Letter from Iraq

Article excerpt

Baghdad

Iraq has become one bizarre series of contradictions. Construction of what the government boasts will be one of the world's largest mosques continues in Baghdad, as does work on a new presidential palace, described by one official as being "like our version of the White House." On Abu Nuwas Street, workers are putting the finishing touches on the base for a new sculpture by the much-revered Iraqi artist Mohammed Ghani. The work: a great flying carpet, inspired by one of the tales of Thousand and One Nights. In fact, it's difficult to go anywhere in central Baghdad without seeing workers building or repairing something.

But in homes throughout the country, there is a different sort of labor under way, and it is being carried out with much greater urgency. Families are digging wells for water and buying up canned goods, cooking gas and heating oil. Wealthier families are buying generators. Some Iraqis say they will leave the city and head for family farms or homes in more rural areas. Others say they will not leave, some of them fearing looting in the event of internal strife. Among ordinary Iraqis, the enthusiastic rhetoric of defending the country against a US invasion has now been replaced by the stark realization that the eleventh hour has arrived.

On the surface, the daily routine persists. The streets remain congested with cars in a country where twenty-five gallons of gas costs little more than $2. The markets are crowded. Old men slam dominoes on tables as they puff nargila pipes. Children have just finished their midterm recess and are returning to school; their parents go to work. But almost no one harbors illusions. "All of us are scared because we tasted it before," said Aqbal Fartus, a primary school teacher in the southern port city of Basra. Fartus lives in the heart of the so-called no-fly zones, where US and British warplanes--with no United Nations mandate--have regularly bombed Iraq since 1998. On the morning of January 25, 1999, her oldest son, 6-year-old Heider, was killed by a US missile as he played in front of his home. His brother, Mustafa, lost two fingers in the attack and lives with shrapnel in his back. Four years after Heider's death, Fartus learned that she was once again pregnant. "We want this baby to improve our situation," she said--but she lost her baby two days after the interview. "It's hard," she said. "It's very, very, very hard because you can't do much other than wait for the bombs to fall on our city."

Meanwhile, the UN is already preparing for its role during the war and in the administration of a post-Saddam Iraq, as made clear in internal documents obtained by The Nation. One document says that "planning figures" for war foresee up to 800,000 Iraqis crossing the border into neighboring countries to seek asylum, with 500,000 asylum seekers stranded at borders inside Iraq. The greatest number, according to the report, would seek to enter Iran. Another document indicates that the UN is anticipating what it calls a "medium impact" scenario: "The military campaign encounters significant resistance, but ends after a more protracted period of two to three months. As a result of a large-scale ground offensive supported by aerial bombardments, there would be considerable destruction of critical infrastructure and sizable internal and external population movements." The report says there is a "major risk" of civil unrest in areas around Iraq that is "likely to result in high levels of casualties." In what could be a telling indication of the kind of timeline US-led forces are working on, the UN predicts it will be able to regain access to southern Iraq approximately thirty days after the start of the conflict but does not foresee reaching Baghdad until three or more months after the war begins.

A Western humanitarian official says that many UN workers have already begun quietly leaving the country in anticipation of massive attacks, although officially they are taking "vacations. …