George Ziyad World Press Review correspondent Baghdad, Iraq Dec. 2, 2003
A mural of Saddam Hussein is defaced with the words "Goodbye, leaches," a term the Baathist minister of information, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, used to describe U.S. soldiers (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP-Getty Images).
Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s era was littered with panoramas and statues harking back to the glories of early Mesopotamian civilizations, likening Saddam Hussein to the kings of the Akkadians, Sumerians, and Babylonians. The statues of Saddam Hussein have now been pulled down, but Baghdad is still plastered with murals where only his face has been effaced, leaving bare white stone underneath. Nothing has replaced either the man or his face, but with more than 100 political parties there are plenty of pretenders. Baghdad has become a city of graffiti as political parties take advantage of the power vacuum in a country with no elected government, parliament, or constitution.
There are more than 100 newspapers, but state television is steadfastly apolitical, and the press, no matter how impressive its efforts, reaches only a limited portion of the population. The security situation inhibits public demonstrations. So peddlers in the souk of political ideas take to the walls. The only public slogans Iraqis knew before April were the pan-Arab mantras of the ruling Baath Party, such as “One Arab nation with an eternal message.” Now competing slogans vie for attention. “Yes to the leader Saddam Hussein” on the side of one building is matched on another by “No to the pro-Saddam Al-Jazeera channel in Iraq: Media distortion is a stab in the back.” “Islam is the solution,” a common message in many Baghdad neighborhoods, is met with “Democracy is the solution” in other neighborhoods. The slogans of the Islamist Daawa Party are common, as are those of the communists, a lone secular voice in the jungle of Iraq’s Islamic politics. “Glory to both the Sunni and Shiite martyrs of Islam,” Daawa Party slogans read. The communists add, optimistically: “Free nation, happy people.” There are also the odd messages from the Hashemite monarchists led by Sherif bin Hussein: “Royal rule in Iraq is the choice that guarantees moving to a better tomorrow.”
Surprisingly, Ahmed Chalabi, Washington’s prewar favorite dissident, is barely featured at all. “Chalabi is the symbol of freedom,” reads one lone line of praise, to which a passer-by has responded, “Chalabi is the symbol of mendacity.”
Smaller parties are almost invisible. There are so many of them, with so many similar-sounding names. The United Nasserist Nationalist Party’s headquarters is in an unassuming downtown apartment block—a dusty, grubby affair. On the fifth floor, a group of Arab nationalists sits in a dingy room. They seem to have been sitting there since the 1960s without realizing time has moved on and tarnished the Arab nationalist cause.
“The Arab nation has been targeted since the battles of Yarmuk and Qadisiya [early battles of the Arab conquests] and since Islam spread to the east and the west. Today the  Sykes-Picot Agreement [between Britain and France] has split the Arab nation into statelets with manufactured borders in order to abort any unification project,” a pamphlet the party recently printed declares, before making some reasonable points about the need to draft a constitution, to elect a government as soon as possible, and for the all the main political groups to come together for that purpose.
Asked about the political graffiti frenzy in Iraq, United Nasserist Nationalist spokesman Zeidan Khalaf sniffs, “These parties are new and nobody knows them. We don’t need to resort to this kind of thing. Arab nationalists have been deliberately kept off the Iraqi Governing Council, but we are reforming so that our presence will be felt. Our newspaper is about to start publishing and I imagine that we’ll end up merging with other nationalist parties once the government sets out laws that organize political parties. At the moment it’s chaos.”
Din and Dawla Arab nationalists were as duped by Hussein’s Baathists as anyone else, of course. Today, the Communist Party is one of the most prominent in Iraq—an incongruity in the Arab world, where the influence of Islamist ideology has made “communist” synonymous with “atheist”. The communists are officially banned in Egypt. No one with a serious interest in political power anywhere else in the Arab world would publicly take on the “communist” mantle. But in Iraq, the Communist Party has a long history and an important place in the narrative of the emerging modern nation-state—so important that there is a communist on the Governing Council and a communist in the Cabinet chosen by that council.
Abdel-Latif al-Saadi of the Communist Party weekly Tariq al-Shaab frankly acknowledges the oddity of having a communist in government in an Arab country, even in traditionally “secular”, Arab-nationalist Iraq. Gradually since the defeat of the secular Arab-nationalist project in the 1967 war with Israel, secularism has become a dirty word in the Arab world. With the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and now the American occupation of Iraq, the pan-Arab project has lost its luster. Communism today, Saadi says, is about maintaining the difference between religion and state, din and dawla.
“At the street level, the word ‘secular’ is not understood, but people try to say that it means being an infidel. We consider praying and fasting to be a personal issue. We use the word ‘secular’ all the time in our paper,” Al-Saadi says. “Our society was more secular than other Arab societies. We didn’t have religious extremism, but then Saddam Hussein exploited religion. I used to be able to discuss the existence of God with Muslim Brothers. Now I can’t do that.”
Hussein did indeed exploit religion in the 1990s. In the middle of their lost decade under U.N. sanctions, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis sought refuge in God with the state’s encouragement. In 1998, Hussein announced a “faith campaign” that aimed to keep the masses on the straight and narrow in difficult times. Dozens of mosques and religious schools were built around the country, a radio station dedicated to Quranic recitation and teaching started broadcasting in 2001, and rare independent newspapers specializing in religious affairs were allowed to publish for Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The faith campaign also did America and its allies a favor, since it aimed to check the ability of Shiite Iran, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, or radical groups like Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda to make inroads with Iraqis. The state didn’t want religious extremism seen elsewhere in the region to spread here.
Religion, Culture, and Democracy The communist Minister of Culture Mufid al-Jazairy has the air of someone who is surprised to find himself in such a powerful position but is determined to take it seriously. After a generation of dictatorship, Iraqi communists have returned to a significantly different political landscape from that of the 1960s. Their compatriots, Shiite and Sunni, are more religious. “Iraq is a country of natural plurality. Although the old regime didn’t want to recognize this fact, there are many Iraqi nations—a religious plurality and political plurality. There are a few extremists, but when you set them aside you see that for the main part there is coexistence, acceptance, and respect,” he says. “The Communist Party is one of the main patriotic and realistic political parties. We are seeing how many of the new generation are attracted by the party and its policy and are trying to join it. We are doing our best for that. No political party in Iraq can say how popular it is because in the modern history of Iraq there have never been free elections that would give an indication. Maybe the coming elections, which we hope will be democratic and free, will show how strong our party and all Iraqi parties are.”
Al-Jazairy’s hopes will run up against the rising influence, chiefly among Shiites, of political Islam in Iraq. Iraqi Shiite leaders and factions are many, ranging from the moderate, like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to the radical, like Muqtada al-Sadr, who virtually runs the Baghdad slum of 2 million people formerly called Saddam City and now renamed Sadr City. Two of the moderates are dead: Abdul Majid al-Khoei was murdered in April and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim in August. Sadr’s hit men are widely suspected in both cases.
For all the resurgent influence of political Islam, Iraqis in general still seem mild in their observance of religious occasions. In Baghdad, eating or smoking in public during Ramadan was acceptable behavior. Shiites display pictures of Imams Ali and Hussein on their cars, pictures that are anathema to Sunnis and gross heresy to Wahhabi hardliners. But it is clear that for increasing numbers of Sunnis and Shiites alike, their religious background has become their prime source of identity, pride, and respect.
The “new Iraq” panders to this to some degree: Whereas before pan-Arabism had been the glue used to hold the country together, now it is Islam. The Iraqi Governing Council is talking about framing basic laws that maintain “the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people with the guarantee of the right of other religions and sects.”
Where would this leave the communists? “We have no reason to think that things are going to change just because there are religious parties and we are a communist party, unless extremist groups and personalities try to move in and influence that. I hope there’s no reason for fear,” Al-Jazairy says. In fact, he appears to embrace the new religiously defined Iraq. Iraq could be a secular model for the Arab region, he says, “but with full respect for the different religious groups so that they have absolute freedom just like all other political and social groups….We are a country in which the absolute majority is Muslim and we cannot ignore the fact that Islam could be important for us as a source [of laws and identity], but to be the only, or the main source, or whatever—this is a matter of discussion. I think that all the parties could reach an acceptable formula.”
So, Islam is “in” and Arabism is “out” for the standard-bearers of national identity in Iraq. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering that Islam provided the only accepted outlet for Iraqi’s cultural energies under Hussein. Intellectual and cultural life were destroyed by the Baath dictatorship. Many Iraqi intellectuals sold themselves to Hussein to survive, people like Abdel-Razzaq Abdel-Wahid, who dedicated poems to Hussein on the occasion of his birthday. Abdel-Wahid was notorious among Iraqis. One of the current Culture Ministry officials was a friend of his. “He feels terrible about what he did. He feels he was a traitor to himself,” Hasaballah Yehya says. So terrible that he has left the country and now lives in Paris. Other intellectuals—probably the vast majority—left Iraq during Hussein’s time, while a few chose to sit it out in pained silence.
“The effect is very deep. It was a systematic and planned attack on culture. The Ministry of Culture at that time was a ministry of anti-culture. Saddam Hussein correctly considered that culture is the life of democracy, not dictatorship, that people should be far from culture in order to keep them under control,” Al-Jazairy says. “The worst thing was the success in influencing the people themselves. We used to have a saying: ‘Cairo writes, Beirut prints, and Baghdad reads.’ But it seems one of the main aims was to push people far from books, to keep them from knowing anything. Today you can’t talk about anything—literature, history, culture, language—with so many young people. We have a new generation starting school life now. We have to get them back for culture and knowledge. Libraries are still under the control of the Ministry of Interior, but we need to modernize and expand them. The damage is huge, really huge, but we are optimistic. Our people have a natural cultural bent and there is hunger for people to produce and to receive. This year we had 6,000 people apply for a few hundred places at the Faculty of Arts in Baghdad University. Before these places were always reserved for the Baathists.”
The plans are admirable and ambitious. “The aim is to enable people to be themselves and to think,” Al-Jazairy says. “There is an organic relationship between culture and democracy. It’s impossible to develop one without the other. We can’t build a democratic system without developing culture.”
“The New Iraq” Everything in Iraq is about diffusion and variation. This is “the new Iraq.” Yet that phrase, so commonly bandied by Western politicians and pundits, is almost nowhere to be found in the country itself. After the U.S.-led invasion last spring, the United States set up the new Iraqi state TV and radio stations, known as the Iraqi Media Network (IMN). The first words heard on the network were, “This is the voice of the new Iraq.” The slogan was used for a while. But now—with the constant bombings, the crime, the painful pace of rehabilitating Iraq’s water and electrical systems, and the difficulty of installing electoral democracy—it rings hollow.
“We don’t like this phrase. To describe what we have now as ‘the new Iraq’ doesn’t make sense,” Al-Saadi, of the communist Tariq al-Shaab, says. “We talk about this as a transitional period. We want democratic elections and the government to negotiate an end to the occupation. We hope for a new Iraq, but it’s not here yet.”
The press is as free as it is anywhere. It is, in fact, absolutely unregulated. There is no censor. The banishing of Dubai’s Al-Arabiya satellite network aside, there have been few incidences of friction with the Americans. In one case, some papers wrote that U.S. soldiers could see under women’s clothes with their binoculars and that a girl had been raped by a U.S. soldier. In another, a paper urged Iraqis to kill U.S. soldiers and anyone cooperating with them. U.S. reprisals seem to have made Iraqi journalists more careful about their facts. Speaking to many Iraqi editors and journalists, one senses that they are cautious but determined to write what they see as the truth. Many papers use the word “resistance” to describe attacks against coalition forces and international aid agencies, but there is no sense of their being papers of the strident opposition. “The only thing that guides us is the facts,” says Ishtar al-Yasiri, editor of the satirical weekly Habazbooz.
The new state TV station is surprisingly bad, though it has improved in recent weeks under new management. A recent U.S. State Department poll found that of the one-third of the Iraqi population with access to satellite dishes, only 12 percent got their news from IMN. Instead, pan-Arab channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are gaining ground. The Arab channels regularly host Iraqi commentators, intellectuals, and religious figures who are largely absent from IMN’s broadcasts. The fare during Ramadan—when Arab television stations usually air a light entertainment extravaganza for the captive evening audiences—was poor, a mixture of old Egyptian films, year-old talk shows, a nightly soap opera from Japan. It was not, in fact, much different from the fare during the dictatorship.
IMN’s new director, Shameem Rassam, left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, where she worked in Arab media and found herself on the State Department’s committee working to recreate Iraq’s media once Washington had removed the Baathist state. “Al-Jazeera is a news channel and I don’t want to compare IMN to Al-Jazeera. We want to cover that, of course, and we’re trying to establish more talk shows,” she said. “We’re still young and we’re still on the road, but I think we’ve established the first steps. We plan to have more bureaus in Iraq and around the region so that we are the voice of Iraq abroad. We are training people now. We want young Iraqis, but they were under the control of that system for 30 years, so it’s rehabilitation of the mind.”
Too much so, many Iraqis would say. IMN avoids the term “resistance” for insurgents fighting the occupying troops—regularly used by the pan-Arab satellite channels and most Iraqis—preferring “rebellion” instead: “Who says it’s ‘resistance?’ ” Rassam asks. “That’s what Al-Jazeera says. But we are Iraqis—let’s use our own terminology.” Her idea is that the channel should emerge as a semi-autonomous state body like the BBC in Britain. “All Arab countries have state-run media. Iraqis are used to that. But we thought to do something new. If we are semi-state, then we can get funding from the people and the community. That experience is new for the Arab world. The time is right to attempt such a thing,” she says.
But IMN appears to be racing against the clock. One private network is likely to be up and running within six months, run by Saad Bazzaz, the dissident ex-Baathist who brought Iraq its popular independent daily Al-Zaman. Bazzaz wanted to use the name Al-Iraqiya (The Iraqi Channel), but IMN and the coalition had taken the name for itself.
Market Democracy In general, it’s striking how disillusioned many Iraqis are about democracy, even before the project has gotten off the ground. Some complain that nepotism surrounds the Governing Council and its Cabinet. What has really changed? Fateh Abdel-Salam, an Iraqi columnist, sums up the attitude: “Any public statement from a member of the Iraqi Governing Council or a minister is usually a propaganda move to justify his existence and prove that he is here and not, like some two-thirds of the council, hanging around in the capitals of the countries where he came from, while the rest are only waiting in Baghdad to take up their post as head of the rotating presidency [of the council]. As for those who have formed political parties, all that concerns them is to oust the Governing Council and show up its many faults, and then gain a foothold in some Arab capitals…We’ve had enough goods from this cheap market.”
Sadeq, a 28-year-old driver, has no time for anyone involved with the political parties. In fact, by the very act of getting involved in party politics, an individual shows he is only out for “personal interests,” he says, echoing a view many young men express. “I don’t believe in the parties. They are a big lie.” he says. “The Daawa Party is well-known and the communists have a certain popularity, but only the older generation really knows them. The communists mean nothing to young people today. Anyone you ask will say they’re just in it for themselves. People think they’re Jews, that’s what they say. I wouldn’t vote today for any party. They are all greedy for something in Iraq.”
Though the Shiites are the dominant force in politics now, the Sunni clerics are making their presence felt, too. They marched one Friday afternoon in November in central Baghdad, from a mosque to the main entrance of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Some 700 men marched in the procession shouting a variety of anti-American and anti-Jewish slogans. “God is Greater, O Baghdad/The army of America will be destroyed,” “Have patience, Baghdad/America the rotten will be destroyed,” and “O Jews, the army of Mohammad will return.” Or the classic, in English, “U-S-A, go away!” When they got to the gates of the CPA they all lined up on the streets in a mass prayer. A small gathering of American soldiers stood uneasily before them. A group of clerics presented them with a petition calling for the release of dozens of respected Sunni clerics who had been detained for several months.
An Iraqi journalist hovering around the scene pointed out that when the Shiites stage this kind of protest march they all lie down on the road in front of the U.S. tanks. The great fear on these occasions, and the reason for the media interest, is the possibility of violence if things get out of hand in the morass of cultural misunderstandings, and a U.S. soldier fires in confusion.
In this case, a U.S. tank maneuvered itself onto the road, pointing its cannon directly at the protesters. A ripple of tension passed through the crowd. But fortunately the rest of the protest passed without incident.
Mass Graves It is easy for a visitor to present-day Iraq to forget how hideous the rule of the Baathist regime really was. Iraqi and U.S. human-rights investigators have identified six major crime periods: the 1983 attacks on Kurds; a 1988 campaign against Kurds; chemical weapons attacks on Kurds from 1986 to 1988; the 1991 crushing of a southern Shiite revolt; the 1991 crushing of a Kurdish insurrection; and crimes committed against all sectors of the population during the entire period of Baath rule. Investigators suspect Iraq has as many as 260 mass graves containing the bodies of at least 300,000 people murdered by the former regime.
“We believe, based on what Iraqis have reported to us, that there are 300,000 dead—and that’s the lower end of the estimates,” Sandra Hodgkinson, the human-rights lawyer who heads the CPA’s “mass grave action plan” told Iraqi human-rights workers, officials from the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry, and the families of Hussein’s victims at a mid-November conference. In April and May, after the fall of Hussein’s regime, distraught families frantically dug near their villages, looking for the remains of loved ones. Eleven of the 260 sites were disturbed, complicating the task of documenting Hussein’s abuses. Hodgkinson pled for the families’ patience: “In Bosnia, it’s now eight or nine years since similar atrocities were committed. Only 8,000 bodies out of an estimated 30,000 have been uncovered there. Here in Iraq it’s 300,000.”
Wouldn’t it be more fitting for Iraqis to handle the investigation? “Iraq doesn’t have the capability at present to do the work of investigation. The main task for the moment is how to protect the sites which have been opened,” Human Rights Minister Abdel-Basset Turki told the meeting. Turki pointed out that he had asked attendees at the October 2003 Madrid donor conference for reconstructing Iraq for $100 million to pay for equipment and manpower to carry out investigations into mass graves, but that few funds had yet been released.
Rafid al-Husseiny was a doctor before he scrapped his medical career to lead the first professional, U.S.-funded, process of disinterring Iraqi mass graves at the Mahaweel site near Hilla, south of Baghdad, where Shiite rebels from 1991 had been dumped en masse, dead and alive. He was a resident of the area who had for years heard the whispers and talk about a mass grave nearby. “Since May, we have been investigating a mass grave of 3,115 people at Mahaweel. We identified 2,115 bodies, which were reburied by their families,” he said. He explained how groups of 40 or 50 men were lined up before huge holes dug in the ground by bulldozers and then shot. The graves were then filled above them. But some managed to crawl out alive and tell the tale, including people who knew Al-Husseiny’s family. “Iraqi citizens must look with both eyes, one looking to the future and one looking toward the past,” he said. It could well be the motto for the mass graves investigation.
Notes from Nasiriya Driving into the southern town of Nasiriya today, one is struck by the degree to which Shiite iconography has replaced that of Hussein. Paintings, stickers, and murals portray Shiite clerics and saints with a striking Christ-like humility and humanity.
Since the war, Nasiriya’s population has seemed reasonably content with the occupation, perhaps because it has a history of opposition to Hussein. It was a center of the rebellion after the 1991 war and, even before the war, photographs of the president were conspicuously absent from most shops around town.
So many Iraqis were particularly shocked when, on Nov. 12, suicide bombers hit the base of the Italian military police known as the Carabinieri. The 84 Iraqi injured were at a local hospital, the state of which was as distressing as the sight of the injured. The smell was appalling.
Everyone had a different tale about what happened. Some said a car carrying two men entered the parking lot inside the headquarters of the Italian police by the river; others talked about a truck or tanker. Some said the two men in the car had beards in the manner of Saudi Wahhabis. Others said they were clean-shaven. At the bomb site it was clear that the explosion had been huge. There was a crater nine feet deep and 21 feet wide at a distance of about 45 feet from the police building, which was completely destroyed on two of its four sides, with the walls torn off and the insides gutted. Villas directly opposite on the other side of a street some 60 feet wide were ruined in a similar fashion. Those a little way further down the street were a mess on the inside, with furniture and glass strewn everywhere, though the relatively minor damage on the outside suggested the residents might have contributed to the damage in the hope of a compensation payout at some stage. Windows on the other side of the river had been blown out by the force of the blast.
Townspeople were shocked and annoyed. Many blamed the Italians for being a target simply by being there and for not being very strong on the security front. “They were very nice but quite useless,” one 17-year-old kid put it. The strategy of the Italians had been to portray an open, friendly image to the townspeople, in contrast to the tough attitude of the Americans. For two days after the bombing, Italian brass, including the defense minister, turned up for whistle-stop tours of the site. They made speeches defending Italian security measures, promising to stay, and portraying themselves as victims of terrorism alongside the Americans.
Local people seemed embarrassed by the whole event—it wasn’t a very welcoming act to proffer their foreign guests—but were quite clear that it wouldn’t have happened if they had been allowed to run their own security affairs. As security guard Sabia Amer Faraj put it: “The Italians were very pleasant, and the Americans were better at maintaining security. But in the end it’d be better for us to protect our own city.”
U-Turn on Iraq November 2003 was the bloodiest month of the Iraqi conflict for U.S. and coalition soldiers. On Nov. 12, the same day that suicide bombers attacked the Italian base in Nasiriya, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer III was called back to Washington for urgent consultations. The Iraq adventure was threatening to become an issue that could count against U.S. President George W. Bush in his reelection campaign. Masking the very obviously American nature of governance in Iraq had become a top priority, especially since the Iraqi Governing Council had made little progress on drafting the constitution that was supposed to lead to the elections that would allow Iraq to declare itself free and sovereign.
Three days after Bremer’s hasty trip to Washington, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, Chalabi, and four other council members appeared before the press corps in Baghdad to reveal the new plan from Washington and the council. The idea was to skip the constitution and elections, which were obviously major sticking points requiring more time to sort out, and set up a government that would be as close to being popularly elected as possible without actually being popularly elected. The Governing Council would organize coordinating committees composed of tribesmen, political parties, and religious leaders from around the country to nominate candidates for a transitional assembly, which would then elect the members of a new government from its own ranks by the end of June. Though the U.S.-led coalition would still be responsible for security, the new Iraqi government would be the first independent government since the fall of the Baathist regime. Its formation would mean the formal end of the occupation, which would then become an American “presence” at the invitation of Iraq.
Big ideas and noble talk. It sounded like a plan, something that if all went well could guide the country out of its mess. The Governing Council clearly has its work cut out for it. Among other things, it will have to rally all sectors of Iraqi society in all the governorates of the country. This, bear in mind, is a council that has so far singularly failed to form any bond with the people. Its members are absent even from their own state television station. Meanwhile the security situation, if it doesn’t improve, is going to make this national process difficult, if not impossible.
One taxi driver’s reaction to Washington’s new exit-strategy—“That gives them six months to finish looting the country”—seemed to capture the popular mood. The most striking thing about seeing the six council members appear at a press conference to announce the new plan was simply seeing them. Normally they were nowhere to be found.
Later that evening an Iraqi political analyst told the BBC World Service that in Iraq there was no middle ground, you were either with the quisling Governing Council and the Americans or you were with the resistance and the terrorists. Those words rang very true. Television has done nothing to foster or create or provide a forum for that absent middle ground. The press is still young and cautiously feeling its way. For all the noise, there is no public discourse, in any meaningful sense, at all.
The Shadow of the Past Do Iraqis like to complain too much? Many journalists and other foreigners here privately say so. A stifling, cruel dictatorship is no more, the lid has been lifted on expression, and yet there is little sense of relief or joy.
Returning to Iraq for the first time since the war, I had expected the initial euphoria and surprise to have died down, but, like other foreign journalists in Iraq, I still expected to find that Iraqis felt some sense of relief. Perhaps we underestimated how much the experience of life in Hussein’s Iraq—a country which was personalized as virtually his own private property—had destroyed the people’s spirit, as the Minister of Culture and Iraqi journalists suggested.
Perhaps it was also something to do with a fundamental misunderstanding about the way a dictatorship works. The dictatorship didn’t seem to be something bad that had visited itself upon Iraqi society then lifted like a bad cold. The dictatorship lasted because it knew the strengths, weaknesses, fears, and cracks in Iraqi society. It lasted because it formed some sort of vision for uniting a country of huge diversity. Those fears hadn’t gone away because they were based on real fissures in society. It will take time for Iraqis to get used to each other in this new environment and to learn not to fear what the Sunnis, the Shiites, or the Kurds might want to do.
One Iraqi journalist was convinced that Iraq will see even more bloodletting in 2004. Only then, he said, will Iraq manage to get on its feet and advance as a country. A few facts argue for this pessimistic scenario: the Governing Council appears weak and frightened of discussing serious issues like the writing of a constitution; many potential leaders don’t want to get their hands dirtied by power and dealings with the Americans at this stage of the game.
Hussein appeared in a taped message aired on Al-Arabiya, expertly timed—by him or by the channel—to coincide with the Governing Council and Washington’s abrupt change of plans. “The evil ones are at a dead end in Iraq,” he said. “Those who been installed by foreign armies are in the same situation, and they are the first ones we have to fight. That is a legitimate duty, patriotic and humanitarian. The path of jihad and resistance is the best way to ensure the departure of the occupation forces. The invaders have no other choice than to leave our country, the land of Arabs and Islam.”
A group of hotel workers crowded round the television to hear what the deposed dictator had to say. Mostly they said nothing, or smiled and joked among themselves. One said it was a farce; the guy was as good as dead and of course he wasn’t coming back. But they, like most people, didn’t really want to offer an opinion. Even if Hussein doesn’t come back, his ruthless people are still around. Just to rub it in, Al-Arabiya’s presenter insisted on referring to Hussein as “the Iraqi president,” without bothering to add “former.”
Many Iraqis—mostly people who did well in one way or another under the old system, whether Baathists or not—argued that if Hussein came back to power the country would sort out its problems with law and order. Hussein knew his Iraqis, and he knew how to make them afraid.
The day after Al-Arabiya aired the tape, London’s pan-Arab Al-Hayat published a statement purportedly from the remains of the Baath Party in Iraq. “The political and strategic program of the Iraqi resistance, led by the Arab Baath Socialist Party, has defined its aim as the liberation of Iraq and the eviction of the occupying forces,” the statement read, describing the resistance as former members of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, the Fedayeen militia, and “noble Arab volunteers.”
On Nov. 21, only a few days after the message in Al-Hayat, I awoke to the window of my hotel room shattering. Iraqi resistance fighters had fired rockets at the building from donkey carts. No one was seriously hurt. It was a minor incident in a country that has seen decades of violence.
The danger of Iraq had become so much background noise. One night, while I was sitting in a restaurant, gunfire erupted across the river. The management turned on some music to drown out the noise. We all carried on as if we had heard nothing. But then the shots seemed to get closer. It seemed there was fighting in all the nearby streets. I wondered how I would get back to my room. But at the hotel reception desk, it was all smiles and soccer. Everyone was happy because Iraq had defeated North Korea, so happy that they were firing weapons in the air. All for victory over a country that was part of the “axis of evil,” which Iraq seven months before had left behind.