Blogs > HNN > Thinking Back to Baghdad One Year Ago

Mar 21, 2005 4:12 am

Thinking Back to Baghdad One Year Ago

A year ago today I stood on the roof of a half demolished building in the 'Adamiyyah neighborhood of Baghdad watching about 2,500 mostly religious (and largely Shi‘i) men march past me on the first anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. This was to be a momentous occasion, where tens of thousands of Iraqis marched to demand an end to the occupation--most important, Sunni and Shi'i together (as the march started in the Shi'i Qadamiyyah neighborhood before crossing the river to the largely Sunni 'Adamiyyah neighborhood). I had originally planned to watch the march from the street, but the tension in the air, the better – and safer – view from above, and the fact that the crowd was screaming the equivalent of "death to the Jews and America" made it more comfortable to be at a slight distance removed from the proceedings.

Even a year later, it's hard to understand, never mind explain, the myriad feelings I experienced in Iraq on the invasion's first anniversary, as the insurgency blossomed in all its bloody glory, evening recreation included sitting on the roof of the hotel guessing where the mortars would land, the air was so thick with diesel (from generators used to power everything imaginable since there was little electricity) that I was permanently nauseas, Apache helicopters and US security patrols were so jumpy that you literally froze whenever either passed by (or above) for fear that sneezing would get you blasted out of existence; and yet people went about their daily lives, the cafes were full, the galleries featured new and sometimes surprisingly good art, and the most ordinary as well as the most religious and high-ranking people who had suffered violence from one side or the other of the burgeoning ethno-religious conflict went out of their way to blame not the "other" side, but rather the US and the occupation as the cause of their misfortune.

Yet for all the blood and violence across the country on that sunny, warm yet sad day, there was a kernel of hope for the future. Especially for Kurds, and almost as much for Shi‘a – although certainly less for Sunnis – there was the sense that however bad things got, they couldn't be as bad as the Saddam era and would eventually get better. This was at least one reason why two of the most flourishing businesses seemed to be real estate and "temporary wives" brought in from Iran and set up in hotels throughout the Shi‘i sections of the country.

A year later I'm not sure how many of the people I met would still share this view. Certainly no one associated with Iraq's still – criminally, it should be pointed out – decrepit health care system, who were literally "banging their heads on the wall" (as one doctor explained it to me) in frustration over the US unwillingness to supply them – as required by the Geneva Conventions – with adequate medical supplies and personnel. Certainly not some of the artists I met, who like their intellectual/academic counterparts have been targeted just for being artists and for having had some contact with or travel in the west. But for most of the Shi‘is I know, there is a definite optimism that life will get better soon. Most voted; many are getting some kind of work for themselves; some are even improving their economic situations while their political situation remains at an historically unprecedented level of freedom

Yet at the same time there is great confusion about why it's taking so long to do so and why the American military remains so inept and/or unwilling to facilitate the process. Here's two examples from a Shi‘i friend in Sadr City: for months he and his colleagues, all respected members of the community who've worked with the Americans on various occasions, went to the local US commander and told him where the "terrorists" were hiding in their neighborhoods so they could be removed. The commander uniformly refused to arrest the men, and when they went to the local police chief he responded, "Are you crazy? If I pick them up the Americans will let them go and they'll come right back here and kill me. What do you want me to do?" This led my friend to wonder if the Americans really want to catch insurgents or just stay in Iraq for ever looking for them (and finding a lot of oil in the process).

Beyond that, there are growing signs from the outside—from an Iraqi perspective—that something is happening to the mentality of the American troops. In the last month there have been at least eight "accidents" in Baghdad involving US personnel making such bad mistakes in judgment (like flipping over a tank into an open water hole that wound up drowning the soldier inside) that my friend assumed the soldiers must have been trying to commit suicide (he clearly has a hard time believing that the US military is as incompetent as some critics of the occupation content).

I doubt this is the cause of the accidents; fatigue and stress are much more likely culprits. But the dynamic shows that in a moment when the Shi‘i majority believes it needs the US to keep its head cool and stabilize the situation they increasingly feel that the US isn't up to the job, which is, of course, exactly what the insurgents want them to think.

A year ago, standing in the rubble of yet another bombed out hotel (this one around the block from mine), I had little hope that anything good could come out of Iraq. Today I feel the glimmer of hope that has energized so many Shi‘a and Kurds, but like even the most optimistic of my Iraqi friends, I fear the challenges are so huge and obstacles so great that no matter how well-intentioned, the US will continue to aggravate a situation it says it's working overtime to repair.

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Sandor A. Lopescu - 4/16/2005

And if so shouldn't he be removed from the masthead?

Hala Fattah - 3/26/2005

Thats Kadhimiyya, not Qadamiyya. Interesting article 'though, and I appreciate the optimistic tone, but you'd be surprised at how many Iraqis I meet in Jordan who are completely confused about the present situation. And how many of them are still leaving the country in droves.