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Out of the rubble

Paul McGeough

I spoke to the silver-haired old man again today. Up and down, he's been my barometer on the mood in Baghdad. He was eager for the overthrow of the regime, but tearful when his daughter miscarried during the early US bombing and shattered when his nephew was killed by American fire as he drove an Iraqi military supply truck. The old man's national pride kicked in during the early Iraqi military successes in the south, but he was jubilant as the marines rolled into Baghdad.

What did he make of Thursday's (17 April) move by the man the Pentagon wants as Iraq's new leader, the long-term exile Ahmad Chalabi, who positioned himself for a lunge at power by taking over Baghdad's Hunting Club. Chalabi and his US military escort installed themselves in what was once the exclusive domain of the Baath Party leadership and of Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein's brutal first son. "Same, same," the old man told me. "There is no difference."

These are tumultuous, frightening days for Iraqis. A despised regime crumbled in the face of overwhelming force, but for all its power and might the invading army is yet to get a grip on the chaos it has created. After its forces orchestrated the symbolic toppling of statues of Saddam, the US is still grappling to secure control of the people, the nation and its politics in the early days of what many Iraqis still feel is an occupation, not a liberation. Life for Iraq's 25 million people has become a desperate struggle to find food and their feet after the Americans ripped away the regime of Saddam, and then stood back as the only form of life and government most of them knew was destroyed in a looting rampage that many are convinced was a part of the invasion plan. All functions of government are paralysed.

Americans might be offended by a comparison with September 11. But if that event traumatised the US, how do we measure the impact of such a rapid, high-powered military invasion on the life of ordinary Iraqis? A tyrant is gone, but in the same flash so, too, is the only form of social and economic order that most Iraqis have known. As they come to terms with the emotional outpouring of all that was wrong under Saddam - the imprisonment, the torture, the executions - they also must confront the further diminution of a life that already was grim enough, but which for Iraqis was "normal".

The people of Baghdad were subjected to the nightmare of constant bombing, often on the outskirts of the city. But bombing of selected regime targets in the downtown area was regular, spectacular and frightening - the civilian death and destruction by errant bombs saw them trembling in fear as they sat through long nights without electricity. When Iraqi forces countered with suicide attacks, any movement around the country became potentially lethal as US forces adopted a shoot-to-kill regime against a population who did not understand the orders "stop" and "freeze" barked at them by jittery Americans. Iraq's highways and Baghdad's streets were littered with the dead. There were unbearable scenes at the city's hospitals as patients, many of them children, coped without drugs, and families lined up with makeshift coffins to collect their loved ones from overflowing morgues.

On the heels of a four-week war that military historians probably will judge a triumph, Washington's certain dream of imposing its brand of democracy in the Middle East has become a lottery of anarchy and explosive politics that could go any way. For now, instead of helping the people they claimed to be liberating, US forces look more like a self-interested army of occupation. Baghdad is free of the Saddam regime, but it is charred and scared. There's a dead donkey on the Jumurayiah Bridge and torched government buildings still smoulder. The smell of death lingers and the hardcore looters fight gun battles and wield axes in the streets as they brawl over the safes and vaults of the city's banks. There are daily protest marches and rallies - a democratic novelty for Baghdadis - about law and order, jobs, the economy and the shape of the next government. They point to a relationship between liberator and liberated - or occupier and occupied - that will be based on fear, anxiety and distrust.

In Mosul in the north this week, 17 Iraqis were dead and 39 wounded after two days during which US troops said they fired on street crowds in self-defence. Iraqi witnesses, however, insisted that the gunfire that sparked the killings was US warning shots to disperse looters down the street. And in the south, where long-oppressed Shiites are marching in their thousands in support of the sort of Islamic state Washington abhors, marines accused Chalabi's US-funded Free Iraqi Forces of hooliganism in a factional contest with local mullahs to impose their brand of law and order.

Baghdad's power supply, tripped into blackness by the US bombing, is still not restored and health professionals fear an epidemic of disease because there is little safe drinking water. The tank farm at the Baghdad oil refinery holds only a few days' petrol supply for the city and no one can say when production will resume. The nation's ancient treasures have been looted from the Iraq National Museum and the National Library and the people's meagre savings have been stolen from the banks.

And, just as the US forces arrived in Baghdad without a plan to prevent robbery and violence, they came without a plan for the estimated 50 per cent of the population who depended for their pitiable salaries on a government and a rigid centralised economy that no longer exist. The Americans' only plan seemed to be protection of the oil wells in the south and the Oil Ministry in Baghdad. These were quickly cordoned off with tanks and APCs. By doing nothing else, the invasion force gave implicit protection and endorsement to looters who rampaged under their noses. It was only after the hospitals were looted that they put guards on them. It was only after much of the museum's priceless collection was hauled away that tanks were put at the gates of an institution that is a reminder, probably lost on Washington, that Mesopotamia was once our greatest civilisation. Amid the ashes of the Ministry for Religious Affairs, where 1000-year-old Korans were incinerated, the ministry's general manager, Abdel Karim Anwar Obeid, drew his own pointed historical comparison: "When Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258, these books survived. This time they didn't."

Asked by CNN about the looting and chaos, Marine Corp Lieutenant Edward Langello snapped back: "You Iraqis need to get up and take care of your own nation. That's what the American people did a long time ago and look where we are." In the power vacuum, that is just what they are doing. And rather than the free, secular power that Washington wants, it is the authority of the mullahs that is being asserted most forcefully. Vigilantes roam suburban streets and the mosques organise club-brandishing crowds to set up road blocks where they confiscate the looters' booty under the threat of physical violence.

When I drove through such a checkpoint on Wednesday, men stripped to the waist sweated in the midday sun as they accumulated a small mountain of bagged rice, grain and sugar which they said would be put in a mosque storehouse. "If it's obviously from the Ministry of Trade, and part of the rations which people are given, it will go back to the government," Sheik Keis Mohammed al-Mamouri, imam of the Shia mosque of Ali al-Beyaa told a reporter. "If it's been stolen from a private person or shop, we will consult our senior authorities in Najaf, and ask what to do. They will probably suggest we give it to the poor."

When the US talks about representative government in the new Iraq it is speaking code for what it doesn't want - a conservative or fundamentalist Shiite regime that the 60 per cent majority Shiites could conceivably install in a pure democratic vote. So this is a dangerous environment for the US and its ill-disguised agents to embark on creating a democracy to America's liking. Instead of grateful thanks, the US is confronted with slogans demanding that it quickly retreats from Iraq and by fighting and friction as Shiite factions jockey for power. When the US organised its first so-called town meeting this week for Iraqis to discuss their future, key Shiites boycotted it and, a few kilometres away, they rallied not for Western-style freedom but for government by ayatollahs. Left to their own devices, strongly nationalist Iraqis might well arrive at an unaligned, democratic society that Washington could live with. But the risk in its artless efforts to manipulate an Iraqi outcome is that Shiites in particular could look for guidance to Iran and the ayatollahs.

The US State Department is contemptuous of Chalabi, as are many Iraqis. But he has the Pentagon's backing. While the US military remains on the ground it seems Chalabi will get the US backing and funding he needs to foist himself on the Iraqi people. On Wednesday, the day before the US flew Chalabi and his entourage into Baghdad, one of his associates, Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, gave a startling insight into his understanding of the democratic process when he declared himself to have been "elected" the equivalent of mayor of the city. Zubaidi insisted the job was his, saying: "The tribal leaders and religious leaders, Sunni, Shiite and Christian, the doctors, teachers and professional people, held five days of discussions and meetings. They unanimously elected me chief of the city's executive authority." Iraqis did not like Saddam. But they appreciate strong leadership and in the postwar vacuum they see a need for a firm hand. One of them told me: "We need thousands of Gandhis in the governates, but we need one Saddam at the top of each and another in Baghdad to make this country work."

And as Chalabi and Zubaidi seek legitimacy, so too does the US. After months of ridiculing the UN-supervised search for Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and intimations that it had the intelligence to uncover them, it has come up with nothing yet. Washington has resorted to offering a $US200,000 (A$333,000) reward for information and now that it has special US-UK weapons teams in Iraq, it is opposed to any return by the UN inspection teams that withdrew on the eve of the war. After all the urgency of the need to go to war because of the terrorist threat posed by Iraq's weapons, the US this week set about lowering expectations that the much-vaunted "smoking gun" that would justify its invasion would be found any time soon. Urging patience, Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks said: "It is very much putting together pieces of a puzzle, one piece at a time. And when you see the shape of the one piece, you see how it may relate to the other pieces that are out there. "It is deliberate work and we remain confident in our approach."

My last job before leaving Baghdad for a while was to visit the Mother of All Battles Mosque, a bizarre monument by Saddam to what he always insisted was his "victory" in the 1991 Gulf War. Its lustrous white minarets - the outer four shaped inelegantly as Scud missiles, the inner four like the barrel of a Kalashnikov - were caked dismal brown by the dust storms that assail Baghdad at this time of year. Traditionally, mosques are a place of refuge, open around the clock. But these gates were chained - surly men with guns paced up and down and an aggressive mullah dismissed me. I wanted to see the Saddam Koran - a paranoid indulgence displayed in a pavilion on the mosque lake, in which 600 gilt-edged frames each hold a page of the holy book, written by one of the best calligraphers in the land who used the blood of Saddam Hussein as "ink".

Across the road some men sat together in the shade of a spreading tree. They gave me a glass of cool water and assured me that dealing with this grotesque indulgence should be an early task for the new government. However, one of them said: "It is forbidden to write the Koran in blood, but it cannot be destroyed - it is the holy book from God." What might have been a simple task suddenly was filled with all the contradiction and challenge of building the postwar, post-Saddam Iraq. Iraqis revere the book, but they loathe the man celebrated in this very limited edition. His oppressive shadow is gone, but they hate how the daylight came and they remember order where for now there is chaos. And in a corner of their hearts and minds, many of them feel they are being robbed.


This article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 19 April 2003, the weekend on which Paul McGeough left Baghdad, and it is reproduced with the author's kind permission. For all of Paul McGeough's reports, go to this link:


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