There must be some way to get out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
– Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower
BAGHDAD – It’s noon on Sunday right in front of the Adhamiyah wall – the now infamous symbol of the Pentagon-devised Baghdad gulag. On Muhamad al-Kasem highway, a few battered cars and vans stop, their occupants curious to examine this prime stretch of “ghettoization”.
Behind lies Adhamiyah, one the key arteries of the Red Zone and privileged heartland of Sunni Arab guerrillas. The streets are littered with all sorts of debris, some blocked by tanks, some blocked by the usual blast wall slalom. The road to Abu Hanifa Mosque – where the Sunni Arab resistance was born on April 8, 2003, a little over a week after the “liberation” of Baghdad – is also blocked. It was in Abu Hanifa that a 3,000-strong demonstration assembled last week to protest against the wall. Adhamiyah is virtually encircled by US forces, but their checkpoints are always mobile.
A few minutes later we are still close to the heart of Adhamiyah, on al-Mashatil Road, one of its main streets. We are unembedded, non-Hummer convoy-transported, non-Kevlar protected, and not surrounded by 100 soldiers and circled overhead by three Black Hawks and two Apaches, like US presidential candidate John MacCain in his recent visit (“Hello, habibi!”) to Shorja market (the next day 21 merchants and workers at the market were ambushed and murdered). We are just three journalists – two Iraqis, Abdel and Fatima (their real identities should be protected) and one foreigner, his head in a keffiah, all aboard a civilian Toyota stuck in traffic.
There’s a checkpoint ahead. Incoming traffic has to slow down in front of a Hummer of the Iraqi Defense Forces. A soldier is talking to the driver of a van. Suddenly there is a shot. The soldier falls to the ground, right before our eyes, screaming in pain. He is not dead instantly. His companion, by the Hummer, takes some time to react, then also starts shooting. People duck in their cars; general wisdom is that if these were US troops, they would be shooting at random and every car would be sprayed with bullets.
Some cars hit reverse and join our traffic flow. Chador-clad women pedestrians speed across the boulevard in panic. At first we thought the shot came from a sniper on the roof of a house on our side of the boulevard. But sniper shots are silent. Soon we realize the Iraqi soldier was shot from a passing car. Abdel quips, “If we had this image, AP [Associated Press] would buy it for US$100,000.” Welcome to Adhamiyah.
Ten minutes later, we are arrested.
Life under surge
The day had already started under high tension, as US jets around 9:00am bombed positions supposedly held by Islamic Emirate of Iraq guerrillas in explosive Dora, south Baghdad. We stop by the recently bombed Sarafiya bridge over the Tigris, which links the al-Qasra side of Sunni Adhamiyah to Shi’ite al-Altafiyah.
Residents are adamant: the bomb was planted “by the Americans”; one of them says, “The night before the bombing, the Americans were surrounding the bridge, and right after the bomb exploded, we heard the noise of a jet.” If this is true, it would fit a perceived – by a overwhelming majority of Sunnis and Shi’ites alike – American strategy of inciting sectarian war: Shi’ites are now forced to pass through turbulent Adhamiyah if they want to go, for instance, to al-Mustansariyah University (also recently bombed), which is considered in Baghdad as a “Shi’ite” university.
We are stuck yet again in a hellish traffic jam, in the Bab al-Madam area, before a checkpoint at the Ministry of Health. It’s an ultra-sensitive area – scene of many battles between US forces and the Sunni Arab resistance. Suddenly, a very bad move: a policeman spots a foreign-looking individual in a car with a video camera.
Police at this stretch are all from Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army. In their minds this instantly means spying. The Iraqi journalists produce their credentials to no avail. Cries of “Sahafa!” (“journalists”) don’t cut it. We – and the camera – are in fact apprehended by the Mehdi Army. Abdel goes to the ministry to try to solve the problem.
Meanwhile, Fatima’s expensive mobile goes missing. After some waiting, we are also summoned to the first floor bureau of Abu Sama, head of security and also spokesman for the ministry. There are posters of Muqtada and Imam Hussein everywhere. Security at the ministry is all Mehdi Army. The minister is a Sadrist himself. If we had the chance to go to one of the upper floors we would be able to see, through the windows, autopsies performed on the ground at the neighboring Baghdad morgue.
The tortuous ensuing conversation is like a dadaist manifesto. Abu Sama – and his attending score of assistants and policemen – turn the whole episode into a diatribe against the evils of Saddam Hussein, while suggesting Fatima’s phone was not really stolen, and examining the guilty images in the camera with barely a passing glance.
They are all southern Shi’ites – from Najaf, Diwaniyah, Nassiriyah – more eager to display their tribal affiliation as a badge of honor than discussing the incident. It all finishes with excuses (“people here at the ministry are very tense”), cups of tea and invitations to visit again. Abdel then reveals what really happened.
At checkpoints, the Mehdi Army often provokes some confusion so as to have mobile phones stolen: this is a business. But in the case of the camera, the threat to us was real. Abdel happened to have installed a radio station in Sadr City, so he knows key Mehdi Army officials. Otherwise, he said, we would have been branded as “spies” and shot on sight. Right by the curbside. Just like the soldier at the checkpoint. We would thus join the ranks of the 188 journalists killed since the “liberation” in 2003.
A few minutes later we learn that the very popular Amal al-Mudarris, 58, host of the top radio show Studio Asha, aired every day at 10am, has been the victim of an assassination attempt in al-Khadraa, west Baghdad. She survived, but in critical condition.
The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed since April 2003, the more than 4 million exiled and internally displaced, the overlapping ethnic cleansing neighborhood by neighborhood, the abysmal impotence of the Nuri al-Maliki government to seriously work with the Sunni Arab elite, the American imposition of the Baghdad gulag: all these factors dissolve in the deadly daily embrace of the Red Zone – where a human life means absolutely nothing and to stay alive in one piece is a victory to be earned minute by minute.
The Red Zone soundtrack is the hum of the power generator, punctuated by Kalashnikov shots, explosions, bombings, the sirens of police cars and ambulances and the roar of US choppers flying almost at roof level.
The air is heavy, dusty and the sun usually does not shine through the thick haze – a Hollywood-like special effect. The Baghdad gulag has the feel of an eerie version of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles – dusty and dead instead of glitzy palm trees, living-dead characters covered by a thick layer of sand and soot. The urban tissue is of a dissected cadaver – filthy, exposed parts separated from one another, fear and loathing impressed on blood, sweat, tears and viscera.
This is the real face of Bush’s surgeland.
All along the watchtower
Baghdad – former Saddam – International Airport is the only airport in the world where immigration does not ask you for your passport: they want your badge. Incoming planes still have to circle overhead at least five times before a mad dash towards the runway: one never knows when the “Islamic Emirate of Iraq” may decide to test drive one of its new al-Quds 1 guided missiles.
The pattern of going round in circles is mirrored on the ground in the taxi ride from the airport via the eerily desolate, coalition-approved ring road to the first checkpoint, bordering the immense, sprawling US Camp Victory nestled behind huge walls and barbed wire. For a foreigner, hanging out at this checkpoint for more than a minute is already madness. “It’s full of spies,” and kidnapping would be a foregone conclusion.
The badge syndrome becomes more apparent in one of the safest places in the Red Zone: it had to be a mini-Green Zone, in the Shi’ite Karrada neighborhood. A group of no more than 10 houses, including two hotels, is protected like a bunker. Inside this normality amid chaos, the prominent inhabitants had to be armed-to-the-teeth private security contractors – the shadow US army in Iraq. Exit a group of bulky, burly South African mercenaries who had been sipping tea in the hotel lobby over piped music. Enter a group of Nepalese Gurkhas in T-shirts whose first activity is target practice at the hotel entrance.
This Red Zone film set (which would cost a fortune and months of work in Hollywood), “safer than the Green Zone”, quips an Iraqi security guard, is the essence of Baghdad gulag territory: blast walls, badges, barbed wire, watchtowers, non-stop security checks, body searches, giant power generators, containers, dilapidated houses (some “for rent”, no takers), crumbling pavement, pools of stagnant water.
Security is provided by one of the private companies based in the compound. Baghdad condo living is expensive: power cuts are continual (most of Baghdad has no more than two hours of electricity a day), so energy is at a premium and fuel costs 88 US cents a liter. A medium-sized, three-storey hotel consumes 1,650 liters a day. Sometimes buildings have to run for two or three days on generator only.
Muhammad is a night watchman in this “secure environment”. During the day he lives in the real world, in Sadr City, one of the world’s top slums. He says he faces no problems coming to work every day: after all, he has a badge. He is glad to confirm Muqtada is in Iraq, not Iran, as the White House claims. He complains heavily about “Wahabbis killing women and children” – a reference to the “Islamic Emirate of Iraq” proclaimed by al-Qaeda. And he fears a return of the Ba’athists. For his part, a Christian Kurd head waiter confirms Christians are coming in droves from explosive Dora – where ethnic cleansing by the Islamic Emirate of Iraq is in progress – to live in safety in Karrada: “East Baghdad is safe, but the west is very dangerous. Iraq is finished.”
For Kurds and Christians in Karrada, the former Ba’athist, US intelligence asset, interim prime minister and “Butcher of Fallujah”, Iyad Allawi, is the closest to a solution to the Iraqi tragedy: “We need a strongman. He would eradicate the militias.” They see a weak government and endless party squabbling as the biggest problems – an implicit criticism of the Iran-affiliated religious parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Da’wa Party. They also recognize the split inside the Mehdi Army – and the good nationalist intentions of Muqtada.
Apaches always drown the cry of the muezzin just before sunset. The curfew has been pushed back to 10:00pm. But even by 5pm the streets are already deserted. Cultural life is non-existent. The artisans in the souk al-Rashid are gone. The booksellers on al-Mutanabi are gone. The windows in countless buildings remain smashed. The al-Rashid telephone exchange, or the Ministry of Finance, or the Ministry of Planning by the Green Zone, remain post-modern cement deconstructions, Swiss cheese-style.
On Saadoon Street, once one of the main roads, most businesses are closed. Saadoon though exhibits a prime Baghdad contribution to post-modern art, worthy of a Venice Biennalle: the landscaped blast wall, featuring colorful scenes of lakeside, mountain or pastoral bliss. The wall, of course, serves the pedestrian purpose of protecting the infamous Baghdad Hotel, a well-known headquarters of US forces.
In Mansur – former abode of the Baghdad grand bourgeoisie – streets are also blocked by checkpoints and a few houses harboring politicians or businessmen are enveloped by blast walls. The restaurants on Mansur Avenue are all closed. The whole neighborhood fits the pattern of a film set in ruins. It’s impossible to eat a masgouf – grilled carp – by the Tigris, on Abu Nawas Street, a former favorite Baghdad pastime: the restaurants are all closed. Saydia used to be a good, relatively upscale Baghdad neighborhood, ethnically mixed, with lots of Ba’ath Party officials but also average civilians. Most houses are now abandoned, the streets empty, only a few stores open.
There may not be as many sports utility vehicles with tinted windows whose occupants distribute Kalashnikov rounds at random – or as many car bombs in markets. But the overwhelming majority of Baghdadis, Sunni or Shi’ite, have absolutely no trust in the capacity of the Maliki government to minimally assure their security.
Abdul Samad Sultan, minister of migrations, insists that over 1,000 self-exiled families have returned to their neighborhoods, mostly in Madaen, Mahmoudiya and Shaab. But that’s nothing compared to figures in a recent report by the non-governmental organization International Medical Corps, according to which 540,000 Iraqis had fled their homes from the February 2006 bombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra to early 2007. Eighty percent of these – as can be easily confirmed in Damascus – are from Baghdad.
Every Sunni one talks to accuses the Mehdi Army of chasing them out of formerly mixed neighborhoods, while in Yarmouk hardcore Sunnis of the Islamic Party are advancing their ethnic cleansing of Shi’ites. Until recently, a gruesome ritual was being performed in Yarmouk – the showing off of the cadavers of the day at noon, or guerrillas telling families to look for their relatives as if they were in Bala, a well-known second-hand market (“you look inside the bags, and you can match an arm with another, or a leg with a foot”).
In explosive al-Amriya, in west Baghdad, flags of the Islamic Emirate of Iraq are on full display, and the writing is – literally – on the walls: “Long live al-Qaeda.” Women are being forced to wear the niqqab – which covers the whole face – and gloves at all times, and some women have already been executed, accused of spying. All across town war widows – women who traditionally were supposed to stay at home raising the family – now have become mechanics, parking valets or electronic appliance repairers.
Sunni Heitein and mixed Sunni-Shi’ite al-Ameel are adjacent neighborhoods. The ethnic cleansing of Ameel has been persistent for the past four months. It all started – as almost everything in Iraq – as a tribal conflict, between the Sunni al-Janabi tribe and the Shi’ite al-Megasis tribe. Fighting with Kalahsnikovs, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades would go on all day, even during the Friday jumma prayers. In the end, Sunnis were forced to leave Ameel for good. The neighborhood became a ghost town, now virtually sealed off by the Iraqi Army. Iraq’s per capita annual income plunged from $3,600 in 1980 – when Iraq was still a model developing country – to $860 in 2001 after 10 years of United Nations sanctions, to $530 at the end of 2003. Now it may be even lower than $400. Unemployment is at 60%. Thieves are desperate: there are not many more flush Iraqis left to plunder. The only lucrative business is to kidnap and resell foreigners.
An extremely high percentage of exiles are businessmen, technocrats, intellectuals, scientists – all fleeing fundamentalist or confessional carnage, whether it comes from militias, death squads, mafias, killers disguised as policemen, Saddamists or Salafi-jihadists. The absence of skilled workers and professionals is staggering. A well-known secular intellectual, whose identity must be be protected, has been insistently courted by the Maliki government: they have offered anything he wanted, even a ministry. He declined. The Sunni Arab resistance also offered him anything he wanted. He also declined. No one knows how much longer he can maintain his independence.
Most of the 5 million or so poor souls who have remained in Baghdad are the disenfranchised, the unemployed, the miserable, the wretched, like scores of old, frail men in their battered gallabie and keffiah begging in the middle of the hellish traffic, among the decomposing cars, the donkeys, the slaughtered sheep by the curbside and the endless machine gun toting convoys of Iraqi police (“They are worse than the Americans”).
The UN has done next to nothing to help these millions of exiled Iraqis – not to mention the wealthy Arab emirates, or the Wahhabi millionaires in Saudi Arabia. After the total implosion of social life, Iraq has reverted to pre-modernity. Baghdad, once the pride of Islam, has reverted to the status of the saddest, most desperate of global capitals. No wonder the motto – even from secular, well-educated Shi’ites – is ubiquitous: “Iraq is finished.”
So no one can say that half a trillion dollars – so far – courtesy of US taxpayers, has not served a clear “creative destruction” purpose. And this is only the hors d’oeuvres. The Baghdad gulag is yet to reach full fruition. Iraq will be finished one mini-Green Zone at a time.