BAGHDAD – Ahmad, a 23-year-old Jordanian student, stepped out of his apartment in Haifa Street this past Saturday morning to hail a taxi, but he was confronted by a US checkpoint. “Move your ass from here,” a GI ordered him. “Don’t talk to me like that. I’m not your slave,” answered Ahmad. “Aren’t you? taunted the GI. Ahmad rose to the bait and answered back, so the outcome was inevitable. He was arrested.
Ahmad was kept in a Hummer for two hours, and then taken to the main building at Baghdad (former Saddam) International Airport. A translator said to him, “Are you crazy? Never talk to these people, whatever they say to you.” Ahmad finally managed to show the translator his Jordanian identity card. The Americans were not convinced. “What are you doing in Iraq? Are you a fedayeen [paramilitary]?” Ahmad replied that he was a student, and showed his university papers. The Americans said these might be fake.
Ahmad was then taken to a big hall inside the airport crammed with about 400 people. “They look like killers, or probably looters,” Ahmad thought to himself. The “killers” then began talking behind his back: “He looks like a fedayeen. There’s no future for him.” Ahmad remembered that many foreign fedayeen – especially in Basra and Najaf – had been killed by Iraqis.
Then a soldier arrived in the hall and read a list of 10 names: these people were taken away. After a few hours, an Iraqi soldier came to talk to Ahmad. “You’re lucky they [other detainees] didn’t hurt you. Because they don’t care. You’re Jordanian, you have no family here. If they kill you, who cares about you?” Ahmad argued that he was not carrying his passport because there’s no security in the city, and muggings are rife. The Iraqi soldier went out to plead Ahmad’s case to the US commander. He came back half an hour later: “You can go. But don’t do this again. And if you see an American tank or vehicle driving in the street, don’t go near them.”
Ahmad’s experience is positively mild compared with what happens daily to others in Baghdad – and he managed to get away just because he is a foreigner. A curfew in the capital starts every night at 11. But in many places everything has stopped by as early as 2 in the afternoon because there’s no security in the city.
Last month, Nudir, a young engineer, was arrested with two friends in a BMW because GIs found a revolver in the glove compartment: practically every Iraqi carries a gun for self-defense. Nudir says he was beaten up by the soldiers and then spent 16 days in Camp Cropper, the prison inside the airport grounds that Ahmad was lucky not to see.
US repression is relentless. Red Cross officials confirm that more than 20,000 people have been arrested in Baghdad in the past few months. Most come and go – but there’s no way to keep tabs on all the cases: there are no functioning courts and judges. Amnesty International has already denounced cases of “torture,” and an unknown number of Iraqi civilians have been gunned down by US search patrols. The bunkered-down Coalition Provisional Authority simply refuses to mention how many Iraqi civilians are being shot or killed every day – either victims of crime or victims of US repression. Like the Iraqi interpreter killed by an American soldier in the front seat of a car occupied by Pietro Cordone, the Italian diplomat who is the official adviser to the new Iraqi Ministry of Culture. Baghdadis take for granted that American soldiers are now free to shoot civilians in any Iraqi civilian vehicle if they look even remotely suspicious.
Iraqi police now man several checkpoints in Baghdad – but they don’t seem to have been trained well enough. On Saturday, two “Ali Babas” – thieves – stole a battered Toyota and managed to cross a checkpoint close to the Palestine-Sheraton hotel complex, slaloming through a hail of bullets from the agitated guards. They were only stopped near the hotel entrance. Cynics speculate that this was a trial run for a car bombing, as the Palestine remains a key target for the Iraqi resistance.
But while ordinary Iraqis may be treated like cattle, VIP Iraqis – for propaganda purposes – receive red-carpet treatment, even if they are included in the US 55-most-wanted pack of cards. That’s the case of General Sultan Hashim Ahmed, the former minister of defense, who surrendered to Major-General David Petraeus. This US general in charge of northern Iraq has written a letter to Hashim describing him as “a man of honor and integrity.”
That’s not the word in Baghdad. It’s an open secret that Hashim was instrumental in Saddam Hussein’s bloody repression of Shi’ites and Kurds immediately after the 1991 Gulf War – a repression that the Americans did nothing to prevent. And many know that Hashim was the northern coordinator of the so-called “Saddam network” – the Saddam-sponsored faction of the resistance that includes “remnants of the regime” and disgruntled, unemployed former army officers. The Iraqi perception is that by treating Hashim with velvet gloves, the Americans may expect to defuse at least this faction of the resistance. “They are desperate. Now they are doing deals with anybody,” says a retired army officer.
The more exalted factions of the resistance are far from being appeased. And they proved it by their assassination attempt on Akila al-Hashemi, a woman, a Shi’ite, a diplomat and one of the only members of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council actually enjoying the respect of the general population. The council is called “the imported government” by practically everybody in the bazaars and kebab shops of Baghdad. Hashemi, shot in the abdomen, is in critical condition in a US Army hospital. She would have been one of the members of the Iraqi delegation attending the United Nations General Assembly that opened in New York on Monday.
The only possible way out for the Iraqi quagmire lies at the United Nations. The US draft resolution to be presented to the UN in essence means that President George W Bush needs money and blue helmets – but is unwilling to surrender any US control of Iraq. France, on the other hand – followed by Germany, and in a certain measure by China and Russia, and arguably by most of the UN – wants a swift transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi provisional government: not in the next few years, but in the next few months. That’s exactly what the Iraqi Governing Council itself demanded last week in Baghdad.
France wants a key role for the UN Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France). And it wants a constitutional convention for Iraq, as soon as possible, followed by general elections in the spring of 2004. If the plan is approved by the UN, the European Union, as well as Muslim countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia, would certainly participate in a UN-mandated, perhaps US-led peacekeeping force. Baghdadis tend to consider this a rational, sensible plan – although they would prefer the UN totally in charge.
But the hardcore faction of the Iraqi resistance has once again made clear that it will not compromise. That’s the message of the car-bombing on Monday against the already badly damaged UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed two and injured eight. Practically everybody in Baghdad heard the blast – which is nothing but a metaphorical warning to both Bush and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who insists on security guarantees for UN staff in the event of a more substantial role in Iraq.
The car-bombing proves once again that the Americans cannot guarantee anyone’s security. A solution for the Iraqi situation might be around the corner, this week in New York. But many in Baghdad see the future as nothing but bleak, even in the unlikely event of Bush and the Pentagon seeing the light.