BAGHDAD – The Godfather’s black box with the three-part Francis Ford Coppola saga lies under the sun in front of former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz’s house facing the Tigris River, not far from the discarded cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Uprising. The (Shi’ite) uprising didn’t happen in Baghdad, but the (Iraqi) Godfather is gone.
Much of the world media have focused on the anarchy that took place in the days after the first US soldiers entered Baghdad, and with some justification, although people such as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would prefer to concentrate on the liberation angle. Should Rumsfeld visit the capital, though, he would not be able to visit Tariq, with whom he met on December 20, 1983, when he was Ronald Reagan’s special envoy for the Middle East.
Aziz’s house has been thoroughly looted. Where is Tariq? “He’s here in my pocket,” says one of his neighbors in this affluent part of riverside Baghdad. Sifting through the rubble, under the smell of cauliflowers rotting in the kitchen, stepping over torn group photos of the Ba’ath Party leadership, one learns, among other things, that Aziz was a great fan of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and of Italian operas on Russian vinyl and was fond of swimming in his own private pool. But now, in the immortal words of Mohamed al-Douri, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, “the game is over.”
No one can possibly argue with a Daisy Cutter, a J-DAM, a MOAB, an Abrams tank or an Apache helicopter. The most vivid evidence of overwhelming US firepower, and probably the highlight of any tour of the shattered city, is the main presidential palace, hit in the early stages of the “shock and awe” campaign. The marines are now camped inside the presidential grounds, in a building identified as “employees’ restroom.” The entrance to the complex is guarded by an Abrams – the marines’ pet dark-brown camel which, according to a connoisseur, is “a very rare breed” and could fetch as much as US$1 million in the weapons markets of the Middle East. The destruction inside – a sequence of mini-September 11s – is a graphic message addressed to any so-called rogue government that falls foul of the US. Saddam indeed lived in the lap of luxury: 18th-century French furniture, crystal chandeliers, gold fittings in the bathrooms, and even a 300-seat cinema – now a roomful of distorted metal. This is where he used to watch his favorite movie over and over again, the first part of The Godfather trilogy, starring Marlon Brando.
The Americans have been in town for just over a week now. They face an extremely ambiguous popular reaction – totally dissimilar to the nervous excitement displayed in Shi’ite Saddam City when the tanks occupied the National Parade Ground. Baghdad itself may be the only place in the Arab world where people don’t ask themselves in disbelief why Baghdad fell in only two days. And as they contemplate their newfound wasteland, Baghdadis are now asking themselves how they are going to survive.
The Palestine Hotel – home to many journalists – poses in Baghdad as a safe area. In a sprawling, scarred city torn by anarchy, strife and much bitterness and desperation, the Palestine is an island protected by Abrams tanks, Bradley vehicles and barbed wire – a Manhattan in the middle of a giant Liberia. Its concentration of high-tech audio video equipment is worth more than the gross national product of whole Iraqi provinces.
This not-so-splendid isolation only fuels the resentment of Baghdadis – inevitably subjected to endless searches and checks. For them, the Palestine could as well be in off-limits Israel. Samir is a mechanical engineer who had to walk for five hours to get to the hotel. He would like to find a job repairing damaged plants, but he doesn’t know whom to address. An elderly Shi’ite woman is worried that a weapons cache was left in her garden: she sobs and complains that she doesn’t know whom to talk to. Democracy is taking root in Baghdad: there are daily demonstrations in Ferdows Square, near the Palestine. People scream: “We want Iraqi leaders!” and hold banners decrying the lack of stores, universities and hospitals.
For the Americans, security has become something of a nightmare. On Monday, the Ministry of Education building was on fire. A geologist, visibly desperate, told us to warn the Americans that the ministry was very close to a giant gasoline depot, and the consequences of the fire spreading could be devastating. Back at the Palestine, the marines kind of manning the public information office were asking “What city is that?” It was just a 10-minute drive away.
Any visitor will need transportation for a tour of Baghdad. One could of course drive around in a Humvee or a Bradley – but that’s not a good way to make Iraqi friends. Or one could go for the least unsafe option. He could choose between GMC Suburbans and Japanese vans with huge black lettering splashed on all sides, or a plain, simple red-and-orange 1970s made-in-Brazil Volkswagen Passat Baghdad taxi. Nader’s Chevrolet Celebrity would be even better. Nader drives like he’s about to finish the final lap at a Grand Prix, and he knows Baghdad by heart. He used to trade dates in the United Arab Emirates. A big fan of all of Brazil’s world-champion soccer squads, he is also willing to do anything for a visa, especially if it is Danish, so that he can visit his brother, who apparently works for IBM.
There are no-go areas aplenty in the capital. Although the first white Iraqi police cars took to the streets on Monday, escorted by Humvees, and are already in hot pursuit of bank looters armed with AK-47s, most of Baghdad still resembles Kabul or Mogadishu. Abu Ragheb, in the western limits of Baghdad, is definitely a no-go area. That’s where we were stopped by a nervous, sweaty Fedayeen clutching a rocket launcher. He asked for our passports. The driver engaged him in conversation and after some hesitation he waved us on. An Abu Dhabi TV crew was not so lucky: when stopped by the Fedayeen they had their tape, camera and press credentials confiscated.
Driving around Baghdad beats any Hollywood version of urban wasteland. Apart from the sequence of charred tanks, anti-aircraft artillery and pickup trucks, there’s a gallery of Soviet 155mm guns under flyovers. Smoke still billows from the odd ministry. Legendary Sharia al-Rashid, old Baghdad’s main street with its charming colonnades, seems to have reverted to Sierra Leone status. On the other hand, civilians now step out of their cars and become instant traffic controllers. Only a few buses, red double-deckers that sound like cranking metal, are back into service.
Casual visitors wouldn’t find a single taxi driver willing to take them to Saddam City, the huge northeastern slum populated by at least 2 million Shi’ites. Nader says its “full of thieves, very dangerous.” Last week in Saddam City, pent-up anger mixed with deep religious fervor provided the world media with those cherished images of liberation. Today, a Bedouin in Saddam City is emphatic: “The old regime was bad. The new one will be bad. We, the poor, we always lose.”
Visitors will soon run out of sightseeing, because there’s not much left to see. The Olympic Hospital – former property of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son – has been looted. The Aluya Pediatric Hospital is barely functional. The Oil Ministry is still on fire. The main HQ for weapons – whose director, General Amer Saadi, surrendered last Saturday – has been bombed. Saddam Tower miraculously still stands, beside the bombed-out telephone exchange that qualifies as Baghdad’s conceptual contribution for the Venice Biennale exhibition of contemporary art.
But a certified highlight of a city tour would be the remains of what everyone refers to as “the CIA of Iraq.” The sprawling Mukhabarat complex, home of the Iraqi secret police, with dozens of buildings, has been thoroughly bombed – and is still being looted, although some satellite dishes are still available. We took a mesmerized Bassan, a chemical engineer, for a drive inside the walls that for all Iraqis meant only one thing, forever and ever: Terror. “I am dreaming,” Bassan kept repeating, glued to his seat. “I am dreaming.”
Then there is the “desolation row” tour. There are 85 people, from ages 10-35, at the al-Hanan home for the disabled – but there are no doctors: either they are afraid to leave their homes or they can’t find transportation. Visitors from the nearby Buratha Mosque bring some food and water for these poor souls. Disabled children in wheelchairs perform as de facto human shields at the entrance, discouraging looters. Their stony faces don’t appear to reflect pain or sadness. They want security. But most of all, they say, they just need a water pump.
Saeed Muhamad Salman’s sister died at the bombing of the al-Sa’a restaurant in the Mansur district. She was one of the 14 fatalities among two Christian family houses destroyed by four misguided 900-kilogram laser-guided bombs – only two houses away from the Libyan ambassador’s residence. The crater behind the al-Sa’a is big enough to engulf Tariq Aziz’s house. Salman says “the Americans missed their target. He [Saddam] was here three hours before, smoking and drinking coffee.”
An over-excited Muhamad, 18, who lives around the block, insists: “No one respects us like American soldiers. They kiss us! The Arab socialist Ba’ath Party, they kicked our asses.” He guides the visitor around the rubble to the table inside a relatively intact house nearby, where he says a disheveled Saddam wearing reading glasses recorded his speech in the morning after the “decapitation strike” at the start of the war. At the bottom of the crater behind the al-Sa’a, Muhamad displayed a single red rose: “There are no flowers in Iraq. Saddam Hussein cut them all.”
Any visitor is regaled with such stories of a Saddam sighting. In the Zayuna neighborhood, residents swear Saddam was in a house for 30 minutes on Wednesday morning, April 9, fall-of-Baghdad day. The house, protected by a high wall, belongs to Mudar Khairallah, a member of Saddam’s family. This information is certainly more credible than insults now commonly hurled in a typical Baghdad day, such as “Saddam was a Jewish agent,” “Saddam was gay” or “Saddam is in America.”
In the al-Qadissiya neighborhood, middle-class families are terrified. Gaida Yousef spent 12 years in France. She lives practically next door to Yarmouk Hospital with two daughters and a cat – and she confirms that a US missile landed on the hospital. “The war, it was over there,” she says, pointing to the farther end of the street. She still cannot sleep: “We need psychologists, for us and for our children.” Her neighbor, an elderly Kurdish woman with a white scarf and beatific smile, still afraid of having to survive alone in her house, says, “Saddam was a dog.” Another neighbor says that Iraqi soldiers have left everything they had – clothes, weapons – in her son’s house: the same worry is reproduced by the dozen in front of the Palestine to marines and their blank stares. Gaida Yousef still expresses the feelings of many Baghdadis, that Saddam remained an American Frankenstein to the end: “Saddam and the Americans, it was already designed, for the oil. Every time the Americans attack, he escapes before.”
In the Adhamiya neighborhood, Quarter 308, residents say that the Americans came through the main road, the Corniche al-Adhamiya, guns blazing. On the other side of the avenue lies another one of the presidential palaces, bombed on the 10th day of the war. Adel Hussein, head of a family of 10, and Dr Salman, a PhD in economics, tell the visitor that on April 9, the day of the fall of Baghdad, four Abrams tanks, from 4:30am to 11am, struck more than 20 houses. They point to a carpet of spent cartridges in the main road and then take the visitor around, showing any possible configuration of bullet holes in an array of houses in all sort of angles, and a white Volga splattered in blood: “The whole family died inside,” says Dr Salman. “You see the houses. This is real evidence.” A neighborhood crowd congregates to deliver a “message” for the Americans, who are less than half an hour away: “Please, we need water and electricity.”
Chardagh Street in Adhamiya was the scene of a fierce battle that started in the square facing the Abu Hanifa Mosque. The whole Abu Hanifa square has been converted into a ghastly wasteland: civilian homes, banks, pharmacies, bakeries have been hit, shelled, burned. A woman in front of the only functioning bakery in Chardagh says, “George Bush is the enemy of God. He killed the Iraqi people. What I say? You see around for yourself.” For Muhamad, 19, a college student, “The [Saddam] government is not good and it’s not bad. We have a lot of oil. Some people in Iraq have a lot of money. But you see people wearing no shoes. Why?” He knows that American troops will stay “for one year only, and to protect the Iraqi people.” He’s sure that Iraqis will be better off because of it. But an American government? “Absolutely not.”
Ayad Tarik Helal was driving back home at 11am on Thursday of last week in Mansur when his car was hit by a tank shell. He survived, pulled out of the car through one of the windows, but his wife and two sisters were killed. “All the cars on the road were hit and burned,” he barely whispers. A relative quietly slips a piece of paper with a London number: “Please tell them that the family is OK. But don’t tell them he is in the hospital.”
An elderly Shi’ite woman all in black wants to tell the story of what happened to her son. At midnight on April 9, fall-of-Baghdad day, Munib Abid Hassawi was at home near the Balkis school in the Ashab neighborhood, asleep with his wife and son, when a stray missile hit his house. He looks the visitor in the eye, his face contorted with pain, his torso sprayed with shrapnel, his legs two reddish lumps of flesh: “Every day I die a little,” his mother whispers. “The house is destroyed, we have no place to go.” Munib needs six injections a day: he’s getting only two. The hospital badly needs medicine, needles, oxygen, and is running out of anesthetics and painkillers. Munib’s mother stoically murmurs, “The doctors are lying. There is no medicine left in this hospital.”
There will come a time in their tour when the visitors will be hungry. Apart from the Palestine, the only other realistic option for a daily fix of kebab is at the al-Lathicia restaurant – if one is prepared to wait two hours for a mixed grill. One can always steal from the kitchen – a favorite pastime of certain Italian freelance lensmen. American soldiers occasionally patrol the street – which is one the safest in Baghdad. They wouldn’t be exactly welcomed inside the Syrian-owned al-Lathicia, though. Inevitably visitors will be approached by dozens of families clutching small pieces of paper with written Arabic numbers. These numbers – most in London and the United Arab Emirates – are the only, elusive lifeline to their relatives abroad, if the foreigners take the trouble to make the calls in their satphones.
A visitor may want to check out a mall. But there are no options left. The Mustansariya shopping center has been thoroughly looted – and some sections were burned. For simpler pleasures, what used to be another one of Uday Hussein’s monopolies – cigarette smuggling – is now flourishing at the Palestine entrance. A carton of Miamis sells for about US$20. Marines kill for it. For booze, it is imperative to be acquainted with one of the security middlemen, who will be most obliged to find a bottle of Black and White for $50.
Visitors will have problems if they want some culture – and this in the land that invented writing. There are no functioning cinemas. No theaters – such as the official theater in the TV building in front of the former five-star al-Mansur hotel (still being looted), where it was possible to attend classical-music concerts. Al-Mustansariya University – the oldest in the world, founded before the Sorbonne in 1234 – has been looted. Students soon might have to resort to “benzin” selling: looters do their business near the university grounds, at 2,000 dinars a liter (less than $1).
Looting of extreme seriousness took place on April 10 at the Iraqi Museum, built by a German architect and inaugurated in 1966. Dr Doni George, director of general research and studies at the State Board of Antiquities, asked the Americans to protect the museum: he says a marine lieutenant-colonel named Zarcone even gave him a pass. And then nothing. Dr. George says, “The whole administrative compound was completely destroyed and looted. The first point is that there were people who knew what they wanted. They’ve taken the precious vase of Uruk, an Akkadian bronze statue from 3200 BC, Abbasid wooden doors. Before they started looting, there were American armored cars outside, and people inside. They asked for the American troops to intervene, but they did not. On Sunday, the chairman of the State Board of Antiquities went to the American HQ and explained the situation. But they sent no help.”
The book souk (market) at Moutanabi Street is totally deserted these days – after all, the whole area is now a charred wasteland. According to Arab legend, every 100 years a man – not a hero, not a martyr, but a sort of secular prophet, a wise man full of lucidity and justice – arises to wake up a people in a dreamlike state, anesthetized by a cruel fatality breeding fear and passivity. For educated Baghdadis, there’s nothing irrational about this – either from a religious or nationalistic point of view. They wonder who that man will be, but they know it will not be the new proconsul, retired General Jay Garner.
Baghdadis know that Iraq – since Assyria and Mesopotamia – needs a charismatic and authoritarian father figure. Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser was such a figure for the Arab world, as well as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein – who was more dangerous, clever and cynical than Gaddafi. Ali, a civil engineer who may or may not have not been a member of the ruling elite, coldly analyzes Saddam as the product of the political brutality that took over Iraq after the monarchy was deposed in 1958. He also points out that Saddam’s model was really his worst enemy: Hafez Assad, the clever Syrian strategist.
At the Abu Hanifa Mosque a tank shell has blown an enormous hole in the clock tower, built in 1937. Actually, says a man named Khudaier, this was due to two missiles shot from an A-10 tankbuster. In the grounds of the mosque, 12 Iraqi Fedayeen and 20 mujahideen from Syria and Algeria are buried, for “defending Islam,” as a resident put it, on Wednesday morning, April 9.
Khudaier says that he saw them destroy four US Abrams tanks with twin rocket-propelled grenades stuck together with nylon. Other locals take the visitor inside the mosque and point to a pock-marked wall very close to the tomb of Abu Hanifa himself, an important Sunni imam. “This missile hit could have destroyed a tank. But Allah has blessed this place.” Shrapnel hit the silver embroidery around the tomb, and the shelling destroyed the delicate 100-year-old wood-framed windows. But the real surprise is in the mosque’s back yard. That’s where 11 fighters from Syria and Algeria are discreetly buried, with a single palm leaf over their graves. A small Iraqi flag identifies another tomb. It’s perhaps the only peaceful place in Baghdad at the moment, away from the mayhem, birds singing in the background.
Most of Baghdad’s mosques remain closed – as the majority of the population is still very much afraid to leave their houses. After so many betrayals and humiliations, such everlasting despair, millions of Iraqis cannot but take refuge in religious faith – even in a cosmopolitan Baghdad reduced to appalling economic underdevelopment and intellectual regression.
The true test of US greatness is now. The American soldiers have come, and they will be gone. Baghdad, with its broken heart, will stay.