Ignited Iraq: A Baghdad Journal

Article excerpt

During his final year and a half as lord of misrule, Saddam Hussein liked to joke that Iraqis should win the contract to rebuild the World Trade Center since they had so much experience at reconstruction after the Gulf War of 1991. As events unfolded, something like the opposite happened. The military-industrial complex that recently destroyed so much of Iraq will now be hired to repair the damage. Few Iraqis this summer believe that the postwar contractual arrangements are a coincidence. "You encouraged the looting and burning after you got finished bombing," a maintenance worker at the Baghdad Polytechnic Institute told me, "so you could get paid for putting it all back up again."

When the war began in March I was in Hanoi, where the US Embassy helpfully sent a fax to "American citizens in Vietnam" warning of the danger posed by "armed conflict with Iraq." "Remain vigilantly aware of surroundings, avoid crowds and demonstrations, keep a low profile.... This Public Announcement is being updated to alert Americans to an increased potential for anti-American violence," and on and on. Since Vietnam is neither a Muslim country nor one where threats against Americans have occurred--it is only a country we invaded a few wars ago--the conclusion was inescapable that the government knew how widely unpopular its action would be. Intellectual isolationism had led to global unilateralism, with the British as the tail of the kite. September 11 had both scared and emboldened us into the second of our new blitzing wars.

Dry, blazing, ignited Iraq is a country whose capital does not loom over its landscape but instead shimmers up out of the desert as though it may or may not eventually materialize. As soon as I arrived in the second week of July it was apparent the country's needs are so simple as to be alliterative: security, services and structure are the mantra, the liberte-egalite-fraternite of this proposed revolution from despotism to something resembling a representative distribution of power. There was still only sporadic electricity, the water was polluted and Baghdad was considered so dangerous Americans were warned not to go out at night and never to go anywhere without a driver and translator. "This is a rule," an American said to me the day I arrived. "Don't break it."

Yet there was something else, even more obvious than danger though easily overlooked in the rush to keep up with unfolding crises, that quickly became clear. Between most Americans and most Iraqis is a gulf more unbridgeable than the nearby Persian Gulf itself, both in terms of worldview and self-recognition. Like Americans, Iraqis have all kinds of opinions, but almost all of our new subject citizens have such utterly different concepts from ours of words like "freedom," "liberation" or even "country" and "national identity" that to speak of these where they are concerned is to court major misunderstanding before we have even begun. "Democracy," of course, has been pounded out of shape on the postwar anvil.

The best time of day in Iraq is between 5:30 and 7:30 in the morning, when everything is still in shade or shadow yet there is enough light for observation. Tradespeople are coming to work and merchants are filling the souks, offering a range of goods from air-conditioners to shoelaces to newly available magazines to fresh lamb. You could almost be anywhere east of Greece, and if you looked only at the market stalls and not at the scarred, charred and blasted buildings above, you would not know at such a time that although its army and government did not so much lose as melt away, this is now a conquered country. The worst time of day is late afternoon, when you expect the onset of coolness, relief from the inferno of noon, yet it is still so hot you could bake bread in your car, and no one is moving who doesn't have to. Again, if you kept your eyes on the somnolent bazaars and the vendors who are now bestirring themselves only to ward off flies, you could easily forget you are in a territory occupied by a foreign force whose nationality you share and whose presence is the occasion for both earnest gratitude and violent resistance. …