Report from Occupied Iraq

Andrea Schmidt

February 29 - March 4 2004

I have been in occupied Iraq for just over a week. Long enough to know understand that the political situation in Iraq is profoundly complicated in a way that would have been impossible to understand had I not come here.

Thus, you should receive this first report, members of the anti-occupation and anti-’war on terror’ movements in Montreal, Quebec and Canada, with healthy skepticism, because it doesn’t begin to do justice to that complexity... What can I possibly say after being here, in this profoundly complicated place, after only a week and a half?

Still, I will share my first impressions of Baghdad, and a couple of stories that perhaps give a sense of some aspects of life under occupation.

I discovered Baghdad much as it had been described to me.

Almost a year after the US-led invasion of the country, crumbling shells of buildings -- old government buildings, theaters and communications stations -- stand testament to the bombing campaign, a bombing campaign that Iraqis hasten to remind me was much less severe than the one the US launched in 1991. This war, this occupation cannot be isolated from that earlier war, or for that matter, from the 12 years of UN sanctions that ensued.

There are mundane ways in which the occupation holds sway over Baghdad.

The traffic is heavy and chaotic, and makes navigating the city is quite a challenge. There seem to be a surplus of cars, and so many roads have been blocked off and rerouted by heavy concrete blast walls and barbed wired erected around various ministry, hotel and NGO compounds that there don’t seem to be direct routes to anywhere. Traffic lights are nonfunctional, and even on the rare occasions when there are traffic cops directing traffic, no one pays attention to them. What should be a fifteen minute drive often takes over an hour. Remarkably, I have seen no collisions.

The lineups for gasoline that stretched for kilometers suddenly abated a couple of weeks before I arrived. A regulation was put in place in Baghdad that assigns drivers specific weekdays on which they can buy gas according to their license plate numbers, and this has made the lineups much shorter. One Iraqi acquaintance wondered at how quickly and simply the problem was solved after so many months of people spending literally days waiting for gas, as though the authorities wanted to distract Baghdadis from the real political and social issues, and the interminable waits and frustration over the gasoline shortage was a welcome means of doing so. The black-market sale of gasoline sales is still going strong; anyone who drives for a living has to keep their car filled up at all times can’t be limited to buying gas on specific days of the week.

Electricity is sporadic. It comes in cycles: several hours on, several hours off. Most office buildings and hotels have hefty generators up and running within seconds each time the power goes off, but families living in regular flats are not usually so fortunate.

12 million people are unemployed in this country with a population of 26 million, according to Falah Alwan, President of the Federation of Workers’ Counsels and Trade Unions of Iraq. And poverty is very evident on the streets of Baghdad. Women beg in the streets with their children, people are squatting half-destroyed houses, and I haven’t even been to the poor areas of town yet.

US helicopters circle low overhead all the time, and particularly at night. For the first week I was here, US troops seemed to be keeping a low profile in Baghdad, increasingly putting Iraqi policemen on guard in front of hotels known to be frequented by contractors and Western journalists and buildings in which CPA and Interim Governing Council conferences are held.

There are no shortage of horror stories of crimes perpetrated against Iraqis by occupation forces either. They swirl through the city like dry autumn leaves, followed by a steady stream of journalists, some well-intentioned, others cynical and some maybe both.

Like the story I heard told by a young Iraqi translator about his friend. Both of them had been working as translators for the Coalition Provisional Authority. His friend had an ear infection and traded his morning shift for a friend’s evening shift. That morning, explosions were detonated in Kirkuk. When he returned to work, CPA authorities demanded to why he had needed to change his schedule, implying that he had been involved in the mornings’ bombings. He was arrested, and has been detained without charge for the past month and a half at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. The human rights activists working here estimate that there are about 10,000 security detainees held at Abu Ghraib prison alone and 18,000 in Iraq as a whole, where they are denied anything akin to due process and are subject to harrowing conditions. (For more information about security detainees, check out the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq’s site: http://www.cpt.org/iraq/iraq.php.)

Or the story, heard third hand, of approximately 25 families in Hilla, a town south of Baghdad, under the control of Polish occupation forces. The families, displaced during the bombing last year, were squatting houses built during Saddam’s regime for the officers of the Iraqi army near the base located in the area. The Polish troops have been using the old Iraqi army base as their own, and decided they wanted to expand it. So they went to the families and told them to leave. The families agreed, on condition that Coalition Authorities find them other housing to move to. Three days later, the area was bombed by US planes, the houses destroyed and many members of the families killed in the bombing. The Polish forces have moved the walls of their base to enclose the rased area.

Today brought its own story, heavily reported in the international news as I write the first draft of this report. Today is Ashura, a major day of celebration and mourning for Shia muslims. It commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the battle of Karbala, that falls on the tenth day of the month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar). The death of Imam Hussein essentially marks the point in history at which the main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia, parted ways. Traditionally, Ashura has been celebrated by Shia people performing pageants recreating the battle and the death of Hussein and performing self-flagellation rituals in mourning. Under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Shia were oppressed in a number of ways; one was that were not allowed to celebrate Ashura, and so today is the first time in thirty years that the pageants and the pilgrimages to the principle Shiite shrines in Karbala and in Kadhimiya, a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, were going to be performed.

Shia communities have been preparing for today since the beginning of Muharram. And it feels like everyone had been holding their breath to see what would happen. Would the day be allowed to come and go in relative tranquility? Or would the occasion, with its celebrations and large crowds of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, be targeted to foment political and religious tensions between Shiite and Sunni?

I have visited Kadhimiya several times since I arrived here. The first time was last Monday. There US tanks and soldiers blocking major roads leading to the Al-Khadim mosque in the middle of the neighborhood. On Thursday, a rocket hit the exterior wall of the shrine. No one was injured, but the people of Kadhimiya were furious and demonstrated against occupying troops. Sheikh Majid of the Al-Khalisia madrasa recounted how people had approached US tanks shouting “Death to the occupation” and refused to disperse when US soldiers aimed the tanks’ fire arms at the crowd. On Friday, when we returned for Muharram celebrations, the occupying forces had left. Young boys were everywhere, preparing for Ashura.

This morning, 6 explosions hit shrines in Karbala. At least two explosions hit the Al-Kadhim shrine in Kadhimya. News agencies are reporting that there were 185 people killed, and several hundred injured, and the death toll seems likely to rise. (As I edit this, Sheikhs in Kadhimiya are saying that 285 people have died as a result of the attacks in both cities).

Three days of national mourning have been declared, funerals are being held, and Shiite and Sunni leaders are calling for unity in the face of what I think is widely perceived as an attempt to fuel tensions between Shia and Sunni and provoke a civil war in occupied Iraq.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and people are left to speculate and develop their own theories. And if the religious leaders and members of the Interim Governing Council are accusing US authorities of being unable to ensure Iraqis’ security, the majority of Iraqis I have spoken with accuse the US of actually being behind the attacks, whether directly or indirectly. The obvious argument is that by exacerbating the social divisions and prejudice that Saddam’s regime nurtured between the two groups, and fostering the out-break of a civil conflict, the US can try to justify its continued military presence here -- not in the name of freedom for Iraqis this time, but in the name of peace and security.

On the streets of Baghdad today, sorrow and tension are palpable as people mourn the dead, and the state of this occupied and terrorized country, and wonder what comes next.

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This report was written by Andréa Schmidt for the Iraq Solidarity Project. The Iraq Solidarity Project is a Montreal-based grassroots initiative to provide direct non-violent support to Iraqis struggling against the occupation; strengthen the mobilization against economic and military domination and anti-war work in Quebec and Canada; and build links of solidarity between struggles against the occupation of Iraq and struggles against oppression in Canada and Quebec.

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