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 ?
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.