HILLA – Mr. Iskander, a lawyer and former officer in the Iraqi air force, married with four sons and five daughters, sits behind his desk in a nondescript building formerly used for religious meetings for Sunni and Shi’ite alike, now guarded by five Marines. He receives a non-stop string of visitors, juggling between as many as four conversations simultaneously. Iskander is now the de facto mayor of Hilla, a poor sprawling city of 2 million, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, chosen through consensus by the local population. This is Iraqi democracy in action, the post-Saddam Hussein version.
Hilla is now largely peaceful. People are still intrigued by the meaning of the letters “TV” spelled out in black tape all over our car. Kids play soccer oblivious to a passing sandstorm and next to a miraculously non-defaced mural of Saddam, where he is pictured between al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and Ishtar Gate in Babylon. Splendid, elegant (in a dusty way) Shi’ite couples carry green flags with the inscriptions “Ali” and “Hussein.” Police officers now patrol the streets and locals swear that there has been no looting in Hilla. Food distribution has started – from a local food warehouse, and organized by the same managers who once worked for the Saddam government (“But now they are free,” said a grinning official at the new mayor’s office).
Iskander is in the middle of the process of forming a new government. He lists his priorities as oxygen for hospitals, equipment for water purification and the reconstruction of the gas pipeline between Basra and Hilla. Security, according to him, is “very good” as proven by police officers coming back to their old jobs. He expects the Americans to provide “new uniforms and the new weapons to be used.” He is “very glad” with the American presence: “It was very good to remove Saddam Hussein. No force could do it except the US and the British.” More than 100 American soldiers are now stationed in Hilla, according to Iskander.
The people’s priority, and the main subject of talks with his visitors is, of course, security: “35 years of Saddam was too bad,” he said, his cue to show the visitor some gruesome pictures from 1998 of his brother Jaffar, a victim of torture, under no specific accusation, by Saddam’s regime. He also shows Jaffar’s death certificate: “Dead under inquiry.”
Sheikh Salim Saed, an imposing figure in robe and keffiah (head scarf) contrasting with his sparkling blue eyes, is also in the room. He is the supreme sheikh of the tribes of Shurfa (which means “honesty” in Arabic). The sheikh’s father was hanged by Saddam’s henchmen in 1991, after the failed Shi’ite uprising following the Gulf War. The son of an accompanying sheikh was also hanged in 1991, as well as the brother of a lawyer also in the room. A few minutes later comes Abbas, who had many family members killed by Saddam’s regime from 1981 to 1991. He is now searching for five still “disappeared” family members. Iskander said that “we’ll give him any chance available to find work.”
The sheikh is clutching a stack of black and white copies of a photo of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) leader and self-styled new regime strongman who stormed into Baghdad on Wednesday. For Iskander, Chalabi “is known for his history of working with people against Saddam Hussein. And he has a very strong character.” The sheikh’s opinion is tinged with slightly more subtlety: “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know anything about Chalabi, but I consider a suitable person who will govern Iraq must provide freedom in order to deserve this position.” The sheikh’s ideal ruler would be “anyone that is not Saddam Hussein.”
Iskander has his views on what took place in a faraway neighborhood of Hilla called Nader in the beginning of April. According to him, “Syrian Fedayeen came to this place, people tried to kick them out, and then the Americans bombed it.” He said that there were a maximum of three civilian dead and 20 wounded. This contrasts with figures from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), according to which at least 61 people were killed and more than 460 seriously injured – mostly by cluster bombing – in what has become known as the Hilla massacre.
The new Iskander government is practically in place: it lists 14 members, including Sunni, Shi’ites and Kurds. But where will the money come from? Their only source of finance is “managers of Iraqi banks,” who have already had a meeting with the Americans. The new government will start collecting taxes, but not now: “Our intention is to lower taxes,” Iskander swore. “Our banks were not looted. There are some thieves who are returning money to mosques.” He said that “for the last 35 years there was no money here, Saddam took it all. But there are 4 million Iraqis living outside the country. We are very rich. They should absolutely come back to rebuild their country.”
We are firmly discouraged by the new mayor’s top officials to travel further south to the holy Shi’ite sites of Najaf and Karbala: “Every foreigner is being shot on the road and inside the cities. There are Americans there, but they don’t care about the situation.”
On the way back to Baghdad we stop at the dirt-poor village of Mahmudiya, 30 kilometers south of the capital, and the site of a ferocious battle only a few days ago. Amid rows of destroyed and burned businesses, and charred tanks in alleyways laden with unexploded bombs, locals remain extremely angry. There’s no water, no electricity – and no police in the streets. They want answers – and fast. One is almost tempted to suggest a quick trip to the brave new world of Hilla.