BAGHDAD – “Saddam is in Baghdad.” The former University of Baghdad student, recently graduated, is adamant. “Here he is very well connected, and as he has so much money, he can bribe anybody,” adds another.
This exchange takes place as the satellite network al-Arabiya receives the latest (purported) Saddam Hussein audio tape at its office in Baghdad. Saddam tells the Americans, “Your withdrawal from our country is inevitable, whether it happens today or tomorrow, and tomorrow will come soon.” He urges more attacks, and “jihad by all means possible, financial and otherwise.” He even addresses the United Nations: “Iraq and its leaders will refuse any solution that is made while the country is under the shadow of occupation.”
Baghdadis once again listen to that ghostly voice from the past with cool detachment. But what the former students are saying basically mirrors what a Jordanian intelligence source with extensive contacts in Iraq told Asia Times Online in Amman. Colonel Joe Anderson, commander of the 101st Airborne’s 2nd Brigade in Mosul, is searching the wrong place, in the Kurdish north of the country. “Elvis” – as the GIs call him – has not left the building. Elvis-Saddam continues to operate in the bowels of the Iraqi capital itself.
The future elite of Iraq is all dressed up with diplomas – with nowhere to go. With the exception of one graduate who, helped by family connections, received a US$1,500-a-month job in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates – a dream salary in Iraq – the vast majority are unemployed. And all would jump at the opportunity to leave. But those without a passport are even barred from entering neighboring Jordan, which now only admits Iraqis if they have Jordanian resident cards. A passport on the Baghdad black market costs a fortune: 400,000 dinars ($200 at today’s rate).
The students are all Sunnis, the minority that dominated Iraq at the expense of Shi’ites for many decades. They are not part – yet – of the armed resistance, although they know people who are. They definitely don’t, and never did, support Saddam. One says that “one Sunni equals 10 Shi’ites” in terms of fighting spirit, “and that’s why the Americans will be defeated.” Another says, “An armed group kidnapped three American women soldiers, two of them black. They kept the black ones for their own fun, but sold the white one for another group for 3 million dinars.” This is not the kind of story that one would find in US-approved newspapers such as Iraq Today. Especially because the euphemistically named Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) never admits that its soldiers are being kidnapped.
A student suggests a visit to the city morgue. “The Americans are killing people like flies. In Ramadi they have footage of American helicopters throwing dead bodies in the desert.” The CPA has in fact censored journalists’ visits to Iraqi hospitals. Special permission is now required – and the wait can be eternal. As such, these outlandish claims (including the kidnapping one) can in no way be substantiated, although they do reflect a certain mood on the street.
In its de-Ba’athification drive, the CPA fired 436 professors who were members of the former ruling Ba’ath Party, and terminated an academic system skewed to benefit student party members. But then it discovered that many of the 436 fired professors were in fact coerced to join the Ba’ath, otherwise their careers would be over. At al-Mustansariyah University they all got their jobs back – of course after filling out forms denouncing the Ba’ath Party.
Among the students, the popularity of Ahmad Chalabi – founder of the Iraqi National Congress, a Pentagon protege and now chairman of the US-hand-picked 25-member Governing Council – is virtually zero. “Who is he? Nobody knows him here,” comments one student in reference to the long-exiled Chalabi.
It was Chalabi who told the neo-conservatives in Washington, who told the CPA, to arrest brothers, sons, nephews and cousins of Ba’ath Party members indiscriminately, as well as any males between the ages of 15 and 50 if weapons were found in their homes. “He’s never been in Iraq. He doesn’t know how the country works, how people had to deal with the Ba’ath Party, how we must have weapons to defend ourselves from anarchy,” says another student.
Indeed, some students envisage a future very different from Chalabi’s and Washington’s dreams: “Iraq is the pole of convergence, political and military, of the Arab world. If the US mission fails here, then the way will be finally open for a Great Arab nation, united and free from all these corrupted governments.”
The convergence of views between Baghdad students and the Jordanian intelligence official is remarkable – and is widely shared by the popular voice of the bazaars. The perception is that “the Americans” engineered both the UN bombing that killed special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and the Najaf bombing that killed Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim (the Jordanian insists the Israeli Mossad was responsible for the Hakim bombing, which benefits the Americans by splitting the Shi’ites and pitting Sunnis against Shi’ites). All agree on what the US agenda is: to maintain a perpetual state of chaos, enforce the control of the fabulous Iraqi sources of energy, and use this new, sprawling military base in the heart of the Middle East to harass Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, few in Baghdad appear able to understand how US high-tech marvel is not capable of finding Elvis-Saddam. All kinds of theories float on why the Americans killed his sons Uday and Qusay in a firefight instead of arresting them and bringing them to justice. All are convinced that Nawaf Alzaidan, the owner of the house in Mosul in which the brothers were killed, was the one who tipped the Americans and bagged the $30 million reward (not yet: the State Department has not paid him in full, citing “security problems”). The family of Salah Alzaidan, Nawaf’s brother, was killed by Iraqis in revenge. But Nawaf and his family escaped and are now in the United States.
The resistance will get much stronger – and this has nothing to do with Saddam’s flurry of cassettes. There seems to be an overall consensus in Baghdad that most Sunnis are on “wait and see” mode for two more months before they switch overwhelmingly to guerrilla struggle. And the Shi’ites will also be waiting for another two months. This seems to be the final window of opportunity for the CPA and the Governing Council to alleviate the daily hell faced by the Iraqi population.
Young American officers paying for their spaghetti at the brasserie of the Palestine Hotel with crispy $20 bills at least get a glimpse of paradise, post-Saddam style. In a city reduced to Fourth World status, the Palestine-Sheraton complex remains a fortress, protected by tanks, barbed wire, checkpoints and body searches – totally remote from real life, which barely tends to intrude via a procession of protesters. Like a ragged group from the village of al-Kafel, near Babylon. They have come a long way to ask for US help in getting rid of their local government – which they say comprises Saddam’s people, terrorizing and stealing from their families. But most of all they want jobs. Dejected, they are directed to the major fortress in town, Saddam’s former presidential palace, which is the headquarters of proconsul L Paul Bremer’s CPA.
The Iraqi border with Jordan – once a nest of baksheesh-demanding spies – is now a World Trade Organization wet dream. Customs officers just say “Go Baghdad OK.” The CPA extinguished all tariffs and duties on imports until the end of the year. A deluge of merchandise – except, of course, weapons of the non-mass destruction kind – flow through at practically zero cost. Second-hand German Opel Vectras landed in the Jordanian port of Aqaba join the army of rusty 1970s Volkswagen Passats in the intractable Baghdad traffic, where gas – not in the black market – remains cheap: a full tank costs less than a dollar. A great deal of the loot ends up in shops or spilling on the pavements of Karrada In and Karrada Out, the notorious Baghdad twin sister roads.
As with any new order following the collapse of a totalitarian regime, the usual suspects have surfaced: satellite dishes, the Internet, exchange counters and pornography. The clerk at a cinema in Saadoun Street extols the merits of “Film sex Itali! Business very good!” More than five months after the fall of Baghdad, still there’s no banking system, no checks, no credit cards. The dollar is king – or rather a bundle of “Saddams” or “papers” (250-dinar banknotes) held in black plastic bags that can be stolen at any moment by the roaming hordes of Ali Babas, themselves immune to the roaming of Humvees filled with GIs. Policemen in brand-new Toyota patrol cars can be seen in selected neighborhoods – but “dozens are being killed every day”, according to a resident of Mansur district: “They get a salary of $100 a month, but the family gets no benefits from the Americans if they die.”
The Bab Alsharjee souk is popularly regarded as a looters’ paradise. Under the roar of military helicopters and close to passing Humvees with GIs pointing their machine-guns to the sidewalk, the audiovisual choice is immense: from Britney Spears to the incendiary speeches of firebrand Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, from the Women of Wrestling to torture sessions supervised by Chemical Ali. Last April, some of these Ali Babas now converted into souk merchants ransacked everything in half of Baghdad, and left a great deal of the population literally in the middle of the street, with no possessions, or even with no homes to go back to.
There’s not a single working industrial plant left in the city, according to a businessman now selling satellite dishes. To wander around some parts of the city on foot – a practice that can be quite a gamble – is to be surrounded by rubble uncollected in five months, a collection of instant ruins, piles of rubbish and vermin, and the occasional clouds of fire with which Baghdadis try to protect themselves against this filthy avalanche. Baghdad mirrors Kabul in its squalor and its lust for life, in its lacerated, bombed urban landscape and its barely contained rage that so much, yet so little, has changed for the better.
Practically none of the public services work. There are very few operating police stations. All the ministries remain closed – or totally destroyed. There is no postal service – although an extreme minority can now use DHL of Fedex. Telephones in some neighborhoods do work – and once again the extreme minority can buy a Thuraya satphone on the spot, plus refill cards. Any brand-new BMW is assumed to be driven by a looter.
The Americans stay on another planet – in bunkers. Humvees venturing out on patrol are subject to all number of attacks in broad daylight. Like this Wednesday, when a still sweating resident of Zayouna tells how he saw, through his rear-view mirror, a Humvee being hit by a roadside bomb and another backing up to collect two dead American soldiers and speed away. He can hardly believe that his car was not hit. Locals inevitably tell a foreigner: “Don’t be near any Humvees or jeeps, even walking in the street. The American soldiers are so frightened they start shooting at random every time they hear an explosion.”
Even if in theory there’s total freedom of the press in Iraq for the first time since the 1960s, and there are now more than 50 newspapers in the Baghdad market alone, a lot of people don’t bother to read them. “They are censored by the Americans – they can’t say what’s really happening, and they just print rumors about Saddam and the Ba’ath Party,” says a former army officer, now unemployed. Bremer officially said that “incitement to violence” is in fact an excuse to close down any newspaper or TV station the CPA doesn’t like. Any newspaper critical of the occupation is inevitably “visited” by American soldiers.
A whole neighborhood of army officers, Baladeiat, is unemployed since the United States decided in late May to dissolve the Iraqi army. They stay at home because there are no jobs, except turning your car into a taxi, and there are too many taxis already. They live close to the dreaded building of General Security, which the Americans, with no sense of irony, turned into a prison, “attacked every night with bombs and mortars,” according to a resident.
The now-unemployed army officers tell endless tales of “disappeared” in Saddam’s presidential palace – with the Americans re-enacting the antics of the US-trained Latin American dictatorships of the late 1960s and 1970s. Some of the “disappeared” are released only months later. They are never told why they were arrested in the first place: inevitably they are assumed to have been Ba’ath Party members, but the Americans don’t seem to make the distinction that everybody who wanted to do something in Saddam’s Iraq had to be a party member. Most “disappeared” are interrogated only once or twice, and then transferred to the makeshift prison at Saddam International Airport, or to the infamous Abu Graeb prison in the outskirts of Baghdad. They are prevented from any contact with the outside world. And since there is no judicial system, nobody can check what the Americans are up to.
The CPA says there is no timetable for putting the judiciary system in place. The CPA also doesn’t know when the former Saddam International Airport will reopen. It may take very long, as it holds a huge US military base, plus a sprawling prison with at least 3,000 inmates. It is attacked practically every night by the resistance with grenades and mortars – and there are plenty of surface-to-air missiles expecting to greet incoming aircraft. “What kind of liberation is this?” asks an 83-year-old retired army officer trained “in Tunbridge Wells, in England.” He used to hate Saddam and the Ba’ath Party silently; now he vocally hates the US occupation.
Al-Sharif Ali, leader of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, has stressed in a conference attended by no fewer than 80 political parties, 43 religious leaders, 43 military commanders, 33 ministers and diplomats and 109 tribal sheikhs that the Iraqi population simply does not trust the Governing Council. The conference decided that restoration of national sovereignty and independence must be the common objective for all. In other words, real democracy. This is not exactly what the CPA has in mind. Whatever the spin during Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Baghdad, the CPA – the Iraqi arm of the Washington neo-cons – wants in fact what neo-con Daniel Pipes described as “a democratically minded strongman who has real authority”, who would be “politically moderate” but “operationally tough.” In plain English: another Saddam, but pliable to US interests.
As much as the occupiers remain in their Baghdad bunkers, impervious to the ghastly real life around them and with no idea whatsoever as to how they are perceived by average Iraqis, the irreversible US failure still has to be fully understood by the West. Another graduate of Baghdad University goes straight to the point: “The Americans now want help from the UN. And they want an Iraqi army working for them. Even if they managed to have both, this is just talk. They want our oil and they want to stay here forever.”
Meanwhile, “Saddam is in Baghdad.” “Elvis” has not left the building, and in each passing day the distress of the unemployed, the doomed and the damned grows, and for many of them it’s much worse than under Saddam.