BAGHDAD N

December 1 2003

BAGHDAD N

December 1 2003

BAGHDAD N

WITH MUCH APPREHENSION, I return to Baghdad eight months after my stay in the city during the March-April war on Iraq. These days, the reports coming out of the country are not cheerful. Violent attacks against the coalition forces are a daily occurrence. Blackouts, water shortages and other hardships continue. However, upon arrival in Baghdad, the mood is not as morbid as I had expected. All day long, attack helicopters buzz overhead. Random explosions echo out. The threat of terror remains. Yet Baghdad is bustling. Even in this martial climate, it would seem that

people are getting on with their lives. Those I care most about here, Anmar and Layla ASaadi, are taking baby steps toward a better life. In my dispatches out of Baghdad before and during the war, I felt obliged to change their names to Omar and Miriam, to hide their identities because of the then uncertain future of Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime. Now, change is coming for them—slowly,

but coming nonetheless. They are fixing up their modest home, something most Iraqis have long been unable to do. New paint and new appliances are not the only additions to their household: Anmar has built half a dozen birdcages and has filled them with colourful canaries and doves. As usual, his garden is in bloom, and now resonates with delicate chirps.

The cause of this burgeoning renaissance is not so much the American occupation as it is the departure of Saddam—and, with him, the end of his tyranny and the cessation of the West’s crippling sanctions against Iraq. Where grand portraits of Saddam once hung, the Americans have installed huge banners. They show hordes of Muslim faithful swirling around Mecca and bear inscriptions in Arabic: “The Coalition Forces wish the people of Iraq a happy holy month of Ramadan.”

Driving down one street, I am surprised to see an oil painting, hanging beside a shop, of a young Brooke Shields wearing a prom dress: a strange sight in Baghdad indeed. It is there courtesy of a group of artists who have

been making a living painting Americana for the U.S. troops. One artist’s shop is filled with portraits of high-school sweethearts. Soldiers give him their photos to paint and, as we talk, he puts the finishing touches on a portrait of a rosy-hued blond baby, dressed in pink. In an open courtyard around the back, I stumble on the most striking of all: a two-storey-high painting of a Second World War grunt holding a coffee mug. The caption boldly says: “How about a nice big cup of shut the fuck up!”

In the early days of the occupation, Layla sought out the American troops. “I had nine of them in my house one day,” she says. “I gave them water and asked them when we would get electricity and telephone service

back. First they told me they had no clue. Then one soldier explained that American companies would bid on the contracts before anything was awarded, that this would take time, and, in any case, the soldiers were not informed of these things. Those were the early days after the war. Now we don’t see them walking around the streets anymore. I don’t try and find anything out from them.”

WESTERN FORCES are still facing hardline Iraqi resistance. Since President Bush declared an end to major conflict on May 1,285 U.S. troops have died. And the American pres-

ence here is increasingly felt in the barbed wire and cement walls that are popping up all over Baghdad, blocking important streets and cutting American enclaves off from the city. Coalition patrols are done in armoured vehicles at high speeds. “For a great army, they are the most fearful troops that I have ever seen,” Anmar says.

With Saddam gone, ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU reports, sanctions have been lifted and life has gotten better

Without Saddam, however, Iraqis are able to do things they haven’t been able to do in years—if not decades. Spending money is a sure sign of optimism, and Iraqis now have plenty of opportunity to do so. Without any duties or taxes in place, hundreds of thousands of vehicles have streamed into Iraq over the past months. With all the new cars, traffic is the worst it has ever been in

Baghdad. The American walls make the situation even worse. The vehicles are like herds of cattle, bumping, honking, flowing where they can: against the traffic in opposing lanes, on sidewalks, ignoring traffic

During the day, the big commercial streets of Baghdad are congested with trucks unloading imported merchandise. Boxes of household appliances are piled high on the sidewalks. On Dec. 1, duties are to be introduced at the borders, so shopkeepers are stockpiling goods while they can. That Iraqis can afford to buy things at all is testimony to how this country, after so many years of hardship, is still fairly rich. Those lucky enough to have jobs are earning much more than they were six months ago.

Moreover, the people are resilient. Having endured Saddam, they are making the best of this new era, no matter how weird and precarious it might be. As I sit in a packed restaurant, explosions can be heard from the edge of town, but people continue to eat casually. So long as the violence is directed toward Americans, average Iraqis are completely indifferent to it.

Early in the occupation, the city was rife with theft. Since being re-empowered by the Americans, police are slowly beginning to enforce some semblance of law and order. I spend a day with some officers—a nonchalant bunch pulling over cars to check for stolen vehicles. It’s all affable: when a suspect’s car won’t start, a cop helps him push it, both of them laughing. Later, I accompany the police and several suspects to the courthouse. They joke and share cigarettes, as if thieving and policing were just different jobs they happened to have. This too is a long way from the great tension that prevailed here under Saddam.

On the other hand, my contact with the Americans is incredibly tense. As my photographer and I walk toward a mosque to try

to see some Ramadan prayers, U.S. tanks appear. Grim-faced troops call us to attention: “Do you have permission to be here?” one soldier asks, scowling. I resist the urge to ask him the same question, playing dumb. But when we leave, some angry soldiers follow us, gripping their weapons and making it clear that we have to go to their headquarters before travelling elsewhere. We decide that an experience at “headquarters” might be interesting. But we are not allowed in, and the soldiers at the gate seem confused by our request for admission.

While waiting for an officer to sort things out, I make small talk with a Montana sergeant, asking him about the different dangers facing the troops. “We got IEDs, we got TMTs,” he says, listing off various military acronyms. I stop him for some explanations. “Well, the IED is an improvised explosive device. Like they might replace a piece of cement from the curb with a bomb and just wait for us to drive by. And the TMT is a terrorist mortar team. They can be shooting on us from a long way away, just shooting into our compounds.” A young officer finally appears, gets his “visual” of

us, and sends us off, saying: “You’re good.”

Just after the Americans captured Baghdad last April, the city was engulfed in a mad looting spree. Hospitals, offices and schools were torched. Nothing drew more attention than the theft and destruction of the Baghdad Museum’s ancient treasures. Nearby, the Baghdad School for Music and Ballet was also pillaged. Scores of antique instruments were trampled and burned. After being slowly rebuilt over the past months, funded by generous grants from Norwegian church groups, the school has experienced further woes, as the deputy director explains while giving me a tour. Three weeks ago, he says, some Iraqi soldiers happened to gather on the street in front of the school, protesting that they hadn’t been paid since the war. U.S. troops showed up and the protest turned violent. In the confusion, vandals descended on the school, overpowering its armed guards.

Once inside, they ransacked the place, damaging the instruments and facilities. “I tried to get the Americans to help,” the deputy director tells me, “but they told me the school’s security is our own business. We already had three guards with machine guns and they weren’t enough. How many more do we need?”

RAMADAN is a time of fasting during the day and feasting at night. Every evening I try to eat with different people, since Arab hospitality is never in short supply. One evening, I accompany Anmar and Layla to the home of some older relations. They are an elegant elderly couple; all their children are grown up and off in faraway lands. After dinner, they take out some photo albums. In the yellow hues of old pictures from the ’60s, I see young mothers in brightly coloured skirts laying out a picnic for their children in a field by a river. There are men with slick hair, looking suave and worldly at the horse races. There are parties aglow with attrac-

tive ladies and stylish men, gathered around luxuriously bedecked tables, singing and laughing in modern-looking homes. This was once Baghdad. I already had some idea of it, but seeing it like this, I am sad and shocked. “What happened?” I ask my hostess. “It is a long story,” she sighs.

On another evening, Anmar introduces me to masgoof, a fish from the Tigris River and a Baghdad specialty. The fish is barbecued

on open fires at the market. While I wait for my meal to cook, an enthusiastic young man approaches me. He says he has just recently returned to Iraq from Ottawa, and shows me a BMW he brought with him to sell here. “I ran from Iraq when I was drafted into the army in 1990. But I am so happy to be back. There is no place like Baghdad. Look at all these beautiful houses. You can’t live like this in Canada.” I question whether he might be jumping the gun a little with all his optimism—Baghdad is still on shaky ground. “Don’t worry,” he says with a smile. “We will find our way.”