Deja-vu in Baghdad
An op-ed by John Grant
Getting to Baghdad is not easy. After 24 hours of flying or wandering in airports, we had a 12-hour drive across the desert from Amman, Jordan in two Chevy Suburbans often at speeds over 100 miles an hour. All you see in the middle of this vast emptiness is periodic Bedoin sheep herders and their flocks.
Our group was made of parents of soldiers currently serving in Iraq (one whose son was killed in March) and US military veterans of the Viet Nam and Gulf Wars. We went to Iraq to see for ourselves what the US Occupation was like. Baghdad is a city of great pent-up energy in the midst of wreckage everywhere. After three decades of Saddam Hussein, 13 years of a US embargo and three wars ending in the US blitzkrieg invasion this Spring, profound infrastructure problems persist while US occupation leaders try to orchestrate their vision of a future for Iraq.
Five hour gas lines have become a regular feature of Baghdad life. We spoke with people in one line and were told that a month after the Gulf War and throughout the embargo gasoline was plentiful and cost five cents a gallon. “We live in a country floating on a sea of oil!” one man exclaimed. “Why do we have such lines?”
The fact resistance sabotage is cited as a cause doesn’t ease the exasperation or anger.
Electricity is sporadic and can go out for indefinite periods at any time, creating a vast market for small generators. Garbage mounts on the streets everywhere in the city. There is no phone system that any of us could see; Americans and Iraqis with means use cell phones with a Westchester, Connecticut area code. Sixty percent of the population is unemployed. In the city, unexplained gunfire is a normal occurrence. Women don’t feel safe on the streets.
We visited hospitals where doctors complained of shortages of simple antibiotics, heart monitors and other basic equipment. At the Al-Qadissiyah Hospital, we met with eight doctors who at times were furious that, eight months after the invasion, they had received nothing ? except a work crew that painted a few walls. At the Iskan Children’s Hospital, we visited a whole floor with dozens of kids dying of leukemia, possibly the result of dust from US depleted uranium munitions.
At the Al-Awsiya Elementary School we heard, again, of superficial painting ? but nothing of the new books and supplies promised. We tried to get a list of schools the Bechtel Corporation worked on to see if this was one of them, but no one would release that public information.
As they cope with the wake of an invasion, Baghdad citizens are constantly confronted with armed US patrols. We saw them everywhere we went. Stand on any street corner for 45 minutes and you would see two Humvees, a young soldier poked out the top of the first one pointing a machine gun forward and a soldier in the second one pointing a machine gun into the traffic to the rear.
These were our sons and daughters. In what we were told was an unprecedented event, two group members drove to dangerous areas to actually see their kids. I accompanied a parent to Falluga and, while there, witnessed a half dozen mortar rounds that fell short of the perimeter. Fernando Suarez de Solar trekked to the site in Diwaniya where his son was killed by a US cluster bomb. We told US soldiers we were “a peace group” interested in “bringing you home.” In every case, the response was a smile and often a thumbs up. “Good luck!” several soldiers said.
For Iraqis, however, contact with these young Americans is not so warm. Wisal Alazawi, dean of the political science department of Nahrain University, summed up the dilemma for many Iraqis.
“As a political scientist,” she said, “ It’s absurd to talk about democracy while there is an occupation. The Governing Council is trying very hard, but the question is does the Council have the right to decide anything when everyone knows the US Occupation has veto power?” She was referring to the 24-member governing body appointed by Paul Bremer, head of the US Coalition Provisional Authority or CPA.
We met with the December president of the Governing Council, Abdul Aziz al Hakim, a Shiite leader who is interestingly out of step with the CPA plan for an Iraqi government, which would be selected by a caucus. Al Hakim and other Shiites would like a general election. He also said US occupation troops should leave. “When?” we asked. “How about tomorrow,” he answered. A visit to the CPA headquarters in Saddam’s palace complex in the center of Baghdad ? an area the size of Central Park with multiple rings of security, shuttle buses, cafeterias and trailer parks for all the Halliburton employees ? makes it clear we are not planning to leave anytime soon.
The question on my mind as I toured the CPA was who was this giant brain center plugged into: Baghdad or Washington? As a 19-year-old, I had witnessed MACV headquarters in Saigon, and this felt like deja-vu in Baghdad. As in Viet Nam, the CPA plan to orchestrate a government under military occupation seems more about control and disenfranchising selected sectors than it does about listening and real democracy.
Most Iraqis we spoke with were truly grateful Saddam was gone; but in the same breath they wanted the US military occupation to go. Shiites and Sunnis both told us the conflict among them and the Kurds was exaggerated and that they were fed up with war. Sunni Sheik Muayed Al-Addamy described these conflicts as “bubbles on the surface,” while Iraqi Nationalism was a stronger force deep in the water. The implication was that the US Occupation fueled that deeper Iraqi Nationalism.
What Iraq needs more than US bombs and young American soldiers in its streets is lots of monetary aid distributed by NGOs -- not by Halliburton and Bechtel. It needs inclusive and fair elections. And it needs a well-trained police and a temporary UN peace-keeping force ? not under US military control. We act as if Iraq is ours under the Rules Of Conquest; it’s not. No future in Iraq will be without rough spots ? but the United States needs to ease its grip and allow the Iraqi talent, experience and energy we encountered to haul the nation up out of the ashes.
Of course, none of this will happen without a vigorous political debate here at home.
John Grant was in Iraq in early December, 2003 on a trip organized by Global Exchange in San Francisco. He is a Viet Nam veteran and president of the Veterans For Peace chapter in Philadelphia. He is a writer and photographer and lives in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania.