Inside Iraq: Reality check
In Baghdad, the anti-American sentiment is gaining ground, says RASHEEDA BHAGAT. But for some of the Iraqi intelligentsia, the coalition presence is `a necessary evil'.
An outdoor market...
FOR an Indian visitor, it is an exhilarating feeling to find that "Hind", as India is widely known in Iraq, is considered a friend. You are often told that it is a great country and a friend of Iraq, particularly because it is home to millions of Muslims. In the shrines in the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf, Shia women from Iraq and Iran, dressed in black from head to toe, are attracted to you by your colourful attire and want to know where you come from. "Hind?" they scream in delight, and say, "Welcome, welcome" with a hug.
But, reality is still different. No other city is so obviously under siege as Baghdad, with an ominous presence of the coalition troops. Highways are partially blocked by armoured vehicles, bringing traffic to a crawl in a city that is well connected by flyovers and multi-lane roads; streets are partly fenced off. The American military presence is everywhere, including in the distribution of civic amenities. And yet you encounter Iraqis who surprise you by saying, "At least they helped us get rid of Saddam. If things are in a mess, the Iraqis are to blame. The Americans are trying to help, but both lawlessness and violence are so all pervasive in our society that if they were to leave tomorrow without streamlining the administration, there will be anarchy in this country," says Saif, a sales executive who has graduated from a Baghdad university with a degree in economics. He is echoing the sentiments of many educated and upper class Iraqis, particularly the Shias, who form 60 per cent of the population, but who were brutally repressed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Sunnis form only 30 per cent of the population, and the remaining 10 per cent comprises Kurds, Christians and other minorities.
People like him have had a handsome hike in their salaries, sometimes 30-fold, and are happy with the new rulers. But when you see the queues for LPG you have to bring your empty cylinders and exchange them for filled ones or the stampede at the beginning of the month when pensions are distributed, or listen to the woes at hospitals, the picture is different. Then, "they use our oil freely and even take it out of the country for free. And they treat us like beggars", is the angry refrain you often hear.
Watching the military convoys escorting oil tankers down Iraq's highways, our driver Eesa Abu Ali says angrily, "The Americans tell each other to be wary of Ali Baba (the term used for a thief), but they are the biggest Ali Babas of all, stealing our oil and treating us like dirt."
At the Civil Military Operations (CMO) office in Baghdad, which handles public grievances related to civic amenities, the American military officer-in-charge, Mark Reed, is in despair, as he describes the impediments placed by the Iraqis in the way of normalisation returning to their lives. Giving the indication that he would like to leave for home and pursue his interest in higher education in biology he is a reservist Reed says that with each passing day, the country seems to be encountering new problems. "Believe me, the day we took over control in Baghdad, we had so much goodwill and co-operation from the people that we could have done anything in this country." But, he admits, what he and his colleagues did not expect, was growing antagonism towards the coalition forces.
So would he dare to go out into a supermarket on his own, and unarmed? "Oh no, I would go with a few of my colleagues, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying at least a pistol on my person." On the increasing law and order problem in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, Reed says he is amazed to find the number of people carrying heavy arms without valid licenses. "One of Iraq's major problems, now, is the number of armed militia which have taken control of streets in several pockets. Unfortunately, they have succeeded in instilling fear in the people's minds that the streets of Baghdad still belong to Saddam. We have put the Iraqi police in charge of law and order, but they are hardly doing their job. Now it looks as though we will have to wield the stick."
... and the pervading presence of the coalition forces.
Another problem, points out Reed, pertains to the radical Shia clerics, who own heavy weapons without license, something that has been made illegal by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). With rival Shia groups fighting among themselves, particularly for control of holy cities like Karbala and Najaf (the latter is the headquarters of the Shia school of theology), the result is a violent bloodbath for power. The mausoleums, located in Najaf, are centres of unlimited power, and money spinners too. With Shia pilgrims pouring into Karbala and Najaf, particularly during the October 12 weekend which was the birth anniversary of Imam Mahdi (the 12th Imam who went into seclusion in the Ninth Century, and who the Shias believe, will return to restore peace and justice when total chaos descends into the world), notes by the sackful and in different currencies, were being collected. Shiites had been curtailed by Saddam Hussein from visiting these shrines. His regime charged a heavy amount from Shia pilgrims; while Iranians had to pay a tax of $750 per pilgrim, Indian Shias had to pay $350.
Whether you go to the shrines at 5 a.m, when they open, or at 8 p.m, when they close (except for Friday when they remain open till 11 p.m.), the queues are perennial.
These two cities are the mainstay of Shia power and it is obvious that the group which controls them might one day rule in Baghdad. To gain this power, violent and bloody intrigues are on. The violence continues unabated and Karbala, which did not see too much incursion by the coalition forces, sensitive to religious sentiments, today has a huge military presence. There is perceptible anger at the presence of these foreign troops and the shias of Karbala, who till now kept saying that "the Americans are outside Karbala" are outraged by the presence of non-believers so close to the holy shrines.
In Baghdad too, the anti-American sentiment is gaining ground. "Once Baghdad was such a beautiful city," says Hussein Ahmed, a mechanical engineer from the city, who now works in Dubai and has come home to leave to visit his wife and children. Pointing to buildings, shells of their former self, and the "graveyard of the war" which has emerged on the outskirts of Baghdad, he says, "Bush has finished Iraq." The "graveyard of the war" is the title given to the dump yard where the coalition forces have moved the battered tanks, armoured and other military vehicles, trucks and cars as well as other scrap of the war.
"This is nothing," says M. Abbas, a businessman from Canada, who is in Baghdad to look out for business opportunities, pointing to the hectares over which the scrap is spread. "Most of it has been pilfered and taken to the Turkish and Iranian borders. A few months ago, I had seen people dragging an entire jet here and stripping it." He is in touch with the mayor's office, which, in conjunction with the CPA, has made a proposal for removing the scrap, which he hopes to send to India.
Says Faris Alasam, vice-mayor of Baghdad, (technical affairs), "The sewerage facility was heavily looted during the war and people had walked away with very expensive equipment which will now have to be imported. We have restored the facility by 80 per cent, but the rest, for which $110 million has been allotted by the CPA, will take another year. But things are much better with water and electricity supply." He adds that discipline among the workers is improving by the day. "Earlier, we could not hold out the threat of firing anybody because salaries were so low that if you fired a Government servant, he would thank you for it. But now that they are being paid well, nobody wants to lose his or her job. He too, along with some of the intelligentsia, believes that a coalition presence in Iraq is necessary for a year or two. "If this is going to be ultimately in our interest, I don't see any harm in it."
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