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Rumors and Rifles
Dispatch II from David Martinez in Iraq
Rumors and Rifles
I want to start by saying that Baghdad, after being here a week, is not so dodgy and chaotic as it sounds. Of course, remind me that I said this after our hotel gets hit by a rocket attack or something. But for now, Baghdad is tense and calm at the same time. People are just trying to get on with their lives, in the face of such extremely difficult circumstances.
The city itself reminds me of a lot of large 3rd world metropolises. Concrete buildings, untreated exhaust, street vendors, donkey-carts in the street battling with busses and taxis. Insane traffic, dirty air, people yelling and shouting, selling things or swearing at other drivers: it could be Monterrey, Mexico, or Bandung, Indonesia. There are parts that could literally be anywhere. I visited Sadr City, the heavily Shi'a, very poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the Baghdad, and I swear it looked almost exactly like Nezahualcoyotl, a very poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Of course, there are profound differences. Like the tanks and Bradleys and Humvees that patrol the streets, and the proliference of automatic weapons being toted everywhere. Across from our hotel are two heavily guarded buildings, the hotels Palestine and Sheraton, respectively. Every morning groups of men leave for work, white men with bulletproof vests and Kalshnikovs, they get into SUV's and head off to work as private security, I imagine.
Nervous Iraqi cops guard the barricades at the hotel entrance, and an Abrams tank squats in the background.
Baghdad also seems to have a lock on the men-in-suits-carrying-automatic-rifles department.
And how is the occupation going, you ask? Well, let's just say that the words Unholy, Fucking, and Mess come to mind. One huge problem is that it is dangerous to walk around at night, for fear of thieves. This is something the Iraqis are very angry about, and they take it personally. They don't like to see their city descend into crime like this. Why can't the Americans maintain order? That is the Number One job of any occupying army, and the U.S. military is failing miserably at it.
That, combined with the lack of decent services like telephones (because the Americans, in a brilliant tactical move, hit the Telephone Exchange with a cruise missile), and the straight-out arrogance of the troops, are all combining to make people here very fed up with the "liberators".
There is so much to tell. Rumors abound about anything and everything, and everyone has warned me not to trust anyone. No one, they say, is who they say they are. Okay, fair enough. I haven't been here long enough to form an opinion about that. But to give an idea of how strange it is here, in post-Saddam Iraq, I will tell two stories. Whether they are true or not I don't know, I only know
they are good stories.
The first concerns the battle for the Baghdad airport. As you will remember, it was a fierce and bloody conflict, and at the end the Americans prevailed. But exactly HOW they won is being much speculated upon.
People say that there was a very loud explosion heard, and then after that, all resistance ceased. Then, eyewitnesses say, trucks were seen removing loads and loads of topsoil, as if it had been contaminated. And the families of the slain Iraqis have asked for their relatives' remains, to no avail. A British journalist told me he has seen photos of the corpses, and they are something akin to melted.
So people think that the Americans used a small Neutron bomb. For those of you who don't remember, the Neutron Bomb was a genius invention of Cold-War capitalism, a device that killed humans, but left buildings intact. It allowed the military to kill people without damaging real estate. A lot of folks here think that one of these was dusted off and used to wipe out the Iraqi fighters at the airport. Like I said, whether it's true or not, I don't know. But I sure as hell would believe it.
Then there's the matter of the documents looted from the Muhabarat, the Iraqi secret police. They are scattered all over the place, in the hands of the American, British, and Australian Intelligence Services, as well as several other entities. Stacks and stacks of documents, revealing how thoroughly and deeply the Muhabarat was entrenched in the lives of all Iraqis. No one has the
time or labor available to sift through them all, and so they sit mostly unread, at the moment. They tell things like how the secret police would rape a woman, then threaten her family with telling the neighborhood if they didn't become informants. Or simply kill someone, and threaten their friends with the same treatment if they didn't cooperate.
The crazy thing is that if these documents are released, Iraqi society might implode. Everyone would find out that their neighbors were informants, and might possibly go after them. The man who married the rape victim would demand a divorce. It would be utter chaos. So, according to the journalist who told me this, no one is quite sure what to do with them.
Additionally, it has been revealed, through similar seized records, that Saddam Hussein was actively planning to set up a new television station, along the lines of Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabia, that would have been outspoken and professional, but would have also allowed him to send agents anywhere in the world posing as reporters. The whole thing would have been secretly funded by
Saddam, and he was prepared to put twenty million dollars toward it. The idea was hatched by an Egyptian businessman, and I bet there are a lot of people who would like to know his name.
So those are some of the things I have heard in my first week here. Needless to say, the words fascinating, intriguing, and exciting hardly do it justice.
Of course, for ordinary Iraqis, it is just difficult and sad. After twenty years of living under Saddam, their country is teetering on the brink of total chaos, being controlled by a bunch of lunkheads with no knowledge and no plan. And now Bremer has refused to allow elections until 2005. What are people supposed to think?
Oh yeah, one more tidbit. There are huge, huge lines of people waiting to but gasoline every day. They wait for hours, and the lines stretch for miles, literally. But the crazy thing is, the gas they are buying is from Kuwait! It is transported by the ever-present Halliburton Corp., who buy it at 98 cents a gallon. They move it to Iraq, and then sell it to the U.S. military for $1.59 per gallon. Then the military sells it to Iraqis for fifteen cents a gallon, since they can't afford any higher(Iraqis are accustomed to paying virtually
nothing for gasoline, they used to use it to wash hotel floors, as it was cheaper than water). And the difference in the price is being taken out of the Oil-for-Food account, the program that used to be run by the U.N. but has now been taken over by the U.S. Army. So the Iraqi people pay through the nose, and Halliburton laughs all the way to the bank.
So there you go. Baghdad, December, 2003. There is much, much more to tell, like about the schools that Bechtel was supposed to repair, and which are still in appalling condition. And the entire town which has been cordoned off with barbed wire. We are trying to cover it all.