My first clue that things were different in Baghdad came when the manager of my favorite hotel had trouble finding me a room. Last fall, foreign visitors to the city grew so scarce that I was often the only guest in his establishment. Now, the caravansary swarmed with Lebanese businessmen, Turkish contractors, Filipino workers, European journalists, NGO personnel and Christian peace activists. The only space the manager had was a top-floor “deluxe suite”-- which I eventually traded for a cheaper room once a group of Iranian religious pilgrims decamped for home.
Another surprise came when I went to the Christian money-changers across the street. Not only was Saddam’s mug gone from the currency, but new 1,000- and 5,000-dinar bills now joined the 250 note, which for months had been the only denomination. More serious, though, was the exchange rate: 1,400 dinars to the dollar, down one third from the rate I received in October. A stronger dinar meant added expense for me, of course, but also increased purchasing power for Iraqis—one reason, I was told, why even more cars packed the super-congested Baghdad streets.
By the end of my first day, I realized that three months had brought numerous changes to the city, most of them good. Police were more evident on the streets, directing traffic in sharp winter uniforms, or zipping around town in new Suzuki motorbikes. By the same token, I saw fewer machine gun-toting private security guards and “Facility Protection Services” men loitering on the sidewalks. The once scarifying crime rate, it seems, had dropped to levels similar to an American city. “You have to hand it to the Iraqis,” a Lebanese security consultant remarked to me. “A few months ago, you’d never have thought they’d get this far.”
There are problems, of course. Electricity for private homes (business often have their own generators) operates in cycles of three-on, three-off, preventing Baghdadis from leading normal lives. Gas supplies are short, forcing drivers to wait hours in lengthy queues, or else buy adulterated fuel from black marketers. Basic necessities like heating oil are too expensive for many poor families, while the unemployment rate hovers at 60 percent. Meanwhile, American armored vehicles still lumber through the street, snarling traffic and reminding Iraqis that their country is not their own. “Every time I see a U.S. tank, I feel it is driving over my skull,” remarks an anti-American lawyer from Baquba.
Then there is terrorism. In the attack on January 19th, a car packed with 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives and several 155-mm. artillery shells detonated outside of CPA headquarters, killing 25 people and injuring dozens more. The blast tore a ten-foot crater in the pavement and sent smoke and debris across downtown Baghdad. As usual, no one claimed responsibility.
They didn’t have to. Baghdadis know who’s sending suicide sedans through their neighborhoods. “Foreigners--no Iraqi would kill his own people like that,” one cabbie reasoned. “These terrorists come from outside our country and think they own Iraq,” said Rand Mattei Petros, a manager at one of the new cell phone companies springing up in the city. “Why can’t they leave us alone?”
Terrorism is one reason why Baghdadis grumble about the American presence--even as the majority wants the troops to stay until order is established. In other ways, too, support for the U.S. is so far holding steady. “Thank you, America,” one cabbie enthused, expressing Iraqi gratitude to the U.S. for the ouster of Saddam. “Genghis Khan was a good man compared to that butcher.”
Another element shoring up Iraqi goodwill and patience is Grand Ayatollah Ali Husani Sistani.
Spiritual leader of Iraq’s 15 million Shia Muslims, Sistani has instructed his followers not to oppose the U.S. They continue to obey: last week, I attended a Shia political rally, and was probably the only Westerner at large religious festival—in neither did I detect anti-American sentiments. As we sat in Friday services at the al-Gailani mosque in central Baghdad, an Iraqi friend informed me that the sheikh was cautioning his listeners against violence. As he paraphrased the cleric’s words, “Anyone who shoots an American will be cut off from the people.”
Shia tribal leaders I’ve met seem willing to cooperate with the U.S., too. “America came and finished Saddam—that has changed our minds about them,” said Abdul Wahab Abdula al-Robeiey, chief of a council of 3,400 southern tribes. This support, they stress, depends on Uncle Sam’s trustworthiness. “If Americans are truly interested in the Iraqi people, then we are together in one body with them,” declared Mohammad al-Razzie al-Abdudi, sheikh of a 2,200-member tribe situated around Najaf.
There are other indications of positive momentum in Iraq. Some are subtle. At least one anti-war group has left the country for lack of problems to justify their existence here. Famed Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn recently graced Iraq with a week-long visit—during which, he informed me, he would “investigate American human rights’ violations.” (Naturally, he had no plans to investigate Saddam’s violations.) Last fall, the leftist songster would have been welcomed by peace activists eagerly anticipating the occupation to fail, now, he seemed lost in a sea of contractors, foreign workers and consultants getting on with the business of rebuilding Iraq.
Other signs of positive movement are evident all around the country. Last October, Baghdadis talked about nothing but crime and the inability of the U.S. to protect them. Now, you hear discussions about Sistani’s policies, the pros and cons of federalism, the chances the Kurds and Shi’ites will insist on their differences and spark a civil war. For the first time in recent history, Iraqis are publicly discussing their nation’s future. “We’re looking for models that involve neither pan-Arabism or pan-Islamism,” says poet and former Olympic chess player Naseer Flayih Hasan. “We want to break with the cycles of Middle Eastern history.”
All this sounds pretty good—so why haven’t you heard about it? The simple answer is that the media focuses on terrorist bombings, civilian massacres and roadside ambushes. Those are news, too, of course, but the mayhem obscures the small improvements in Iraqi life that contribute to a sense of cautious optimism. Take bananas, for instance. Once a rare delicacy—Saddam prohibited many imported foodstuffs—the fruits have flooded the country since liberation and the Iraqis can’t get enough of them. Yesterday, while we were stuck in a traffic jam, my cabbie purchased two from a vendor walking between the immobilized cars. “Once bananas were just a dream,” he laughed, handing me one. “Now, praise God, we can buy them on the street!”
Even more misleading is how the media characterizes the fascists operating in the Sunni Triangle as “insurgents,” “opposition forces,” even “resistance fighters.” This conjures romantic images of anti-colonial guerillas—Fidel, say, or Uncle Ho. Baghdadis think otherwise. Some claim the killers are largely Mafia-like criminals fighting to prevent a centralized government from wresting control of a lucrative black market in consumer goods, gasoline and currency speculation. Others, like human rights activist Abdul Mashtaq, blames jihadists from Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. “They want to keep Iraq unstable. They’ll do anything to stop us from creating a democracy and exporting it to their countries, too.”
Mashtaq’s point is troubling. The stakes are so high in the war, with so many Middle Eastern despotisms at risk, violence is certain to continue. “It will get bloodier before it improves,” predicts the Lebanese security consultant. “Look at the Sunni Triangle—the fedayeen once used remote devices to detonate their IEDs so they could target soldiers. Now they just set timers. They don’t care who they kill.”
This is why, despite the positive changes in Baghdad, the city feels a little more tense. For the first time since I’ve traveled here, people caution me not to reveal my nationality--advice I ignore. Still, I find myself worrying about terrorists noticing the large number of foreigners staying at my hotel--a concerned compounded by a grenade attack last week on a U.S. patrol two blocks from the place (fortunately, no one was hurt). Baghdad’s shops stay open longer at night, more people are on the streets, yet the shadow of terrorism lengthens. “The bombers have blackened Iraqis’ joy in their liberation,” Hasan says. But maybe that, too, is a positive sign. It’s always darkest before the dawn.