Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Sunday, August 31, 2003
Made Me Laugh...
One of the readers of the blog (you know who you are) led me to this page and I've been laughing at it for the last 5 minutes- I am forever grateful! To access the page, type "Weapons of mass destruction" in the search and click the "I'm Feeling Lucky" bar. Read the standard-looking error page CAREFULLY!

Saturday, August 30, 2003
Road Trip
My brother, E., was out at 8 am this morning getting gasoline for the car. He came home at 12 pm in a particularly foul mood. He had waited in line of angry, hostile Iraqis for 3 hours. Gasoline lines drive people crazy because, prior to the war, the price of gasoline in Iraq was ridiculously low. A liter of gasoline (unleaded) cost around 20 Iraqi Dinars when one US dollar equaled 2,000 Iraqi dinars. In other words, 1 liter of gasoline cost one cent! A liter of bottled water cost more than gasoline. Not only does it cost more now, but it isn’t easy to get. I think they’re importing gasoline from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

We (a cousin, his wife, my mom and I) dragged E. out of the house at 12:30 to go visit my aunt on the other end of the city. We heard the usual instructions before we left- stop at checkpoints, return before dark and if anyone wants the car, give them the keys- don’t argue, don’t fight it.

The moment I had a foot out the door, the heat almost forced me back inside. Our sun, at noon, isn’t a heavenly body- it’s a physical assault. I could swear that at noon, in Iraq, the sun shuts out the rest of the world from its glory and concentrates its energies on us. Everything looks like it’s traveling on waves of heat- even the date palms look limp with the exhaustion of survival.

We climbed into a battered, old, white 1984 Volkswagen- people are avoiding using ‘nice’ cars that might tempt hijackers (‘nice’ is anything made after 1990). I mentally debated putting on sun glasses but decided against it- no need to attract any undue attention. I said a little prayer to keep us safe as I rummaged around in my bag, checking for my ‘weapon’. I can’t stand carrying a pistol so I carry around a big, red, switchblade hunting knife- you don’t want to mess with Riverbend…

Being out in the streets is like being caught in a tornado. You have to be alert and ready for anything every moment. I sat in the backseat, squinting into the sun, trying to determine if a particular face was that of a looter, or abductor or just another angry countryman. I craned my neck looking at the blue SUV, trying to remember if it had been behind us for the last kilometer or longer. I held my breath nervously every time the cousin slowed down the car because of traffic, willing the cars in front of us to get a move on.

I caught site of two men fighting. A crowd was beginning to gather and a few people were caught in the middle, trying to separate them. My cousin clucked angrily and started mumbling about ignorant people and how all we needed, on top of occupation, was hostility. E. told us not to keep staring and anxiously felt for the pistol under his seat.

The ride that took 20 minutes pre-war Iraq, took 45 minutes today. There were major roads completely cut off by tanks. Angry troops stood cutting off access to the roads around the palaces (which were once Saddam’s but are now America’s palaces). The cousin and E. debated alternative routes at every checkpoint or roadblock. I stayed silent because I don’t even know the city anymore. Now, areas are identified as “the one with the crater where the missile exploded”, or “the street with the ravaged houses”, or “the little house next to that one where that family was killed”.

The looting and killing of today has changed from the looting and killing in April. In April, it was quite random. Criminals were working alone. Now they’re more organized than the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) and the troops combined. No one works alone anymore- they’ve created gangs and armed militias. They pull up to houses in minivans and SUVs, armed with machineguns and sometimes grenades. They barge into the house and demand money and gold. If they don’t find enough, they abduct a child or female and ask for ransom. Sometimes the whole family is killed- sometimes only the male members of the family are killed.

For a while, the men in certain areas began arranging ‘lookouts’. They would gather, every 6 or 7 guys, in a street, armed with Klashnikovs, and watch out for the whole area. They would stop strange cars and ask them what family they were there to visit. Hundreds of looters were caught that way- we actually felt safe for a brief period. Then the American armored cars started patrolling the safer residential areas, ordering the men off the streets- telling them that if they were seen carrying a weapon, they would be treated as criminals.

Most of the gangs, at least the ones in Baghdad, originate from slums on the outskirts of the city. ‘Al-Sadir City’ is a huge, notorious slum with a population of around 1.5 million. The whole place is terrifying. If you lose a car or a person, you will most likely find them there. Every alley is controlled by a different gang and weapons are sold in the streets… they’ll even try out that machinegun you have your eye on, if you pay enough. Americans don’t bother raiding the houses in areas like that… raids are exclusively for decent people who can’t shoot back or attack. Raids are for the poor people in Ramadi, Ba’aquba and Mosul.

By the time we got to my aunt’s house, every muscle in my body was aching. My eyes were burning with the heat and the strain. E.’s brow was furrowed with the scenes we had left behind us on the street and the cousin’s hands were shaking almost imperceptibly- knuckles still white with tension. My mother said a prayer of gratitude for our safe arrival and the cousin’s wife, T., swore she wasn’t going to leave my aunt’s house for another three days and if we planned to go home today, we could do so without her because God needed to look out for other people today, not just us...

Position Open
Everyone is still discussing the death of Al-Hakim. Al-Hakim isn’t particularly popular with moderate Shi’a. One of my cousins, and his wife, are Shi’a and when he heard the news, he just shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t like him much anyway- power-hungry clerics (of any religion) make people nervous, I guess. No one I know personally seems very traumatized with his death, but everyone is horrified with the number of casualties. 126 people dead and over 300 wounded- some of them dying.

They’re saying on the news that they’ve caught the assassins who set up the bomb- supposedly some branch of Al-Qaeda currently functioning from Iraq (they too were ‘liberated’).

A political analyst in Iraq says that there’s a chance some of Al-Hakim’s followers were actually involved in the bombing. That *would* explain how 700 kg of explosives found their way through his literal army (Badir’s Brigade) and next to his black SUV. The analyst said that there were many prominent members of SCIRI who had turned against Al-Hakim ever since his return from Iran. It seems that upon his return ‘home’ he decided to change the game plan and some of his followers didn’t like the new arrangements- namely, his brother on the council. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that any Islamic group would engineer such a vicious attack at one of the holiest religious sites in Iraq- the shrine of Imam Ali.

An interesting development on the much-shaken puppet council- Bahr Ul Iloom has suspended his membership in the council. The elderly cleric claimed, in an interview, that America was doing such a bad job of keeping the Iraqi people secure, he didn’t want to be a part of the council anymore. I wonder if he’s going to return to London. That makes a council of only 8 members now… we need a new nominee otherwise we will have four months of the year without leadership. Maybe if Bush doesn't get re-elected, Bremer will give the position to him. Love to have him in Baghdad...

Friday, August 29, 2003
“[Iraq] is not a country in chaos and Baghdad is not a city in chaos.” – Paul Bremer

Where is this guy living? Is he even in the same time zone??? I’m incredulous… maybe he's from some alternate universe where shooting, looting, tanks, rape, abductions, and assassinations aren’t considered chaos, but it’s chaos in *my* world.

Ever since the occupation there have been 400 females abducted in Baghdad alone and that is only the number of recorded abductions. Most families don’t go to the Americans to tell about an abduction because they know it’s useless. The male members of the family take it upon themselves to search for the abducted female and get revenge if they find the abductors. What else is there to do? I know if I were abducted I’d much rather my family organize themselves and look for me personally than go to the CPA.

By BBC’s accounts there are 70 cars a day being hijacked in Baghdad alone…

And now we’ve just had some shocking news- Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim was assassinated in the holy city of Najaf! Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim was the head of SCIRI (Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). They don’t know who was behind it, but many believe it is one of the other Shi’a religious factions. There has been some tension between Al-Sadir’s followers and Al-Hakim’s followers. Another cleric, Al-Sistani, also had some interesting things to say against Al-Hakim…

What most people choose to forget is the fact that the Shi’a in the south lost hundreds of thousands of lives to the war against Iran- fighting the very regime that is backing SCIRI now- the Islamic Revolution in Teheran. Al-Hakim does have a strong backing from many Shi’a fundamentalists sympathetic with Iran, true enough, but he also has people who hate him (and Badir’s Brigade) with a vengeance.

I hated this guy for what he represented- a puppet and a supporter of a fundamentalist Islamic government, but this wasn’t the way to deal with it. This is going to result in more bloodshed and fighting. He is the second Shi’a cleric to be assassinated in Najaf- the first was Al-Kho’i who also came from Teheran (back in April).

Thursday, August 28, 2003
The Promise and the Threat
The Myth: Iraqis, prior to occupation, lived in little beige tents set up on the sides of little dirt roads all over Baghdad. The men and boys would ride to school on their camels, donkeys and goats. These schools were larger versions of the home units and for every 100 students, there was one turban-wearing teacher who taught the boys rudimentary math (to count the flock) and reading. Girls and women sat at home, in black burkas, making bread and taking care of 10-12 children.

The Truth: Iraqis lived in houses with running water and electricity. Thousands of them own computers. Millions own VCRs and VCDs. Iraq has sophisticated bridges, recreational centers, clubs, restaurants, shops, universities, schools, etc. Iraqis love fast cars (especially German cars) and the Tigris is full of little motor boats that are used for everything from fishing to water-skiing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that most people choose to ignore the little prefix ‘re’ in the words ‘rebuild’ and ‘reconstruct’. For your information, ‘re’ is of Latin origin and generally means ‘again’ or ‘anew’.

In other words- there was something there in the first place. We have hundreds of bridges. We have one of the most sophisticated network of highways in the region: you can get from Busrah, in the south, to Mosul, in the north, without once having to travel upon those little, dusty, dirt roads they show you on Fox News. We had a communications system so advanced, it took the Coalition of the Willing 3 rounds of bombing, on 3 separate nights, to damage the Ma’moun Communications Tower and silence our telephones.

Yesterday, I read how it was going to take up to $90 billion to rebuild Iraq. Bremer was shooting out numbers about how much it was going to cost to replace buildings and bridges and electricity, etc.

Listen to this little anecdote. One of my cousins works in a prominent engineering company in Baghdad- we’ll call the company H. This company is well-known for designing and building bridges all over Iraq. My cousin, a structural engineer, is a bridge freak. He spends hours talking about pillars and trusses and steel structures to anyone who’ll listen.

As May was drawing to a close, his manager told him that someone from the CPA wanted the company to estimate the building costs of replacing the New Diyala Bridge on the South East end of Baghdad. He got his team together, they went out and assessed the damage, decided it wasn’t too extensive, but it would be costly. They did the necessary tests and analyses (mumblings about soil composition and water depth, expansion joints and girders) and came up with a number they tentatively put forward- $300,000. This included new plans and designs, raw materials (quite cheap in Iraq), labor, contractors, travel expenses, etc.

Let’s pretend my cousin is a dolt. Let’s pretend he hasn’t been working with bridges for over 17 years. Let’s pretend he didn’t work on replacing at least 20 of the 133 bridges damaged during the first Gulf War. Let’s pretend he’s wrong and the cost of rebuilding this bridge is four times the number they estimated- let’s pretend it will actually cost $1,200,000. Let’s just use our imagination.

A week later, the New Diyala Bridge contract was given to an American company. This particular company estimated the cost of rebuilding the bridge would be around- brace yourselves- $50,000,000 !!

Something you should know about Iraq: we have over 130,000 engineers. More than half of these engineers are structural engineers and architects. Thousands of them were trained outside of Iraq in Germany, Japan, America, Britain and other countries. Thousands of others worked with some of the foreign companies that built various bridges, buildings and highways in Iraq. The majority of them are more than proficient- some of them are brilliant.

Iraqi engineers had to rebuild Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991 when the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ was composed of over 30 countries actively participating in bombing Baghdad beyond recognition. They had to cope with rebuilding bridges and buildings that were originally built by foreign companies, they had to get around a lack of raw materials that we used to import from abroad, they had to work around a vicious blockade designed to damage whatever infrastructure was left after the war… they truly had to rebuild Iraq. And everything had to be made sturdy, because, well, we were always under the threat of war.

Over a hundred of the 133 bridges were rebuilt, hundreds of buildings and factories were replaced, communications towers were rebuilt, new bridges were added, electrical power grids were replaced… things were functioning. Everything wasn’t perfect- but we were working on it.

And Iraqis aren’t easy to please. Buildings cannot just be made functionary. They have to have artistic touches- a carved pillar, an intricately designed dome, something unique… not necessarily classy or subtle, but different. You can see it all over Baghdad- fashionable homes with plate glass windows, next to classic old ‘Baghdadi’ buildings, gaudy restaurants standing next to classy little cafes… mosques with domes so colorful and detailed they look like glamorous Faberge eggs… all done by Iraqis.

My favorite reconstruction project was the Mu’alaq Bridge over the Tigris. It is a suspended bridge that was designed and built by a British company. In 1991 it was bombed and everyone just about gave up on ever being able to cross it again. By 1994, it was up again, exactly as it was- without British companies, with Iraqi expertise. One of the art schools decided that although it wasn’t the most sophisticated bridge in the world, it was going to be the most glamorous. On the day it was opened to the public, it was covered with hundreds of painted flowers in the most outrageous colors- all over the pillars, the bridge itself, the walkways along the sides of the bridge. People came from all over Baghdad just to stand upon it and look down into the Tigris.

So instead of bringing in thousands of foreign companies that are going to want billions of dollars, why aren’t the Iraqi engineers, electricians and laborers being taken advantage of? Thousands of people who have no work would love to be able to rebuild Iraq… no one is being given a chance.

The reconstruction of Iraq is held above our heads like a promise and a threat. People roll their eyes at reconstruction because they know (Iraqis are wily) that these dubious reconstruction projects are going to plunge the country into a national debt only comparable to that of America. A few already rich contractors are going to get richer, Iraqi workers are going to be given a pittance and the unemployed Iraqi public can stand on the sidelines and look at the glamorous buildings being built by foreign companies.

I always say this war is about oil. It is. But it is also about huge corporations that are going to make billions off of reconstructing what was damaged during this war. Can you say Haliburton? (Which, by the way, got the very first contracts to replace the damaged oil infrastructure and put out ‘oil fires’ way back in April).

Well, of course it’s going to take uncountable billions to rebuild Iraq, Mr. Bremer, if the contracts are all given to foreign companies! Or perhaps the numbers are this frightening because Ahmad Al-Chalabi is the one doing the books- he *is* the math expert, after all.

The Opposite Direction
The Scene: Family Living Room
The Mood: Gloomy

We were sitting around- two families… ours and my uncle’s. Adults were sitting neatly on couches and us ‘kids’ sprawled out on the cool ‘kashi’ (tiles) on the floor, watching tv. Everyone was feeling depressed because we had just seen Nada Domani (head of the Red Cross in Iraq) telling the world they had decided to pull out some of their personnel and send them to Jordan because they were expecting attacks.

I am praying that whoever tipped them off was very wrong. Who would attack the Red Cross? Everyone needs the Red Cross… The Red Cross isn’t simply administering aid in the form of medication or food, they are acting as mediators between the POWS and detainees and the CPA. Before the Red Cross got involved, the families of the detainees knew nothing about them. During raids or at checkpoints, people would be detained (mainly men and boys) and they would simply disappear. Relatives of the detainees would stand for hours in front of the hotels where there were American security authorities begging for some information- some clue- as to where they could find a father, an uncle, a son...

What will we do without the Red Cross?

So we were sitting there, trying to figure out what was happening, what was becoming of the whole situation, when I suddenly muted the tv- I heard a voice calling E.’s name from outside. E. immediately got up, picked up the loaded gun and stuck it in his jeans in the back. We went to the kitchen to see what/who it was. E. opened the screen door and stepped outside while I stuck my face to the glass, trying to see out into the dark.

It was our neighbor- R. All I could see was his head, looking at us over the wall that separated our gardens. “Are you watching Al-Jazeera??? You should watch it!” And his head disappeared once more behind the wall. That’s it? That’s all? You don’t call out a person’s name, at night- in post-war Iraq, to tell them to watch Al-Jazeera… someone remind me to raise the wall.

On Al-Jazeera was the program “Al-Itijah Al-Mu3akis”, or “The Opposite Direction”. For non-Arabs, it’s a program that takes up political and social issues important in the Middle East and has two guests attacking the issues from opposite directions. The viewers get to comment by phone, and email and there’s also a vote as to which speaker they think is doing better.

The surprise wasn’t the issue which was us, Iraq, as usual. The surprise was one of the guest speakers- Intifadh Qambar- second man after Ahmad Al-Chalabi and spokesman for the INC! The moment Qambar’s hard, sly face appeared on the screen, the gloomy living room lit up with hoots, howls, clapping and whistling. He brings mirth to many Iraqis.

Only an Arab can fully appreciate Qambar. I guess, since he’s spokesman, he’s supposed to be the ‘diplomat’ of the INC. He was there to represent the rotating presidents and the Governing Council. He was their downfall- Ahmad Al-Chalabi should kill himself.

He sat stiff, in a suit that was a shade of brown similar to that of caked, dry mustard. He wore a white shirt, a black, yellow-striped tie and fluorescent yellow handkerchief with charming black spots. His hair was greased back with something or another to show a broad, furrowed brow over tiny, hard eyes. He did not look like he was on some political talk show- he looked like he was being persecuted.

He sat for over an hour, taking a verbal beating from just about everyone who called (including Iraqis)- being called a thief, a traitor, an Americanized thug, a murderer and some other terms almost as colorful as his tie. His ‘defense’ of the council was worse than the actual accusations being thrown at him. He more or less said that the whole war was justified, the sanctions were justified, America was justified and what did it matter how many people died during the sanctions? What did it matter how many people were dying now? Saddam was gone- the council was here- that was all that mattered. And all this in a shrill, ugly voice. After he finishes something he imagines particularly clever, he ends up looking smug and haughty.

The other guest speaker (editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper) was astounded, to say the least. He just looked at him like he couldn’t believe this guy was being sent to represent the new government. If this was the ‘smooth talker’ of the group, we are in a lot of trouble.

Qambar has no political or cultural scruples. He stoops to vulgarity when he can find no legitimate argument. During one debate on Abu Dhabi tv, he was arguing with another politician named Wamidh Nadhmi. Now, Wamidh Nadhmi is an old respected man who is neither Baathist nor loyalist. In fact, he used to speak against Saddam and the whole government long before the war. He was against the war as a way of regime change and against the occupation- that was the whole argument. So after an hour of futilely arguing that the Americans were right and everyone was wrong, Qambar started getting insulting. Wamidh kept his cool but told Qambar that Ahmad Al-Chalabi was a crook and any group being led by someone so infamous was bound to be a failure… suddenly Qambar jumped up and *attacked* Wamidh on tv! I’m serious- he attacked the man. The poor presenter, Jassim Al-Azzawi, found himself caught in the middle of a scuffle being fought over his head and as he tried to separate them, he kept screaming “What is this?! Gentlemen… what is this?!” So you can see why we enjoy Qambar (almost as much as Al-Chalabi).

So what are the options? The options to people like that are Iraqis who were living with the people, inside of Iraq. Iraqis who were *not* affiliated with Saddam, but also not affiliated with the CIA. Bush was wrong when he said, “You are either with us or against us.” The world isn’t in black and white- there are plenty of people who were against this war, but also against Saddam. They aren’t being given a chance. Their voices aren’t heard because they weren’t in Washington or London or Teheran.

There are intelligent, cultured people- professors, historians, linguists, lawyers, doctors, engineers in Iraq who can contribute to running the country. They understand the Iraqi mentality after over a decade of sanctions and three different wars- they know what the people want to hear and what needs to be done… they are competent. They aren’t acceptable to the CPA because it can’t be sure of their ‘loyalty’ to America. The Puppet Council is perfect because they were brought in on American tanks, they were installed using American force- they can be rooted out if- or when- it becomes necessary…

There’s a famous Arabic saying: “Al ba3*lu bayn al 7ameer raka9*” which basically means- “A camel in the midst of donkeys is a fast runner”. It is said to describe someone who is considered ‘the best of a bad bunch’. If Qambar and Chalabi are the camels of the INC (perhaps of the whole council), I wonder what the donkeys are like…

Tuesday, August 26, 2003
National Day
For me, April 9 was a blur of faces distorted with fear, horror and tears. All over Baghdad you could hear shelling, explosions, clashes, fighter planes, the dreaded Apaches and the horrifying tanks heaving down streets and highways. Whether you loved Saddam or hated him, Baghdad tore you to pieces. Baghdad was burning. Baghdad was exploding… Baghdad was falling. April 9 is the American Occupation Day. I can understand why Bush was celebrating- I can’t understand how anyone who values independence would celebrate it.

April 9, I woke to the sound of a huge explosion at around 6 am, only 2 hours after I had fallen into a fitful sleep. I was sitting up stiff in bed, even before I had my eyes open. The room was warm, but I sat in bed, still in my jeans of the night before, my teeth chattering, clutching at the covers, groping my consciousness for sanity.

We had been sleeping in our clothes for the last few nights with pockets stuffed with identification papers and money because we kept expecting the house to come crumbling down around us... we wanted to be out the door as soon as it was necessary.

I listened to the noise that had become as common as crickets in the summer- the constant drone of helicopters, and fighter planes... explosions and shelling.

We spent the early hours of that morning watching eachother silently and solemnly- the only human voice in our midst was coming from the radio, crackling and fading. It told us what we already knew- what we had been dreading for what felt like an eternity- the American tanks were in Baghdad. There had been some resistance, but the tanks were all over Baghdad.

And that was the start of 'National Day'...

April 9 was a day of harried neighbors banging on the door, faces so contorted with anxiety they were almost beyond recognition. "Do we leave? Do we evacuate?! They sound so close..."

It was a day of shocked, horrified relatives, with dilated pupils and trembling lips, dragging duffel bags, spouses and terrified children needing shelter. All of us needing comfort that no one could give.

It was the day we sat at home, bags packed, fully dressed, listening for the tanks or the missile that would send us flying out of the house and into the streets. We sat calculating the risks of traveling from one end of Baghdad to the other or staying in our area and waiting for the inevitable.

It was the day I had to have 'the talk' with my mother. The day she sat me down in front of her and began giving me 'instructions'- just in case.
"In case of what, mom?”
"In case something happens to us..."
"Like what, like maybe we get separated?"
"Fine, ok. Yes. Separated, for example... you know where the money is, you know where the papers are..."
Yes, I know. But it won't matter if anything happens to you, or dad, or E.

It was a day of stray dogs howling in the streets with fear, flocks of birds flying chaotically in the sky- trying to escape the horrible noises and smoke.

It was a day of charred bodies in blackened vehicles.

It was a grayish-yellow day that burns red in my memory... a day that easily rises to the surface when I contemplate the most horrible days of my life.

That was the 'National Day' for me. From most accounts, it was the same for millions of others.

Maybe come April 9, 2004, Bremer and the Governing Council can join Bush in the White House to celebrate the fall of Baghdad... because we certainly won't be celebrating it here.

Let's Play Musical Chairs...
The nine-member rotating presidency is a failure at first sight. It’s also a failure at second, third, fourth… and ninth sight. The members of the rotating presidency, composed of 4 Shi’a Muslims, 2 Sunni Muslims and 2 Kurds, were selected on a basis of ethnicity and religion.

It is a way of further dividing the Iraqi population. It is adding confusion to chaos and disorder. Just the concept of an ethnically and religiously selected council to run the country is repulsive. Are people supposed to take sides according to their ethnicity or religion? How, nine months down the line, are they going to select one president… or will we always have 9 presidents to govern the country? Does every faction of the Iraqi population need a separate representative? If they do, then why weren’t the Christians represented? Why weren’t the Turkomen represented? Would two more members to add to the nine really have made that big a difference?

The nine dancing puppets- excuse me, rotating presidents- were exclusively selected from the “Governing Council”, an interim council chosen by the CPA. The first thing the 25-member Governing Council did to alienate itself from the people was the fatal decision to make April 9 the new Iraqi National Day. People were incredulous when Bahr Ul Iloom (one of the nine puppets), read out the announcement.

April 9, 2003 was a nightmare beyond anyone’s power to describe. Baghdad was up in smoke that day- explosions everywhere, American troops crawling all over the city, fires, looting, fighting, and killing. Civilians were being evacuated from one area to the other, houses were being shot at by tanks, cars were being burned by Apache helicopters… Baghdad was full of death and destruction on April 9. Seeing tanks in your city, under any circumstance, is perturbing. Seeing foreign tanks in your capital is devastating.

But back to rotating presidents... Insiders say that all 9 members of the council hate each other. Meetings sometimes end in shouting, name-calling and insults. The one thing they do agree on is that Bremer is God. His word is Scripture.

It was decided that each one of them would get a chance to govern their adoring Iraqi population a month. After several arguments and, I imagine, threats, ultimatums and tantrums, it was decided that each one of the members would get their turn in alphabetical order (the Arabic alphabet).

So here is the cast of the most elaborate puppet show Iraq has ever seen (in order of appearance).

The Puppet: Ibraheim Al-Jaffari
56-year-old head of the Islamic Daawa party who was living in Iran and London.
The Al-Daawa Islamic Party debuted in 1958 as the most prominent Shi’a political movement. Al-Daawa ‘activists’ learned their techniques from an extremist Iranian group known as ‘Fida’yeen El-Islam’ and were distinctive for their use of explosives to make political statements. Universities, schools and recreational centers were often targets.

Ibraheim Al-Jaffari makes me uncomfortable. He isn’t very direct or coherent. He speaks in a suspiciously low voice and has a shifty gaze that never seems to settle on the camera.

The Puppet: Ahmad Al-Chalabi
This guy is a real peach. He is the head of the Iraqi National Congress and heavily backed by the Pentagon. He was a banker who embezzled millions from the Petra Bank in Jordan. My favorite part of his life story is how he escaped from Jordan in the trunk of a car… a modern-day Cleopatra, if you will. When asked if he thinks the war on Iraq was justified, even if WMD aren’t found, he immediately (and rather huffily) replies, “Of course- *I* wouldn’t be sitting here in Iraq if it weren’t for the war…” As if he’s God’s gift to humanity. He’s actually America’s gift to the Iraqi people- the crowning glory of the war, chaos and occupation: the looter of all looters.

The Puppet: Iyad Allawi
A former Iraqi intelligence officer, and former Ba’ath member, who was sent to London on a scholarship from the former Ba’athist government. Rumor has it that when the scholarship ran out, he denounced his Ba’ath membership and formed the Iraqi National Accord. He has been living in London ever since 1971.

The Puppet: Jalal Talabani
Head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK controls the southeastern part of the autonomous Kurdish area in the north. Scintillating rumor on the street: before he became a ‘leader’, he had a nightclub in Turkey where he was running an illegitimate… umm… we’ll call it an ‘escort service’. The truth is that he is the rival of Massoud Berazani, the other leader in the autonomous Kurdish region and their rivalry would often lead to bloodshed between their supporters. His famous quote: “Politics is a whore”.

The Puppet: Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim
Deputy leader of SCIRI (Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). He has been in Iran for decades and is the commander of ‘Badir’s Army’ or what is also known as the Badir Brigade- responsible for a lot of the post-war chaos. The frightening thing is that there are rumors of negotiations between SCIRI and the CPA about allowing the Brigade to be in charge of ‘security’ in some regions.

The Puppet: Adnan Al-Pachichi
A Sunni Arab who is- brace yourself- 81 years old (some say it’s 84). He was foreign minister for 2 years in the ‘60s. My grandfather remembers him *vaguely*. I’m sorry, but he just looks too weary to be running Iraq. It will be amazing if he makes it to elections. He has been outside of Iraq ever since the late ‘60s and seems to know as little about modern Iraq as the Iraqis know about him.

The Puppet: Mohsen Abdul Hamid
The secretary of the Islamic Party- a Sunni fundamentalist Islamic group (a branch of the Islamic Brotherhood). Yet another fundamentalist group, but this one was chosen to keep the Sunni fundamentalists quiet.

The Puppet: Mohammed Bahr Ul Iloom
Otherwise known as ‘Mohammed Bahr Ul- who???’ Very few people seem to have heard of him. He is a Shi’a Muslim cleric who fled Iraq in 1991. He was in exile in London. He is also in his 80s and his only political qualification seems to be the fact that he fled and considered himself in exile. He promptly squelched any chance he had at gaining popularity by being the one selected to declare April 9 the Iraqi National Day.

The Puppet: Massoud Berezani
The head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and rival of Jalal Talabani. He was backed by the US in north Iraq. His conflicts with Talabani have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Kurds in bloody battles and assassinations and the exile of others. To see them sitting at the same table, staring adoringly at ‘Father Bremer’, you would think they had always been the best of friends- it’s a fascinating lesson in politics. A question poses itself: if they couldn’t control a few provinces in the north, how do they expect to be able to govern all of Iraq?

The two Kurdish leaders also control an armed militia known as ‘Bayshmarga’. The Bayshmarga are multitalented. They act as bodyguards, and smugglers. They were caught smuggling cars, currency and artifacts. These last two days there have been clashes between them and the Turkomen in Kirkuk.

The most infuriating thing is hearing Bremer talk about how the members of the rotating presidency represent the Iraqi people. In reality, they represent the CPA and Bremer. They are America’s Puppets (some of them are Iran’s). They do not govern Iraq or Iraqis in any way- they are merely very highly paid translators: Bremer gives the orders and they translate them to an incredulous public. The majority of them were trained using American tax dollars, and now they are being ‘kept’ by the CPA using Iraqi oil money.

It’s a bad start to democracy, being occupied and having your government and potential leaders selected for you by the occupying powers… On the other hand, could we really expect more from a country whose president was ‘appointed’ by the Supreme Court?

Sunday, August 24, 2003
Will Work for Food...
Over 65% of the Iraqi population is unemployed. The reason for this is because Bremer made some horrible decisions. The first major decision he made was to dissolve the Iraqi army. That may make sense in Washington, but here, we were left speechless. Now there are over 400,000 trained, armed men with families that need to be fed. Where are they supposed to go? What are they supposed to do for a living? I don’t know. They certainly don’t know.

They roam the streets looking for work, looking for an answer. You can see perplexity and anger in their stance, their walk, their whole demeanor. Their eyes shift from face to face, looking for a clue. Who is to answer for this mess? Who do you think?

Bremer also dissolved the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Defense. No matter what the excuses, these ministries were full of ordinary people with ordinary jobs- accountants, janitors, secretaries, engineers, journalists, technicians, operators… these people are now jobless. Companies have been asked to ‘cut down’ their staff. It no longer has anything to do with politics. The company my uncle works in as an engineer was asked by the CPA to get rid of 680 of the 1,500+ employees- engineers, designers, contractors, mechanics, technicians and the administration were all involved.

Other companies, firms, bureaus, factories and shops shut down as a result of the looting and damage done in the post-war chaos- thousands of other workers lost their jobs. Where to go? What to do?

It isn’t any easier for employed people… the standard $50 being given out in various ministries and hospitals is not nearly enough to support a single person, let alone a family. But at least it is work. At least it is a reason to wake up every morning and accomplish something.

Someone asked why the thousands of Iraqi men roaming the streets don’t go out and get work. For weeks, after the occupation, men would line up daily by the thousands outside of the ‘Alwiyah Club’ filling out papers, begging for work. But there is no work. Men were reluctant to apply to the Iraqi police force because they weren’t given weapons! The Iraqi police were expected to roam and guard the hellish cities without weapons… to stop looters, abductors, and murderers with the sheer force of an application to their warped sense of morality.

The story of how I lost my job isn’t unique. It has actually become very common- despondently, depressingly, unbearably common. It goes like this…

I’m a computer science graduate. Before the war, I was working in an Iraqi database/software company located in Baghdad as a programmer/network administrator (yes, yes… a geek). Every day, I would climb three flights of stairs, enter the little office I shared with one female colleague and two males, start up my PC and spend hours staring at little numbers and letters rolling across the screen. It was tedious, it was back-breaking, it was geeky and it was… wonderful.

When I needed a break, I’d go visit my favorite sites on the internet, bother my colleagues or rant about ‘impossible bosses’ and ‘improbable deadlines’.

I loved my job- I was *good* at my job. I came and went to work on my own. At 8 am I’d walk in lugging a backpack filled with enough CDs, floppies, notebooks, chewed-on pens, paperclips and screwdrivers to make Bill Gates proud. I made as much money as my two male colleagues and got an equal amount of respect from the manager (that was because he was clueless when it came to any type of programming and anyone who could do it was worthy of respect… a girl, no less- you get the picture).

What I’m trying to say is that no matter *what* anyone heard, females in Iraq were a lot better off than females in other parts of the Arab world (and some parts of the Western world- we had equal salaries!). We made up over 50% of the working force. We were doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, professors, deans, architects, programmers, and more. We came and went as we pleased. We wore what we wanted (within the boundaries of the social restrictions of a conservative society).

During the first week of June, I heard my company was back in business. It took several hours, seemingly thousands of family meetings, but I finally convinced everyone that it was necessary for my sanity to go back to work. They agreed that I would visit the company (with my two male bodyguards) and ask them if they had any work I could possibly take home and submit later on, or through the internet.

One fine day in mid-June, I packed my big bag of geeky wonders, put on my long skirt and shirt, tied back my hair and left the house with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

We had to park the car about 100 meters away from the door of the company because the major road in front of it was cracked and broken with the weight of the American tanks as they entered Baghdad. I half-ran, half-plodded up to the door of the company, my heart throbbing in anticipation of seeing friends, colleagues, secretaries… just generally something familiar again in the strange new nightmare we were living.

The moment I walked through the door, I noticed it. Everything looked shabbier somehow- sadder. The maroon carpet lining the hallways was dingy, scuffed and spoke of the burden of a thousand rushing feet. The windows we had so diligently taped prior to the war were cracked in some places and broken in others… dirty all over. The lights were shattered, desks overturned, doors kicked in, and clocks torn from the walls.

I stood a moment, hesitantly, in the door. There were strange new faces- fewer of the old ones. Everyone was standing around, looking at everyone else. The faces were sad and lethargic and exhausted. And I was one of the only females. I weaved through the strange mess and made my way upstairs, pausing for a moment on the second floor where management was located, to listen to the rising male voices. The director had died of a stroke during the second week of the war and suddenly, we had our own little ‘power vacuum’. At least 20 different men thought they were qualified to be boss. Some thought they qualified because of experience, some because of rank and some because they were being backed by differing political parties (SCIRI, Al-Daawa, INC).

I continued upstairs, chilled to the bone, in spite of the muggy heat of the building which hadn’t seen electricity for at least 2 months. My little room wasn’t much better off than the rest of the building. The desks were gone, papers all over the place… but A. was there! I couldn’t believe it- a familiar, welcoming face. He looked at me for a moment, without really seeing me, then his eyes opened wide and disbelief took over the initial vague expression. He congratulated me on being alive, asked about my family and told me that he wasn’t coming back after today. Things had changed. I should go home and stay safe. He was quitting- going to find work abroad. Nothing to do here anymore. I told him about my plan to work at home and submit projects… he shook his head sadly.

I stood staring at the mess for a few moments longer, trying to sort out the mess in my head, my heart being torn to pieces. My cousin and E. were downstairs waiting for me- there was nothing more to do, except ask how I could maybe help? A. and I left the room and started making our way downstairs. We paused on the second floor and stopped to talk to one of the former department directors. I asked him when they thought things would be functioning, he wouldn’t look at me. His eyes stayed glued to A.’s face as he told him that females weren’t welcome right now- especially females who ‘couldn’t be protected’. He finally turned to me and told me, in so many words, to go home because ‘they’ refused to be responsible for what might happen to me.

Ok. Fine. Your loss. I turned my back, walked down the stairs and went to find E. and my cousin. Suddenly, the faces didn’t look strange- they were the same faces of before, mostly, but there was a hostility I couldn’t believe. What was I doing here? E. and the cousin were looking grim, I must have been looking broken, because they rushed me out of the first place I had ever worked and to the car. I cried bitterly all the way home- cried for my job, cried for my future and cried for the torn streets, damaged buildings and crumbling people.

I’m one of the lucky ones… I’m not important. I’m not vital. Over a month ago, a prominent electrical engineer (one of the smartest females in the country) named Henna Aziz was assassinated in front of her family- two daughters and her husband. She was threatened by some fundamentalists from Badir’s Army and told to stay at home because she was a woman, she shouldn’t be in charge. She refused- the country needed her expertise to get things functioning- she was brilliant. She would not and could not stay at home. They came to her house one evening: men with machine-guns, broke in and opened fire. She lost her life- she wasn’t the first, she won’t be the last.

About Riverbend
A lot of you have been asking about my background and the reason why my English is good. I am Iraqi- born in Iraq to Iraqi parents, but was raised abroad for several years as a child. I came back in my early teens and continued studying in English in Baghdad- reading any book I could get my hands on. Most of my friends are of different ethnicities, religions and nationalities. I am bilingual. There are thousands in Iraq like me- kids of diplomats, students, ex-patriots, etc.

As to my connection with Western culture… you wouldn’t believe how many young Iraqi people know so much about American/British/French pop culture. They know all about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Pitt, Whitney Houston, McDonalds, and M.I.B.s… Iraqi tv stations were constantly showing bad copies of the latest Hollywood movies. (If it’s any consolation, the Marines lived up to the Rambo/ Terminator reputation which preceded them.)

But no matter what- I shall remain anonymous. I wouldn’t feel free to write otherwise. I think Salam and Gee are incredibly brave… who knows, maybe one day I will be too. You know me as Riverbend, you share a very small part of my daily reality- I hope that will suffice.

Saturday, August 23, 2003
We've Only Just Begun...
Females can no longer leave their homes alone. Each time I go out, E. and either a father, uncle or cousin has to accompany me. It feels like we’ve gone back 50 years ever since the beginning of the occupation. A woman, or girl, out alone, risks anything from insults to abduction. An outing has to be arranged at least an hour beforehand. I state that I need to buy something or have to visit someone. Two males have to be procured (preferably large) and 'safety arrangements' must be made in this total state of lawlessness. And always the question: "But do you have to go out and buy it? Can't I get it for you?" No you can't, because the kilo of eggplant I absolutely have to select with my own hands is just an excuse to see the light of day and walk down a street. The situation is incredibly frustrating to females who work or go to college.

Before the war, around 50% of the college students were females, and over 50% of the working force was composed of women. Not so anymore. We are seeing an increase of fundamentalism in Iraq which is terrifying.

For example, before the war, I would estimate (roughly) that about 55% of females in Baghdad wore a hijab- or headscarf. Hijabs do not signify fundamentalism. That is far from the case- although I, myself, don’t wear one, I have family and friends who do. The point is that, before, it didn’t really matter. It was *my* business whether I wore one or not- not the business of some fundamentalist on the street.

For those who don’t know (and I have discovered they are many more than I thought), a hijab only covers the hair and neck. The whole face shows and some women even wear it Grace Kelley style with a few locks of hair coming out of the front. A ‘burqa’ on the other hand, like the ones worn in Afghanistan, covers the whole head- hair, face and all.

I am female and Muslim. Before the occupation, I more or less dressed the way I wanted to. I lived in jeans and cotton pants and comfortable shirts. Now, I don’t dare leave the house in pants. A long skirt and loose shirt (preferably with long sleeves) has become necessary. A girl wearing jeans risks being attacked, abducted or insulted by fundamentalists who have been… liberated!

Fathers and mothers are keeping their daughters stashed safe at home. That’s why you see so few females in the streets (especially after 4 pm). Others are making their daughters, wives and sisters wear a hijab. Not to oppress them, but to protect them.

I lost my job for a similar reason. I’ll explain the whole depressing affair in another post. Girls are being made to quit college and school. My 14-year-old cousin (a straight-A student) is going to have to repeat the year because her parents decided to keep her home ever since the occupation. Why? Because the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq overtook an office next to her school and opened up a special ‘bureau’.

Men in black turbans (M.I.B.T.s as opposed to M.I.B.s) and dubious, shady figures dressed in black, head to foot, stand around the gates of the bureau in clusters, scanning the girls and teachers entering the secondary school. The dark, frowning figures stand ogling, leering and sometimes jeering at the ones not wearing a hijab or whose skirts aren’t long enough. In some areas, girls risk being attacked with acid if their clothes aren’t ‘proper’.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI- but I prefer ‘SCAREY’) was established in 1982 in Tehran. Its main goal is to import the concept of the “Islamic Revolution” from Iran to Iraq. In other words, they believe that Iraq should be a theocracy led by Shi’a Mullahs. Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, the deputy leader of SCIRI, is a part of the nine-member rotating presidency and will soon have a go at ruling Iraq.

The SCIRI would like to give the impression that they have the full support of all Shi’a Muslims in Iraq. The truth is that many Shi’a Muslims are terrified of them and of the consequences of having them as a ruling power. Al-Hakim was responsible for torturing and executing Iraqi POWs in Iran all through the Iran-Iraq war and after. Should SCIRI govern Iraq, I imagine the first step would be to open the borders with Iran and unite the two countries. Bush can then stop referring to the two countries as a part of his infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ and can just begin calling us the ‘Big Lump of Evil and Bad North Korea’ (which seems more in accord with his limited linguistic abilities).

Ever since entering Iraq, Al-Hakim has been blackmailing the CPA in Baghdad with his ‘major Shi’a following’. He entered Iraq escorted by ‘Jaysh Badir’ or ‘Badir’s Army’. This ‘army’ is composed of thousands of Iraqi extremists led by Iranian extremists and trained in Iran. All through the war, they were lurking on the border, waiting for a chance to slip inside. In Baghdad, and the south, they have been a source of terror and anxiety to Sunnis, Shi’a and Christians alike. They, and some of their followers, were responsible for a large portion of the looting and the burning (you’d think they were going to get reconstruction contracts…). They were also responsible for hundreds of religious and political abductions and assassinations.

The whole situation is alarming beyond any description I can give. Christians have become the victims of extremism also. Some of them are being threatened, others are being attacked. A few wannabe Mullahs came out with a ‘fatwa’, or decree, in June that declared all females should wear the hijab and if they didn’t, they could be subject to ‘punishment’. Another group claiming to be a part of the ‘Hawza Al Ilmia’ decreed that not a single girl over the age of 14 could remain unmarried- even if it meant that some members of the Hawza would have to have two, three or four wives. This decree included females of other religions. In the south, female UN and Red Cross aides received death threats if they didn’t wear the hijab. This isn’t done in the name of God- it’s done in the name of power. It tells people- the world- that “Look- we have power, we have influence.”

Liquor stores are being attacked and bombed. The owner usually gets a ‘threat’ in the form of a fatwa claiming that if they didn’t shut down the store permanently, there would be consequences. The consequences are usually either a fire, or a bomb. Similar threats have been made to hair-dressers in some areas in Baghdad. It’s frightening and appalling, but true.

Don’t blame it on Islam. Every religion has its extremists. In times of chaos and disorder, those extremists flourish. Iraq is full of moderate Muslims who simply believe in ‘live and let live’. We get along with each other- Sunnis and Shi’a, Muslims and Christians and Jews and Sabi’a. We intermarry, we mix and mingle, we live. We build our churches and mosques in the same areas, our children go to the same schools… it was never an issue.

Someone asked me if, through elections, the Iraqi people might vote for an Islamic state. Six months ago, I would have firmly said, “No.” Now, I’m not so sure. There’s been an overwhelming return to fundamentalism. People are turning to religion for several reasons.

The first and most prominent reason is fear. Fear of war, fear of death and fear of a fate worse than death (and yes, there are fates worse than death). If I didn’t have something to believe in during this past war, I know I would have lost my mind. If there hadn’t been a God to pray to, to make promises to, to bargain with, to thank- I wouldn’t have made it through.

Encroaching western values and beliefs have also played a prominent role in pushing Iraqis to embrace Islam. Just as there are ignorant people in the Western world (and there are plenty- I have the emails to prove it… don’t make me embarrass you), there are ignorant people in the Middle East. In Muslims and Arabs, Westerners see suicide bombers, terrorists, ignorance and camels. In Americans, Brits, etc. some Iraqis see depravity, prostitution, ignorance, domination, junkies and ruthlessness. The best way people can find to protect themselves, and their loved ones, against this assumed threat is religion.

Finally, you have more direct reasons. 65% of all Iraqis are currently unemployed for one reason or another. There are people who have families to feed. When I say ‘families’ I don’t mean a wife and 2 kids… I mean around 16 or 17 people. Islamic parties supported by Iran, like Al-Daawa and SCIRI, are currently recruiting followers by offering ‘wages’ to jobless men (an ex-soldier in the army, for example) in trade of ‘support’. This support could mean anything- vote when the elections come around, bomb a specific shop, ‘confiscate’, abduct, hijack cars (only if you work for Al-Chalabi…).

So concerning the anxiety over terror and fundamentalism- I would like to quote the Carpenters- worry? “We’ve only just begun… we’ve only just begun…”

Friday, August 22, 2003
I'm having a few problems with my mailbox, so could everyone please send emails to until further notice? Thanks...
Also, I'm probably going to have a 'comments' box starting tomorrow... so everyone can see everyone else's comments.

Setting the Record Straight
I’m going to set the record straight, once and for all.

I don’t hate Americans, contrary to what many people seem to believe. Not because I love Americans, but simply because I don’t hate Americans, like I don’t hate the French, Canadians, Brits, Saudis, Jordanians, Micronesians, etc. It’s that simple. I was brought up, like millions of Iraqis, to have pride in my own culture and nationality. At the same time, like millions of Iraqis, I was also brought up to respect other cultures, nations and religions. Iraqi people are inquisitive, by nature, and accepting of different values- as long as you do not try to impose those values and beliefs upon them.

Although I hate the American military presence in Iraq in its current form, I don’t even hate the American troops… or wait, sometimes I do:

- I hated them all through the bombing. Every single day and night we had to sit in terror of the next bomb, the next plane, the next explosion. I hated them when I saw the expression of terror, and remembrance, on the faces of my family and friends, as we sat in the dark, praying for our lives, the lives of our loved ones and the survival of Iraq.

- I hated them on April 11- a cool, gray day: the day our family friend lost her husband, her son and toddler daughter when a tank hit the family car as they were trying to evacuate the house in Al-A’adhamiya district- an area that saw heavy fighting.

- I hated them on June 3 when our car was pulled over for some strange reason in the middle of Baghdad and we (3 women, a man and a child) were made to get out and stand in a row, while our handbags were rummaged, the men were frisked and the car was thoroughly checked by angry, brisk soldiers. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put into words the humiliation of being searched.

- I hated them for two hours on July 13. As we were leaving Baghdad, we were detained with dozens of other cars at a checkpoint in the sweltering, dizzying heat.

- I hated them the night my cousin’s house was raided- a man with a wife, daughter and two young girls. He was pushed out of the house with his hands behind his head while his wife and screaming daughters were made to wait in the kitchen as around 20 troops systematically searched the house, emptying closets, rummaging underwear drawers and overturning toy boxes.

- I hated them on April 28 when they shot and killed over a dozen kids and teenagers in Falloojeh- a place west of Baghdad. The American troops had taken over a local school (one of the only schools) and the kids and parents went to stand in front of the school in a peaceful demonstration. Some kids started throwing rocks at the troops, and the troops opened fire on the crowd. That incident was the beginning of bloodshed in Falloojeh.

On the other hand…

- I feel terrible seeing the troops standing in this merciless sun- wearing heavy clothes… looking longingly into the air-conditioned interiors of our cars. After all, in the end this is Baghdad, we’re Iraqi- we’ve seen this heat before.

- I feel bad seeing them stand around, drinking what can only be lukewarm water after hours in the sun- too afraid to accept any proffered ice water from ‘strange Iraqis’.

- I feel pity watching their confused, frightened expressions as some outraged, jobless, father of five shouts at them in a language they can’t even begin to understand.

- I get hopeless, seeing them pointing their guns and tanks at everyone because, in their eyes, anyone could be a ‘terrorist’ and almost everyone is an angry, frustrated Iraqi.

- I feel sympathy seeing them sitting bored and listless on top of their tanks and in their cars- wishing they were somewhere else.

So now you know. Mixed feelings in a messed up world.

I talk about “American troops” because those are the only ones I’ve come into contact with- no British soldiers, no Italians, no Spaniards… I don’t know- maybe they feel the same towards the British in the south.

Someone wrote that I was naïve and probably spoiled, etc. and that “not one single American soldier deserves to die for you”. I completely agree. No one deserves to die for me or for anyone else.

This war started out a war on WMD. When those were not found, and proof was flimsy at best, it turned suddenly into a “War against Terrorism”. When links couldn’t be made to Al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden (besides on Fox and in Bush’s head), it turned into a “Liberation”. Call it whatever you want- to me it’s an occupation.

My suggestion? Bring in UN peace-keeping forces and pull out the American troops. Let the people decide who they want to represent them. Let the governing council be composed of Iraqis who were suffering the blockade and wars *inside* of Iraq. People are angry and frustrated and the American troops are the ones who are going to have to bear the brunt of that anger simply because the American administration is running the show, and making the mistakes.

It always saddens me to see that the majority of them are so young. Just as it isn’t fair that I have to spend my 24th year suffering this whole situation, it doesn’t seem fair that they have to spend their 19th, 20th, etc. suffering it either. In the end, we have something in common- we’re all the victims of decisions made by the Bush administration.

On the other hand… they’ll be back home, safe, in a month, or two or three or six… and we’ll be here having to cope with the mess of a homeland we have now.

Thursday, August 21, 2003
Al-Chalabi... No Strings Attached!
So I just saw Al-Chalabi on tv. He was interviewed by a prominent reporter for Al-Arabiya. I missed it last night and this morning. But my cousin, who has a generator, kindly recorded it for me (she knows Al-Chalabi is one of the few ‘politicians’ that can make me laugh).

What can I say? He is incredible in interviews- almost as good as Bush (comically infuriating). I can see why the Pentagon adopted him- he would be fun to train, a pet monkey of sorts…

Anyway, the interview started out more or less reasonably- he was shining all over (I could swear there was lip-gloss). He really doesn’t know how to talk. I think Bremer should forbid him from giving interviews from now until elections- and if they decide to make him president, someone can just write his speeches for him. But he really is an embarrassment to the CIA at this point.

The most amusing part of the interview was when they showed one of his former bodyguards (who he denied knowing with a vengeance worthy of an Oscar). The ex-bodyguard was complaining how when the INC first came into Baghdad, and began recruiting people, they seemed reasonable enough. Suddenly, they had overtaken the “Sayd Club”, a recreational club (not exclusive to the past regime) and turned the INC into a militia.

They were hijacking cars in the middle of Baghdad during April, May and June, claiming that the cars they were 'confiscating' at gunpoint were ‘looted’ (hence, property of Al-Chalabi?). The cars were kept in the ‘headquarters’ and smuggled out of Iraq and to the Kurdish territory. The nicer ones were split amongst the 'members' of the INC. Someone or another who wasn't getting a piece of the action complained to the CPA and Al-Chalabi & Co. were given a collective slap on the wrist and told not to do it again.

After this was brought up, Ahmad Al-Chalabi was just charming- he promptly sneered and told the reporter that it was all LIES! LIES! LIES! And just how much had they paid that witness!? Then he continued to insult the reporter, telling him that they had stooped to a new low (Al-Chalabi's specialty) or in7i6a6 (in Arabish)! The reporter asked him about Jordanian allegations and the Jordanian parliament wanting to bring him to justice… he said that it was all LIES! And the Jordanian parliament was a disgrace to the people, etc. He wasn’t a crook, he wasn’t a thief, he wasn’t a puppet. The Iraqis and Jordanians are collectively deranged and ridiculous...

In my opinion, the reporter was asking the wrong questions. He should have asked him how he spent the INC funds given to him by the CIA (certainly not on his wardrobe).

The whole interview brought to mind the Associated Press report from August 11 (by Mark Fritz). Especially the first line:

Iraq is swimming in oil, but anybody who thinks that such natural wealth translates into a fat and happy middle class is in for a crude awakening.

...well naturally- we'll have to pay off Ahmad Al-Chalabi's debtors first- can't really expect anything to be left for the people, can we?

My New Talent
Suffering from a bout of insomnia last night, I found myself in front of the television, channel-surfing. I was looking for the usual- an interesting interview with one of the council, some fresh news, a miracle… Promptly at 2 am, the electricity went off and I was plunged into the pitch black hell better-known as “an August night with no electricity in Iraq”. So I sat there, in the dark, trying to remember where I had left the candle and matches. After 5 minutes of chagrined meditation, I decided I would ‘feel’ my way up the stairs and out onto the roof. Step by hesitant step, I stumbled out into the corridor and up the stairs, stubbing a toe on the last step (which wasn’t supposed to be there).

(For those of you who don’t know, people sleep up on the roof in some of the safer areas because when the electricity goes off, the houses get so hot, it feels like you are cooking gently inside of an oven. The roof isn’t much better, but at least there’s a semblance of wind.)

Out on the roof, the heat was palpitating off of everything in waves. The strange thing is that if you stand in the center, you can feel it emanating from the walls and ground toward you from all directions. I stood there trying to determine whether it was only our area, or the whole city, that had sunk into darkness.

A few moments later, my younger brother (we’ll call him E.) joined me- disheveled, disgruntled and half-asleep. We stood leaning on the low wall enclosing the roof watching the street below. I could see the tip of Abu Maan’s cigarette glowing in the yard next door. I pointed to it with the words, “Abu Maan can’t sleep either…” E. grunted with the words, “It’s probably Maan”. I stood staring at him like he was half-wild- or maybe talking in his sleep. Maan is only 13… how is he smoking? How can he be smoking?

“He’s only 13.” I stated.
“Is anyone only 13 anymore?” he asked.

I mulled the reality of this remark over. No, no one is 13 anymore. No one is 24 anymore… everyone is 85 and I think I might be 105. I was too tired to speak and, in spite of his open eyes, I suspected E. was asleep. The silence was shattered a few moments later by the sound of bullets in the distance. It was just loud enough to get your attention, but too far away to be the source of any real anxiety. I tried to determine where they were coming from…

E: How far do you think that is?
Me: I don’t know… ‘bout a kilometer?
E: Yeah, about.
Me: Not American bullets-
E: No, it’s probably from a…
Me: Klashnikov.
E (impressed): You’re getting good at this.

No- I’m getting great at it. I can tell you if it’s ‘them’ or ‘us’. I can tell you how far away it is. I can tell you if it’s a pistol or machine-gun, tank or armored vehicle, Apache or Chinook… I can determine the distance and maybe even the target. That’s my new talent. It’s something I’ve gotten so good at, I frighten myself. What’s worse is that almost everyone seems to have acquired this new talent… young and old. And it’s not something that anyone will appreciate on a resume…

I keep wondering… will an airplane ever sound the same again?

Wow. Dozens of emails were the result of being on Salam’s blog. I was astounded. I guess I never thought so many people would end up reading the blog. It has made me appreciative and nervous all at the same time.

Most of the emails moved me to… gratitude. Thank you for understanding… no, thank you for even *trying* to understand. Other emails, on the other hand, were full of criticism, cynicism and anger. You really don’t have to read my blog if you don’t want to and you certainly don’t have to email me telling me how much you hate it. It’s great to get questions and differing opinions- but please be intelligent about it, and above all, creative- if I want to hear what Fox News has to say, I’ll watch it.

And keep one thing in mind- tanks and guns can break my bones, but emails can be deleted.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003
Sergio de Mello's death is catastrophic. We are all a little bit dazed. He was, during these last few months, the best thing that seems to have happened to Iraq. In spite of the fact that the UN was futile in stopping the war, seeing someone like de Mello gave people some sort of weak hope. It gave you the feeling that, no, the Americans couldn't run amuck in Baghdad without the watchful of eye of the international community.

Bremer is trying to link it to 'resistance' and Al-Qaeda... this is a new type of attack. *This* is terrorism, Mr.Bush... not the attack of occupying forces- that's resistance. Attacking humanitarian organizations you could not, or would not, protect. A type of terrorism Iraqis hadn't seen until this occupation- we never had people bombing the UN or embassies, no matter how difficult things got. The UNSCOM were definitely unloved here, but they were protected. America, as an occupying power, is responsible for the safety and security of what is left of this country. They are responsible for the safety and security of any international humanitarian organizations inside of the country to help the people. They have been shirking their duties horribly... but you would think someone like Sergio de Mello could have gotten better.

Somehow I'm terrified. If someone like de Mello couldn't, or simply wasn't, protected- what's going to happen to the millions of people needing protection in Iraq? How could this have been allowed to happen?

Some news channel was just saying that when Bremer got the news, he broke down and cried... I don't know why. It certainly wasn't his loss... it was Iraq's.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003
The UN building explosion is horrible... terrifying and saddening. No one can believe it has happened... no one understands why it was chosen. For God's sake these people are supposed to be here to help.

I'm so angry and frustrated. Nothing is moving forward- there is NO progress and this is just an example. The media is claiming Al-Qaeda. God damn, we never HAD Al-Qaeda before this occupation... fundamentalists kept their heads down. Now they are EVERYWHERE- they 'represent' the Iraqi people on Bremer's puppet council...

You know what? Something like this could never happen to the Ministry of Oil. The Ministry of Oil is being guarded 24/7 by tanks and troops. It has been guarded ever since the fall of Baghdad and will continue under Bremer's watchful eye until every last drop of oil is gone. Why couldn't they have put a tank infront of the UN building? Why? Why? Why? We know the Pentagon's planning has been horrid up until now, but you'd think they would have seen this one coming from a mile away...

How is it possible to wake up tired? It feels like I've been struggling in my sleep... struggling with nightmares, struggling with fears... struggling to listen for gunshots or tanks. I'm just so tired today. It's not the sort of 'tired' where I want to sleep- it's the sort of tired where I just want to completely shut down... put myself on standby, if you will. I think everyone feels that way lately.

Today a child was killed in Anbar, a governorate north-west of Baghdad. His name was Omar Jassim and he was no more than 10 years old, maybe 11. Does anyone hear of that? Does it matter anymore? Do they show that on Fox News or CNN? He was killed during an American raid- no one knows why. His family are devastated- nothing was taken from the house because nothing was found in the house. It was just one of those raids. People are terrified of the raids. You never know what will happen- who might be shot, who might react wrong- what exactly the wrong reaction might be... Things are getting stolen too- gold, watches, money (dollars)... That's not to say ALL the troops steal- that's unfair. It's like saying all of Iraq was out there looting. But it really is difficult having to worry about looters, murderers, gangs, militias and now American troops. I know, I know- someone is saying, "You ungrateful Iraqis! They are doing this for YOU... the raids are for YOU!" But the truth is, the raids only accomplish one thing: they act as a constant reminder that we are under occupation, we are not independent, we are not free, we are not liberated. We are no longer safe in our own homes- everything now belongs to someone else.

I can't see the future at this point, or maybe I don't choose to see it. Maybe we're just blocking it out like a bad memory or premonition. Eventually it will creep up on you, though. We're living, this moment, the future we were afraid to contemplate 6 months ago. It's like trying to find your way out of a nightmare. I just wish they would take the oil and go...

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Monday, August 18, 2003
Another Day...
Normal day today. We were up at early morning, did the usual 'around the house things', you know- check if the water tank is full, try to determine when the electricity will be off, checked if there was enough cooking gas...

You know what really bugs me about posting on the internet, chat rooms or message boards? The first reaction (usually from Americans) is "You're lying, you're not Iraqi". Why am I not Iraqi, well because a. I have internet access (Iraqis have no internet), b. I know how to use the internet (Iraqis don't know what computers are) and c. Iraqis don't know how to speak English (I must be a Liberal). All that shouldn't bother me, but it does. I see the troops in the streets and think, "So that's what they thought of us before they occupied us... that may be what they think of us now." How is it that we're seen as another Afghanistan?

The best part of the last two days was watching tv yesterday- the latest news from our rotating presidential council: Jordan is trying to get Washington to hand Ahmad Al-Chalabi over to authorities in Amman!! That was great to watch... you know what? He's my favorite out of the whole interim government hand-picked by Bremer. If Bremer has learned anything about the Iraqi people he's been attempting to govern these last few months, he would hand Chalabi over to Jordanian authorities with a red ribbon around his neck (as a sign of good will). I haven't seen anyone who likes the rat (and his buddy Qambar is even worse).

For those who don't know, the interim governing council chosen by Bremer to 'represent' the Iraqi people couldn't decide which of the power-hungry freaks should rule Iraq, soooooo... Bremer decided that 3 people would govern (as temporary presidents) until the Americans could set up elections. The three people were Al-Hakim (as a representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution), Bahr Al-Uloom (another Shi'ite cleric) and Adnan Al-Pachichi. Naturally, the other members of the governing council objected... why should Iraq only have 3 presidents?! And the number became nine. Each of the nine (including Adnan Al-Pachichi, Ahmad Al-Chalabi, Al-Hakim and various others) get to 'rule' for a month. You know, Iraq just needs more instability- all we need is a new president each month... anyway, our current "Flavor of the Month" is Ibraheim Al-Jaffari who is the head of the infamous Al-Daawa Party (responsible for various bombings in Iraq before and during the Saddam era). I'll talk more about him later...

The funny thing is that the 9 get to govern Iraq alphabetically (according to the Arabic alphabet). The only reason for this seems to be that Bremer found them all equally ingratiating, dishonest and incompetent so he was hard-pressed to make a decision. The way it will work is that each one will have their chance at governing Iraq, and at the end of the nine month period, Bremer will decide which one of them best represents American assets in the region and he will become "The Chosen One". They'll set up some fake elections and "The Chosen One" will magically be rewarded with... Iraq. I just hope Adnan Al-Pachichi makes it long enough to get his chance on the occupation throne- he looks ready to fall over any minute.

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Sunday, August 17, 2003
Waking Up
Waking up anywhere in Iraq these days is a trial. It happens in one of two ways: either slowly, or with a jolt. The slow process works like this: you're hanging in a place on the edge of consciousness, mentally grabbing at the fading fragments of a dream... something creeps up around, all over you- like a fog. A warm heavy fog. It's the heat... 120 F on the cooler nights. Your eyes flutter open and they search the dark in dismay- the electricity has gone off. The ceiling fan is slowing down and you are now fully awake. Trying to sleep in the stifling heat is about as productive as trying to wish the ceiling fan into motion with your brain. Impossible.

The other way to wake up, is to be jolted into reality with the sound of a gun-shot, explosion or yelling. You sit up, horrified and panicked, any dream or nightmare shattered to oblivion. What can it be? A burglar? A gang of looters? An attack? A bomb? Or maybe it's just an American midnight raid?

The Beginning...
So this is the beginning for me, I guess. I never thought I'd start my own weblog... All I could think, every time I wanted to start one was "but who will read it?" I guess I've got nothing to lose... but I'm warning you- expect a lot of complaining and ranting. I looked for a 'rantlog' but this is the best Google came up with.

A little bit about myself: I'm female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That's all you need to know. It's all that matters these days anyway.


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