JORDAN-IRAQ BORDER — An amazing sight greets travelers at the border crossing between Jordan and Iraq in the western desert at the break of dawn. Sabah el-Khaeyyeeeeeeeer, yells a sociable American soldier wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap, and holding a large plastic mug of coffee as if he just walked out of Starbucks in downtown San Francisco. What the soldier is doing is the Arabic version of Good Morning Vietnam and the scene is both touching and silly at the same time. The long lane of cars stretching out onto the no-man’s-land between the two checkpoints is mostly made up of journalists, aid workers, and returning Iraqi exiles. Jordanian and Iraqi drivers giggle, amused and delighted at the same time. In the republic of fear that Iraq used to be, this entry point was yet another site for dour Iraqi officials to shout orders, pull people aside, interrogate, or hold them for hours. Now Iraq’s borders are practically open. A second U.S. soldier examines our passports and with no further questioning wishes a safe journey. That’s it — we are finally in free Iraq.
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BAGHDAD — To describe modern-day Baghdad, one would have to disregard all types of historic references — such as the town’s proximity to Babylon and the mythical Garden of Eden; its position as the imperial capital of the Abbasid dynasty at the height of Islamic renaissance; its importance as a center for learning and literature under the Ottomans — and focus solely on the town’s now deposed tyrant, Saddam Hussein. True, by Middle Eastern standards, Baghdad today is every bit the modern city that it was under Saddam Hussein. But it is surprisingly colorless, dusty, and, more than anything else, exudes an enormous feeling of authority. Saddam’s humorless power is visible across the town. Tall government buildings — all damaged from pinpoint strikes — hover over major squares and wide boulevards. Intelligence offices — also destroyed by careful strikes — seep into neighborhoods in the form of stately or discreet buildings. Saddam’s palaces run along the main highways on the outskirts of the town. Out at the more affluent residential areas, the main point of geographical reference for many Baghdadis still remains Saddam and his family. “Look, in front of this ice-cream shop they tried to assassinate Uday in 1996,” our driver tell us. “This is a restaurant Qusay used to go to” or “Saddam was in this neighborhood when the bombing started.”
Physically, postwar Baghdad is not a devastated city, and anyone who claims otherwise can only be doing so for political reasons. A quick drive down the city’s wide boulevards is enough to show that the damage from allied bombing is limited to carefully targeted government buildings and other suspect sites. Vast portions of the town show no physical sign that a major war just ended a few weeks ago. There isn’t an overt U.S. presence on the streets, except for tanks on a couple of major intersections, in places like the central bank and the museum, in front of the dumpy journalist hangout the Palestine Hotel, and at Saddam’s lavish palaces.
But postwar Baghdad is not a normal city in the sense that most shops and restaurants remain closed; thousands who worked in the public sector have no jobs to go to; middle-class people remain indoors on account of looters and crime. For practical purposes, the city is shot down. Water and electricity are not available around the clock, though most neighborhoods get eight hours of both at minimum. Sixty-five percent of Iraqis receive drinking water and 50 percent of the electricity demand is met, said retired general Jay Garner in one of his rare press appearances at the Baghdad Convention Center. He is criticized by impatient Iraqis — and ever-resentful European NGOs who face the terrible predicament of losing funding and projects because the war has not produced anything even close to the humanitarian disaster they had counted on — for not acting quick enough to meet the country’s humanitarian demands. There is some truth to this criticism, since the first few months after the war are critical in setting up the tone of Iraq’s new revolution. If Garner — or the soon-to-be administrator Paul Bremmer — does not move faster to meet Iraq’s daily needs, that tone will turn from jubilation to ungrateful whining.
In a very superficial account, Iraqis are not materially better off now than they were two months ago. “For me, it’s not that good right now,” says Omar, our driver. A fighter pilot in the Iraqi Air Force until a month ago, Omar, a 35-year-old Sunni from Baghdad, made $100 a month and flew Soviet-made MIG 23s. Like many in the officer corps, he waited out the war at home, not willing to risk his life for the man he hated. He loves to fly and by his account, “is a very, very good pilot.” For the last month, he has been working as a driver for American journalists.
Though Omar may not get to fly MIGs again, and may never get to use the swimming pool and other facilities at the now-bombed-out club for air-force officers at the center of Baghdad, like all Iraqis I have met here, he is happy that Saddam is gone. “I was so sick of him. We were all so sick of him. I would come home and close the door and drink. I would not turn on the television because it was always Saddam.” Omar thinks Iraq could become a very rich country. But he is worried about the rise of Shia fundamentalists and is not sure he could get a job as a civilian pilot once the long-forgotten Iraqi Airways gets back in business.
More than the intermittent electricity shortages, Baghdadis I have met complain a good deal about the lack of security and the rise in “Ali Babas,” or thieves. At night, one can occasionally hear the gunfire exchange between looters trying to enter buildings and the locals or the U.S. soldiers trying to keep the criminals out. The other day Lieutenant-General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander of land forces in Iraq and the man currently responsible for security in Baghdad, told us journalists that over 10,000 local police were back at work. But this is a mixed blessing: While the Iraqis desperately want safe streets, they detest anyone or any symbol associated with the ancienne regime. In most cases, even traffic police at major intersections have only been able to operate under the aegis of a nearby U.S. patrol. There are reports of shootings at police cars, and in a country where all forms of state power were submitted to the service of internal repression and murder, this is, to say the least, an understandable reaction.
Despite all the difficulties of the daily life here and the uncertainty about the political future, watching Iraqis slowly taste freedom — in their heartbreakingly inexperienced ways — is moving. Political parties, mostly of Kurdish, Shia, and other Iraqi groups, are popping up across the city every day. At main intersections, young teenagers sell the country’s new newspapers, which are neither controlled by the Baath party or owned by Saddam’s son Uday. These papers are more like political pamphlets by one of the exiled opposition groups or fledgling movements. People now sell satellite dishes and Thuraya satellite phones on the street — both would have been enough to send someone to Saddam’s torture chambers for years. Instead of all-Saddam-all-the-time Iraqi television, Baghdadis can now watch BBC, Al Jazeera, and other Arab networks, or tune into Kurdish-run broadcasts from northern Iraq.
And then, of course, there is the whole business of just being able to speak. The other day I went to Rashid Street, a downtown shopping area and stopped to talk to an old man standing next to the decapitated and toppled statue of el-Ghareri. Ghareri had led a Baathist assassination team — which included Saddam Hussein — which tried to kill Iraq’s Communist-leaning former leader Abd al-Karim Qasim on October 7, 1959. The assassination attempt was partly responsible for ushering the Baathists to power four years later and was therefore an official day of celebration in Saddam’s Iraq.
The old man, who belonged to the newly established Communist-party offices on Rashid Street, said they wanted to elect a statue of Qasim on the now-empty platform. “He was a good man. He killed no one, tortured nobody,” he told me. A young man with beard said, “No, we don’t want socialism.” I asked him what he would prefer for Iraq’s future and he said at the moment, he wanted Garner to run the country. A crowd was quickly gathering around us, with everyone wanting to voice their opinion. A teenager said, “We want an Islamic state — a Shia state.” Another told him to shut up and that it should be a democratic state. Several Shia men opted for “both democratic and Shia.” When I asked if they were happy about Saddam’s departure, everyone started laughing joyously: “Yes, yes.” A fiery young guy claimed Saddam was “America’s friend” and that he was likely in New York or the Bahamas now. Some nodded. He then went on to say “Thank you,” but that “U.S. should now leave.” Still more nods. An old man in dishdasha, the traditional long robe Iraqi men wear, said, “Hello Madam, thank you Madam,” and then went on to talk about Saddam’s crimes. By this time, there were at least a few dozen in the circle and all talking at the same time. “Look at me, look what Saddam made. I, an old man, had to work, work, work, and my sister, ah, she sits all day in front of the television, puts on a lipstick, and smokes. She became a prostitute, my sister, hah, hah!” Performing for the audience, he went on to imitate his sister and everyone started cracking up.