreign non-believers.

Inside the gold-decorated mosques which house the shrines to Hossein and his uncle Abbas, people mourn relatives lost to Saddam’s repression. Others denounce Washington’s reported plan to stay here for several years.

And they explain why there are no buildings in the space between the two shrines. The narrow streets that used to be here were flattened in 1991. That was George Bush senior called on Iraqis to revolt and left the Shia to be massacred when they followed his advice. The military reportedly used chemical weapons on parts of the city.

Pilgrims arrive in Kerbala Photo: Tony Cross

Back in Al-Sadr/Saddam City about a week after our first visit, Al Qardisiya hospital seems relatively calm.

Relatively. Dr Ali Handhal Aboud says that he’s going to take a rest because he’s carried out 153 operations on gunshot wounds over the last three days.

Aboud is the only surgeon to have stayed at his post throughout the bombing and subsequent chaos. Staff attendance was down to about 5%, due to lack of transport and fear of violence. Today, he says, about 90% of the staff are back at their posts.

Health-workers, like other public employees, now wonder who will run the services they work for. Dr Salafa, the only woman to come to work for several days, expresses the fervent hope that the ex-head of Baghdad’s health services will remain missing. For the old Ba’ath Party management, she says, obstruction was routine, even going beyond motives of personal enrichment.

At the oil maintenance depot, too, workers ask who will run their working lives from now on. Will competent professionals who fell foul of the Ba’ath become the new management ? Will they be able to choose their bosses, as one manager suggests?

It’s an echo of the wider question on everybody’s mind: Will Iraqis be able to choose their government and, if so, when?

There are a lot of unanswered questions in Iraq today.

26 May 2003 Update

Depressingly little seems to have changed since I left Iraq.

Saddam Hussein has still not been found. Indeed, being on Washington’s most-wanted list seem to be a guarantee of longevity, since the US also seems unable to track down Mullah Omar and Ossama bin Laden.

Nor have we been presented with any of the alleged weapons of mass destruction which provided the pretext for the invasion. The Americans haven’t even had the decency to fulfil prophesies that they would plant evidence of the régime’s capacity to wipe out its neighbours or attack the United States, although I suppose there’s still time for that.

Much of the population is reported to be still without drinkable water and electricity, including many parts of Baghdad, and crime and violence is still apparently widespread.

It’s true that Iraqis are contradicting themselves when they demand that the American-British force guarantee them decent living conditions, while at the same time telling them to get out of the country as soon as possible.

But I wonder if that’s as profound a contradiction as the claim to have made a country safe for democracy and then tell its people that they can’t choose to have an Islamic state or any other form of government unacceptable to the liberators.

This principle has already been applied in Basra, where the British bragged to the world’s news-media that they had set up a city counci and then promptly abolished it. The provincial council in Kirkuk, in the north, has also run into trouble.

The sacking of Jay Garner and his replacement by Paul Bremer seems to confirm the suspicion that the Bush adminstration had prepared no strategy for post-Saddam Iraq.

This is a trifle embarassing for those of us who suspected a master-plan to impose certain pliant politicians, partition the country and isolate its oil resources and then, perhaps, move on to invade neighbouring countries.

Everything seems to be decided empirically, which at least has the merit of being consistent with the philosophical and political traditions of the English-speaking world. But it must worry the people of Iraq, whose fate is being decided by an unpredictable president and an unpredictable government in a far-off land where they have few friends.

The US has, however, made sure that it has control of the oil and that its hegemony is clearly established in the Middle East, so the main aims of liberation have been accomplished. For now, at least.

This article was first published in Global Research