Iraq: Sleepless Days and Nights

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Monday, June 30, 2003 at 6:57PM :

Sleepless Days and Nights
Michael Birmingham, Iraq Peace Team

27 June 2003

Iraq feels eerily like a country that could be near the precipice of sliding into a terrible hell. Nearly three months into rule by the self-proclaimed occupying powers, and everywhere are to be seen the seeds of peril, interspersing a population desperately hoping for a different future.

For more than twenty-three years war has wrought a high price from Iraq. War with Iran left a nation thronging with bereaved or mutilated people. The sustained military and economic warfare of the United States since 1990 has mercilessly targeted the civilian population. Perhaps the reemergence of the specter of war is the most ominous of the perils that may now await the Iraqi people (though it has competitors for the attention of those who care about the people of Iraq).

At the beginning of May, President Bush announced the end of the war. It was a strategic decision that involved a declaration of America as an occupying power, with some nominal though slightly irritating Geneva Convention responsibilities. The pay-off was being officially in charge of Iraq. However, in the real world it might well be that what has been done thus far by the U.S. will ensure that war will return with a vengeance to this country.

Despite the current administration's rantings about terrorism and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, we are watching in Iraq the emergence of a real menace to American lives. Paul Bremer, the President's representative who is in control of Iraq, is mixing a cocktail of fear, anger, and desperation. They are the ingredients of guerilla warfare, the world over.

Since arriving in Baghdad, Bremer has resolutely argued that the situation for Iraqis in terms of security and lifestyle fundamentals has been improving. He gave the clear impression that it is no longer an issue and he is moving on to more pressing matters.

Bremer is based now in Saddam's former palace with a staff of about six hundred. These six hundred people have so far cost $300 million in salaries and expenses. This is nearly twice the amount paid to-date to 24 million Iraqis in salaries and pensions.

When Bremer's people tell journalists that many Iraqis have now received a month's salary, that the electrical and water systems are improved, and that great strides have been made in terms of law and order, for the most part his words get a soft landing. Even the United Nations new head in Iraq has gone out of his way whenever possible to affirm to the world the truth of the improving situation.

But then life as a journalist or U.N. foreign worker is somewhat different than life as an Iraqi. While Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN Secretary General's special representative, spoke about improved security in Baghdad, nobody asked him about the two American Humvees which guard his U.N. building day and night armed with heavy sub-machine guns and missile launchers that are trained on each passing car.

I spoke with a 70 year-old woman, who says she cannot sleep at night, because there is no air conditioning or even a fan for the stifling heat. During her sleepness night, it is dark and frightening. There are no streetlights or light within the house. She lives only with her daughter-in-law and young grandchildren as her sons are abroad because of sanctions era poverty and consequent need to earn income. She is afraid to leave her bedroom. Occasionally there is still gunfire outside the house. She is afraid of the "cowboy" U.S. soldiers (whom she sees as young clueless and operating with impunity), as well as house breakers who could at a whim decide to enter the home of her completely defenseless family.

While at present the whole of Baghdad is without water or electricity, journalists continue to enjoy the pleasures of air-conditioned hotels. Journalists have plenty of opportunities to find out more about what life is like for Iraqis, but that would only bring them closer to the truth, not a "better" story.

It seems to date that the single minded determination of the U.S. government to proceed with its agenda in this region is unmatched by our determination to uncover the lies they tell to smooth their way. Precious few are the reports from Iraq which include context or a serious attempt to move beyond the administration's line: that each event can be understood in the framework of some other recent event. It's all action and reaction.

But for the U.S. the truth is that its foreign policy has tormented this country for decades. Many have died, and up to now their relatives often in large number blamed Saddam. Many did not want to take seriously Iraqi state television's accounts of how the sanctions were really a malicious strategy of the U.S. government. In between the incessant odes to Saddam and the bear-faced pro-regime lies, who'd take seriously any such information? Then of course, people always tend to blame the person just above them. In Iraq, Saddam made it clear that he was the person just above everyone.

But now the U.S. is in charge. Colin Powell suggested in Mid-February, as sited in the Washington Post, that it was essential after the war for Iraqis to see an immediate improvement in their living conditions. The complete opposite was achieved. Instead of real improvement Bremer has simply gone for pubic relations. He simply says there is an improvement, and he gets away with it.

The reality on the streets and in the homes around Iraq tell a different story. Last Saturday afternoon, while walking along Saddoun Street, beside Tahrir Square, one of Baghdad's busiest commercial spots, I watched the new "safe" Baghdad in action. Three men emerged from a side street and amidst hysteria they proceeded to attempt to steal a car. While large crowds on both sides of the street watched in fear, the men alternated between jumping on cars and running at the crowds on the pavement. Eventually people got guns and fired at them, while others picked up stones and masonry and threw them at the three men. They managed to steal a car, but amidst fire from Kalasnikovs and pistols from both sides of the road, they didnít get very far. One of the men escaping under fire got back to the crowd who then grabbed him, dragged him to the ground and jumped on his head and body, kicking him until he looked nearly dead. They eventually stopped, and maybe 15 or twenty minutes later some U.S. troops and Iraqi police arrived.

-- Sadie
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