BAGHDAD – The Iraqi resistance against the US occupation – in the form of the first, free popular demonstration in the country since the 1960s – was born on April 18 in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque in the middle-class district of Aadhamiya, the site of a fierce battle on April 7, two days before the fall of Baghdad.
Mahmoud Wasfi is now the president of the nine-member municipal council in Aadhamiya, which includes two women, a suggestion from this former wrestler who started his new job more than three months ago – with no salary. After he was spontaneously chosen by the locals – “everybody in the neighborhood voted, we had free elections” – the Americans asked him if he had been a Ba’ath Party member. He said “of course, like everybody else. I had to feed my family.” He signed a form in English repudiating the party, and he was in business.
Wasfi says that according to the only reliable statistics – provided by Iraqi food agencies – there are roughly 42,000 families in Aadhamiya, divided in four areas. The council meets every Monday. Wasfi has to deal with one “Captain Mike” – responsible for Aadhamiya’s security and purse strings. Any financial decision comes from “Captain Mike.” Basically, people now have just about enough to eat, but services are slowly being restored, electricity supply is still patchy – three hours on, three hours off – and thieves roam the area. Wasfi is adamant: “Our demands are not being satisfied.”
Wasfi says his post is equivalent to a manager in the Ministry of Finance. But he has to help people with cash from his own pocket. Everybody asks him the ubiquitous question: “Why can’t we find jobs?” He answers that there’s nothing he can do about it. “The Americans put us in a very difficult position towards the local people. But the people understand it.” He believes a stronger United Nations presence would be better. But if the situation doesn’t improve soon, he will quit the council this month in protest. Wasfi notes that municipal councils in Shi’ite parts of the country, related to the powerful al-Hawza – the Shi’ite “Vatican” housed in the city of Najaf – are more forceful. “At the time of Saddam, everybody had a salary. Now everybody says the situation under Saddam was better.”
Families in Aadhamiya want a soccer field for their youngsters. Iraqi contractors came to examine a proposed site, “but the Americans have not given their okay.” Wasfi says Aadhamiya is getting help from IRD, a Jordanian non-government organization (NGO) that works closely with the Americans, as well as from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). But he warns that “if you are an NGO Bechtel does not help you. You have to know an American, otherwise you don’t have a chance.”
Bechtel of course is making a killing in Iraq, courtesy of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – the supervising body in charge of commissioning and awarding contracts. The San Francisco-based giant has already won projects worth more than US$ 1 billion. Bechtel is under contract with USAID to repair and upgrade Iraq’s power grid, and its potable-water and sewage-treating systems; the main roads, bridges, railways and public buildings; and building and reconstruction of schools and clinics. The sectors considered a priority are ports, buildings, surface transportation and waste water. What Iraqis simply can’t understand – because the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) didn’t bother to explain – is why the Americans control everything, why so many Iraqi contractors remain empty-handed, and why everything takes so long.
Bechtel program directors say the company has hired 69 Iraqi subcontractors and employs more than 27,000 people. But subcontracts to Iraqi firms were only worth $47 million by late September – out of a total of more than $1 billion. US companies divide practically the whole cake. Creative Associates International will revitalize Iraqi primary and secondary schools. The Research Triangle Institute will be in charge of local governance development (Wasfi had no idea about it). The public health system will be restored by Abt Associates. Airport administration in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra will go to Skylink Air and Logistics Support.
Bechtel is responsible for rebuilding 1,200 primary and secondary schools in Iraq (600 in Baghdad alone). Most should have been ready this week – the beginning of the school year. In the case of Baghdad, only 43 out of 600 were ready. Ma’monia, a secondary school in Aadhamiya originally built in 1922, was one of the lucky ones. Ra’ad al-Juburi, the Iraqi subcontractor, said he was able to rebuild the school with materials still found in Iraqi markets.
Bradley vehicles and Humvees patrol Aadhamiya every day. A teacher comments that in six months no soldier ever talked to him “except to give me an order.” Another teacher says everybody expected to be treated as partners in the municipal councils, “and cultivated people could find themselves a role after 35 years of humiliation. Instead we are treated like cattle.”
Life for the municipal councils spread across the 50 Baghdad neighborhoods is not exactly the same. It’s fair to argue that wealthier neighborhoods, with English-speaking council members, get better treatment. For example, in upper-middle-class Sumer the council president, Addel Rahim Khalaf, is a former officer who proudly exhibits the signs of a close collaboration with the Americans: a cellular phone, a badge and a license to carry a gun. Sumer has a monthly budget of $40,000. Sumer already obtained, among other things, the renovation of three schools, two roads, and two new soccer fields. In al-Saadoun Street, one of Baghdad’s main roads, the president of another municipal council, a businessman involved in import-export, scoffs when he mentions that the CPA has even edited a guide to teach the presidents of municipal councils how to behave in a meeting: “This shows us the image that the Americans have of ourselves – of a backward people. They don’t know that the first municipal councils here started in 1868.”
A Baghdad trader now in the dumps says that “for the Americans, their soldiers are more important than us. I heard this from them myself. Under Saddam, we knew we had to be a high official in the Ba’ath Party to do something with our lives. What about now? Even if we wanted to, we can do nothing. Every Iraqi is considered guilty.”
This tragic cultural misunderstanding is not enough to make Wasfi support an armed resistance: “There are many more important things to do – we have to try to rebuild the country. We will wait. We trust Allah.” He is in favor of jihad in principle, but not now. “If the Americans gave us a chance, we could have done better. But they didn’t give us a chance.” Wasfi has stark advice for the Americans – echoed by a huge majority in the Sunni triangle: “Get your military base and give our cities back to us, and our chance to rebuild our country.”
Whatever the benefits of the US program for rebuilding Iraq, they are being lost on the absolute majority of the Sunni population. In middle-class Aadhamiya, all former employees of Iraqi ministries are now unemployed. Another refrain heard all over the Sunni triangle is inevitable: Saddam rebuilt Iraq in 45 days after the end of the 1991 Gulf War. “The Americans have not kept their promises. We thought we would become the guiding light of the Arab world, but we find ourselves in a toilet in the back yard,” says a former public employee.
The fatal, irredeemable mistake of proconsul L Paul Bremer and his CPA was to fire hundreds of thousands of possibly innocent public employees. What these residents of Baghdad are saying is that there is simply no Iraqi face to hold and secure the country. It’s impossible to rehabilitate Iraq’s institutions and restore basic services for the population without the managers and employees of Iraq’s public sector. So no wonder the talk in the streets of Baghdad is, “We had an Arabic Saddam. Now we have an American Saddam.”