Iraq is grim, hopeful and still scary

Posted in Iraq | 18-Nov-03 | Author: John Burns| Source: The New York Times

BAGHDAD - To return to Baghdad after six months is to encounter a country at once dispiriting and yet, in spite of all, still hopeful, if flaggingly so. The letdown begins high above the southwestern limits of the city, in a twin-turboprop aircraft of Royal Jordanian Airlines that seeks safety from ground-to-air missiles by flying a downward spiral over what was Saddam International Airport - the first foothold seized by U.S. troops when they reached the city on April 3, and now a principal stronghold of the U.S. occupation.

With no metal chaff or magnesium flares to fool missile guidance systems, the pilots, who had taken off from Amman, Jordan, pray that they will outwit attempts to shoot down the aircraft by keeping their spiral over populated areas of Baghdad and a stretch of desert reaching northwest to the town of Abu Ghraib.

Landing is a relief, still more so for a first encounter with the polite, American-trained Iraqi immigration officials who have replaced the thugs of Saddam's time who imposed compulsory AIDS tests and searched every bag for forbidden "spying equipment" like satellite telephones. Even the path of descent into the airport seemed a metaphor for a reporter who spent months before, during and after the American-led invasion in Baghdad covering the last chapter of Saddam's rule and the first weeks of the U.S. occupation. Nothing was so grim in that compelling and often frightening passage as the events at the Abu Ghraib prison on Oct. 20, 2002.

Saddam, seeking to counter President George W. Bush's characterizations of him as a murdering tyrant, ordered 100,000 prisoners released from his prisons then, many of them from the vast, forbidding complex at Abu Ghraib. The day turned into a parable of his terror, and, because of what some criminals released that day have done to support the violence now directed at the U.S. occupation, a harbinger of much that followed.

At the prison, emaciated men emerged into the sunlight after long years incarcerated, often for nothing more than whispering against Saddam; women in black cloaks fell to the ground in despair, appealing to Allah, when husbands, brothers and sons they hoped had survived proved to be gone forever. Just over a year later, I glimpsed the prison again, far below, now metamorphosed into a detention center for many of the 5,000 loyalists of the old regime who are held as detainees by the American command.

Somewhere north and west, in the "Sunni Triangle," between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and further north around the oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, some criminals who left Abu Ghraib have enlisted in the anti-American underground, U.S. officials say. These former prisoners now help carry out roadside explosions, suicide truck bombings and assassinations that have some of the occupation's critics worrying about a new Vietnam.

Over all, more Iraqis than Westerners have died in the suicide bombings at the United Nations compound, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Baghdad Hotel and, last week, the Italian military police compound in Nasiriya. But the anxieties are most palpable among Westerners. Many who work for Western relief agencies, construction companies and other organizations essential to Iraq's rebirth are talking of following others who have already headed home.

Many of the Westerners live in Baghdad, a city made a maze by newly erected, blast-resistant concrete walls; no-go areas that alter the geography of whole neighborhoods; rolls of razor wire placed by the Americans; and military checkpoints.

At the Palestine Hotel, where I was taunted in the last weeks of Saddam's terror by officials of his Information Ministry as "the most dangerous man in Iraq" because of my articles about the regime's brutality, some of the same Iraqis, who now work as interpreters for Western news bureaus, caution me against staying in the 16th-floor room I used to inhabit. It is, they say, potentially vulnerable to the rockets and truck bombs of Saddam's die-hards.

It is a world upside down, or at least skewed, for anybody familiar with Saddam's Iraq, a world that challenges much that seemed sure in the days when the drums of war were sounding in Washington.

Then, many of us believed that Iraqis craved, and deserved, their liberation from Saddam. Despite all the disappointments of the occupation, there has been little change in that view, judging by what was almost certainly the first scientifically conducted public opinion poll in Iraq, by the Gallup Organization in late September.

Not all the findings were music to Washington's ears, especially the one in which 47 percent of the 1,178 Baghdadis polled said they were worse off under U.S. occupation while 33 percent judged themselves to be better off.

But against this, and the bedrock on which U.S. prospects here may well depend, was the poll's central finding: A majority, 62 percent, believed that the ouster of Saddam was worth any hardships they suffered during and after the invasion. In addition, 67 percent said they believed that Iraq would be better off five years from now than it was under Saddam, against 8 percent who thought it would be worse.

Baghdad is not Iraq, and it is certainly not Falluja, Ramadi or Tikrit, where crowds have gathered to cheer the killings of U.S. troops. But the random experiences of a week back in the country and among ordinary people I have talked to, by far the most common view has been that for all the U.S. failures, as they see them, a guarantee of greater misery would still be the premature withdrawal of U.S. troops.

These Iraqis, for the most part, do not make that the first point of any conversation, more often it is the last, but it is their bottom line. Most conversations are still about what is wrong with the occupation. High on the list, predictably, is the humiliation at finding themselves once again subject to foreign rule. Stories abound of perceived insults by American soldiers, often in places like checkpoints where the Americans are at high risk.

Also common, though less so now than even a few weeks ago, are complaints about the basic conditions of life. To see cars and trucks lining up on the dirt shoulders of roads everywhere filling their tanks from roadside hawkers with plastic jerry cans is one measure of the frustration in a country with the world's second-largest oil reserves, where a tank of gasoline before the invasion cost about $2.

Never mind that the empty gasoline stations are the result, largely, of terrorist bombings of pipelines; Iraqis ask what has become of the one thing they have always seen as the measure of their potential wealth and power: oil.

To outsiders, Iraqis can often seem among the Middle East's most congenial people. But they can also be hard to please, as the Americans are discovering. The amiability that greets a Westerner almost everywhere outside the Sunni Triangle, and even there when U.S. troops are not around, masks a reflex commonly found among people emerging from totalitarian rule: The sense of individual and collective responsibility is numbed, often to the point of passivity.

The Iraqis' instinct to blame their rulers for life's hardships, engendered by Saddam's regime and at the same time silenced by it, is the Americans' burden now. But even skeptical Iraqis acknowledge some improvement. U.S. helicopters that buzzed like night flies in Baghdad's skies in recent days, flying to support the new crackdown on the terrorists, flew over well-lighted suburbs, which had been dark much of the summer. Many Baghdadis still live by a three-hour rotation, power on and off, but the Power Ministry says the country as a whole is producing as much electricity as before the war. Running water, too, is less of a luxury than it was. Even among Iraqis who complain most bitterly, it does not take long to discover that some things have changed for the better. Men who ran battered taxis under Saddam are now profiting by the occupation authority's tax-and-duty-free regime and upgrading to snazzy four-wheel drives. Civil servants who earned $2 a month under Saddam are now paid an average of $60.

For the most part, it is the present, not the past, that engages Iraqis' passions. The Iraqis can be incandescent about the perceived failings of the occupation administration, led by L. Paul Bremer 3rd, so far short of the U.S. efficiencies that were an Iraqi gospel before.

They mock most of the handpicked Iraqi leaders who form the transitional governing body, saying they spend most of their time abroad on expense-paid trips or maneuvering against one another in the time they are at home. And Iraqis want an end to the "Ali Babas," the bandits who terrorize neighborhoods and the roads outside Baghdad. After a narrow escape of my own from six masked, Kalashnikov-brandishing Ali Babas who leapt on the highway about an hour north of Nasiriya on Tuesday night, I could see their point. Only the swift reflexes of Abu Karar, the Iraqi driver who had helped me deal with Saddam's enforcers before the invasion, saw us through. He switched off our vehicle's lights and drove straight at the Ali Babas at 160 kilometers an hour, or 100 miles an hour, forcing them to jump back from the road. But then there is the bottom line, and it is accessible to anybody who stands on a street corner, as I did in the hours after that near-miss, covering the bombing of the Italian military police compound in Nasiriya. Gesturing toward the smoking hulk of the headquarters where at least 19 Italians and 13 Iraqis were killed, I asked the crowds if they thought that America and its allies should pack up and go home. In the clamor that followed, I asked for quiet so that each man and boy could speak his mind. Unscientific as the poll was, the sentences that flowed expressed a common belief.

"No, no!" one man said. "If the Americans go, it will be chaos everywhere."

Another shouted, "There would be a civil war."

"If the Americans, the British or the Italians leave Iraq, we will be handed back to the flunkies of Saddam, the Baathists and Al Qaeda will take over our cities," another man said.

Nobody offered a dissenting view, though many said it would be best if the Americans achieved peace and left as soon as possible. These people, at least, seemed concerned that America should know that the bombers, whoever they were, did not speak for the ordinary citizens of Iraq.