The Islamic State (IS) armed group has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s bloody attacks in Beirut and Paris. Since I live in the Paris area, I’ll comment on the question many people are asking – why these attacks on the French capital?
The targets appear to have been chosen by people who knew Paris well. Two teams from “crusader” countries- France and Germany – were playing at the Stade de France, the statement said, and President François Hollande was present. The attackers did not manage to mix with the crowd, however, limiting deaths to the attackers and one bystander. “Hundreds of idolaters gathered in a festival of perversity” were at the Bataclan, according to the statement, and dozens paid the price. The other targets were in areas full of bars and restaurants, where crowds were guaranteed and where the likely victims were guilty of the sin of enjoying life in ways not approved by fundamentalists of any stripe. The statement says there was an attack in the 18th arrondissement, which there wasn’t, so a member of the commando could still be at large. IS says that all its victims were “crusaders”, although it obviously can’t know their identities, whether they were customers of bars and restaurants, staff or passersby. Not does it know how many of the victims were Muslims, which some of them almost certainly were.
IS seems to be stepping up attacks abroad as it comes under pressure in Syria and Iraq, with the loss of Sinjar and air strikes on its positions. Shia were targeted in Beirut, presumably because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and one reason for targeting France was probably its recent decision to join air strikes on IS in Syria (one shouldn’t forget that the French army has been fighting jihadists in Mali and the Sahel for some time now and has intervened in Muslim-Christian violence in the Central African Republic). French leaders’ statements about “acts of war” might imply that the country’s military involvement will become more intense, possibly with ground troops being sent in. That might not displease IS, which wants a confrontation with “Rome” at Dabiq, to fulfil an “end-times” prophecy.
France’s interpretation of secularism, as represented by Charlie Hebdo and the the public reation to this year’s massacre there, as well as by measures by successive government, particularly the banning of Islamic headscarves in schools, angers fundamentalists but also alienates many Muslims, who are not tempted by violence or even Salafi-style rigour.
France has the largest Muslim population in Europe – although we’re not allowed to know its exact size due to France’s interpretation of secularism. A tiny minority is tempted by violent fundamentalism, partly for religious reasons, partly because of the social exclusion they have experienced in France. The government estimates that more than 500 are fighting in IS’s ranks and has boast s of almost certainly killing some of them in air strikes. Others can’t get there, partly because of a clampdown on people wishing to go by the French authorities, leaving them available to murder at home. Only eight suicide-attackers were needed to commit Friday night’s carnage. More attacks are entirely possible.
Update 17.45 Paris time
I’ve just visited the scenes of three of the attacks.
Despite the declaration of a state of emergency, police and military presence seems fairly restrained. There were far more TV crews that security forces members outside the Bataclan, although the scene was heavily cordoned off.
There and in the rue de Charonne, people are arriving with flowers to lay at the scene or lighting candles. Since the government has banned all public gatherings, there will be no Charlie Hebdo-style demonstration, for the moment at least, and the mood doesn’t seem to be at quite such a pitch – more shock, less indignation.
A couple of shops in rue de Charonne have hung up French flags – one also has a piece of paper bearing the #PrayforParis hashtag, a no doubt well-intentioned but curious choice given that a fair proportion of the victims and their families undoubtedly don’t believe in God while the attackers invoked his name to perpetrate their murders.
So a certain amount of nationalism. The crowd at the Stade de France apparently sang the Marseillaise – but what do we sing about when we sing the Marseillaise?
Someone has stuck a rose into bullet holes in the front of Sushi Maki restaurant, next to La Belle Equipe. And, since hate engenders hate, a piece of paper bears the legend “Death to the illiterate barbarians”.
Despite her assassination, Benazir Bhutto was to play a major role in Pakistan’s 2008 rally. Her recorded voice and her picture meant she was the star at election rallies addressed by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a dodgy businessman converted into the guardian of the Bhutto martyr cult – a handy propaganda weapon for a party led by wealthy landowners but drawing most of its votes from the poor, some of whom call for socialist revolution. This is my account of a rally in the city of Faisalabad, written at the time.
The Benazir cult is at its height in Faisalabad, an industrial city in Punjab province where her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, has chosen to hold the last of his small number of election rallies.
The Benazir tape plays again and again. Her image is everywhere – on banners, on posters and on placards held by the faithful. Sometimes her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, gets into the picture, too. He was the party’s founder and its first martyr, when General Zia ul-Haq deposed him as prime minister and then had him hanged.
The martyrology appeals to Rayur Abbas, who, judging by his references to the battle of Kerbala and the death of Ali, is a Shia-Moslem and has the Shia admiration for sacrifice and solidarity with the oppressed.
“Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first prime minister in Pakistan who give the courage to the lowest persons of this country,” he says. “Before Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the lowest persons could not talk with the rich persons, their owners where they do the work. He gave us the courage to speak against the rich persons which don’t give you the rights.”
The fact that the Bhuttos and many other PPP leaders are big landowners, often called “feudal” by their critics, doesn’t worry him.
“In the circumstances of Pakistan, the poor person cannot participate in the political system because this is the old game of money … There is no doubt that the rich persons are leading us but the training of the Pakistan People’s Party is, if you cannot support the poor persons, you cannot live in our party.”
The Bhutto family is the only family in Pakistan to have sacrificed their lives for their convictions, he says.
“The others have not a single sacrifice – not a little scratch of the skin. But Benazir Bhutto – I salute her.”
Under an increasingly hot sun, a crowd of thousands assembles. Many are clearly poor. There are representatives of the local tobacco-workers’ union which is supporting the PPP. Women file in through a separate entrance, where they are frisked by female cops and party workers. A large delegation of students chants “Benazir zindabad!” – “Long live Benazir!”
One of their leaders, Ali Hassan Bukhari, strikes a radical note, which seems inconsistent with the party’s record in government.
“We want a socialist revolution here in Pakistan,” he declares.” And every problem will be solved through revolution. No reformism, we don’t want any reformism. The need of the hour is a socialist revolution. That is the only solution, not only for the students but for all people of this country and, also, not only for this country but for the whole world.”
Zardari, whose nickname is “Mr Ten Per-cent” because of his reputation for corruption when his wife was prime minister, doesn’t seem to have this course of action in mind. Recently he told the newspapers that he was ready to form a coalition government of all parties, including Musharraf’s allies, the PML-Q.
Bukhari feels that is due to pressure from journalists.
“When our leader goes to a media person, his thinking is something else,” he says and adds that the real Zardari reveals himself when he speaks to the ordinary people.
After four hours of chanting and speeches, Zardari finally speaks.
He declares that democracy will be the best revenge for his wife’s death and hints that he may shift the balance of power away from Punjab, which is perceived as dominating the country’s politics and the military, declaring that equality between all the provinces is the best way to avoid animosity against Punjabis.
The crowd pours into the street as soon as Zardari finishes. A car with two young men in it zig-zags through the traffic, playing a tape of Benazir at full volume with the windows down.
In 2007 the rule of General Pervez Musharraf was drawing to an end. His seizure of power in 2001 had encountered little opposition but his failure to tackle corruption and poverty and his support for the US’s post 9/11 War on Terror, which gave birth to a dirty war in Pakistan itself, meant that he was unpopular and under political pressure in 2007. Now the man he kicked out, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistani Muslim League (PMLN) – not to be confused with Musharraf’s PMLQ – was coming back to Pakistan after living in exile as a guest of Saudi Arabia. I was sent to cover his return – which didn’t happen. But I was able to report on the state of the country ahead of Musharraf’s fall in 2008.
Sharif touched down, only to be sent back to Saudi, Musharraf quite rightly fearing the reception he would have received … and did when he finally returned in 2008. The press was prevented from covering his arrival, we sweated in the sun on the road leading to the airport, while TV showed footage of a visibly shaken Sharif being escorted back to his plane by police.
In Peshawar the PPP proudly announced that their leader, Benazir Bhutto, would soon return. She did, to a rapturous reception, only to be assassinated as she campaigned against Musharraf.
Unfortunately, the account I wrote at the time has vanished into the guts of a computer, as have others on the Palestinian presidential election in 2005 and the Turkish presidential election in 2007, but I have managed to reconstitute this report on the religious parties’ alliance, the MMA, a minority but an influential one, thanks largely to the manoeuvring of various military rulers, the failures of Pakistan’s education system and the fallout from the Afghan wars. An account of the 2008 election campaign will follow.
Peshawar, September 2007
Peshawar is capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), separated from Pakistan by the self-administering tribal areas, Pashtun country, like much of Afghanistan, and much affected by the Afghan war.
It has hosted millions of refugees since the Afghan Communist Party, the PDPA, took power in the 1970s and has continued to do so in the decades of war that have followed.
Since 2002 the province, and the city, have been run by an alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, (MMA).
Shortly after taking over, the MMA passed a law which decreed a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law throughout the province.
Music for amusement was banned in public places, barbers forbidden to shave their customers, the two alcohol licences permitted to hotels frequented by non-Muslims were withdrawn, women were ordered to wear the burka and women’s bodies on hoardings covered up.
Musicians found ways round the law by simply moving to different places away from the authorities’ gaze, while bootleggers made it known that they would deliver booze to your door – cheaper, since they didn’t have to pay for licences.
But the law proved unpopular, as did the religious police set up to enforce it.
Anwar Kamal is a local leader of the Muslim League, PMLN, which is allied to the
MMA at national level and voted for sharia in the province.
Sitting in his comfortable home in a middle-class district of the city, he seems to regret the vote now.
“At the instructions of the present [provincial] government, you see, these people would come out on roads, stop your vehicle, pull out your cassette-player, break it there, pull out these billboards that would carry ladies’ photographs,” he says. “I’m not the one that disapproved of that but the common man also disapproved of that.”
Taking on music – a favourite amusement of all Pakistanis apart from the most puritanical of religious activists – appears to have cost the MMA and their religious police a lot of support.
The MMA claims to be more concerned about social justice than the Moslem League.
But in North West Frontier Province, and in Baloochistan, the other province where it is part of a governing coalition, it hasn’t got far in wiping out poverty.
Kamal argues that deprives it of the right to be too strict in introducing sharia.
“Islam says when somebody commits a theft crime you chop off his hand,” he concedes. “But there’s a precondition and that precondition is that you provide him an opportunity so that he can earn his own living. But if the government or the state fails to provide him that opportunity of earning, then you cannot punish him under Islamic law, that is chopping off his hand, you can put him in jail.”
Confronted by the federal government, which dubbed its actions “unconstitutional”, the provincial government has dissolved the religious police.
Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa, south of Peshawar, is one of thousands of religious schools in Pakistan which take up the slack left by a resource-starved public education system.
It’s one of the biggest, with about 3,000 students, and one of the most radical.
Haqqania’s head, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, was a friend and admirer of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and sent students to fight for him.
Ul-Haq also leads a breakaway faction of the Jamaat-Ulema-Islam, the country’s second biggest Islamist party, which has split from the MMA.
“They did not go on the road that we had decided,” explains Syeed Yusuf Shah, who teaches at the madrassa and is the faction’s North-West Frontier Province general-secretary. “We made some contents but they did not even work one per cent on that contents. For example, one of them was that we will not help America. But we helped. So we showed to our nation that we would do this-this-this contents but we didn’t do even zero per cent for them. That’s why MMA is unsuccessful.”
The maulana makes no secret of his support for the Taliban fighting the current Afghan government and his contempt for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose cooperation with George Bush’s War on Terror has strengthened the religious parties, especially in NWFP, most of whose people are Pashtun like the majority of Afghans.
For a fuller report of my visit to Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa click here
The violence of the Afghan conflict often spreads over the border.
But Pakistan hasn’t suffered the decades of civil war which brought the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.
The MMA mayor of Peshawar. Cahulam Ali, claims that gave the Taliban a mandate for sharia which his party didn’t have.
“Taliban government was supported by the people there,” he argues. “They were happy with that government. They obeyed Islamic rules but the Taliban did not impose their will on them. If you impose people here with the sharia bill in this area, people will oppose and people did oppose this bill. They say that at that time there was no gun, there was no fight between them – why do you impose us to do it?”
In areas where they haven’t won a majority, some hardline Islamists still try to enforce their views – trying to destroy statues of the Buddha in the Swat Valley, for example, threatening to kill barbers who shave of beards or bullying a woman who had acid thrown in her face not to go to an NGO because NGOs are supposedly agents of the infidel West.
In Istanbul two brothers used the city’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) as a base to send madrassa students out to close down Chinese massage parlours, claiming they were really brothels, enforce bans on alcohol and other measures.
After several months the army stormed the mosque, resulting in as many as 400 people being killed and enraging the religious parties and alienating part of the population.
I visited Qazi Hussein Ahmed, the leader the largest party in the MMA, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), in his home in Islamabad, where he was under house arrest for his opposition to Musharraf, whom he blamed for the bloodshed.
“Nobody can understand why did he resort to the use of force,” he told me. “We can disagree with the people of Lal Masjid … but there were so many ways in which they could have been controlled and they could have been evacuated. But they resorted to very inhuman killings, indiscriminate killings of the people.”
JeI opposed extrajudicial attempts to impose sharia, he said, but insisted that the Western mind has been “poisoned” against Islamic law.
“The objectives of sharia are not understood,” he argues. “The basic objective of sharia is that man should be related to the creator and he should be God-conscious and he should have the sense that he is accountable before God for all his acts and this makes him a responsible person. We want that the life, the property and the honour and also the mind of a citizen should be protected … this can be done through persuasion and through education and through training.”
Westerners think it is simply a question of “chopping off hands or chopping off legs” but these are these are a “final resort” if people are “bent on creating corruption in society”.
The MMA’s difference with the PMLN was that they wanted social justice and disagreed with liberal, free-market economics, Ahmed said.
At national level, the religious parties don’t have enough support to rule alone and the secular PPP accuses them of being inconsistent in their opposition to Musharraf.
The MMA is also accused of whipping up sectarianism, especially against the Shia-Muslim minority, despite the presence of Shia religious parties in its ranks.
In the massive port city of Karachi, Shia politician Abbas Qulemi told me that sectarian violence was high in areas where the MMA is high, including in Dera Ismail Khan, the constituency of MMA leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and in NWFP.
“They have miserably failed in controlling the situation there [in NWFP], particularly in the killings of Shias,” he said. “You see, lots of Talibans are there … When they go to Afghanistan they fight there, when they come back they kill the Shias and, more surprisingly, the Shias are being killed and their relatives are being arrested.”
Both the religious parties and the Muslim League gained influence under the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and 80s. A strict Muslim himself, he built them up to counter the PPP, whose leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he had executed after toppling him from power, and he was a key figure in helping Islamist mujaheddin fight the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.
The MMA still has support, especially as opposition to Musharraf grows, but they can only hope to be part of a coalition, probably with the Muslim League which is unlikely to go along with their wish to impose sharia law. But they still exercise considerable influence on Pakistani politics and everyday life.
For an audio report on Pakistan’s religious parties click here
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.