The Iraq Crisis

'WHY DO THEY WANT TO DO THIS AGAIN?'

Don Murray finds the beleagud citizens of Baghdad reluctantly preparing for war

March 24 2003
The Iraq Crisis

'WHY DO THEY WANT TO DO THIS AGAIN?'

Don Murray finds the beleagud citizens of Baghdad reluctantly preparing for war

March 24 2003

'WHY DO THEY WANT TO DO THIS AGAIN?'

The Iraq Crisis

Don Murray finds the beleagud citizens of Baghdad reluctantly preparing for war

AN OLD WOMAN sat on a bed in a modest house in a residential district of Baghdad. Lemons were ripening on trees in her small garden. Across the street stood the al-Amariya shelter, hit by American cruise missiles in the Gulf War on Feb. 13, 1991—408 people, almost all of them women and children, died. One of them was the old woman’s daughter, Shaima, 18. The Americans thought the shelter housed an Iraqi command-and-control centre. Shaima had gone with her brother Achmed to sleep in the shelter because she couldn’t stand the noise of missiles and anti-aircraft fire.

Achmed was one of only 16 people to survive the attack. He is a man of 28 now, a man

traumatized by that night, a man who cannot sleep and cannot work, a man who said, “of course I hate the Americans.” On the bed, his mother, Amina, was grey and ill with diabetes. She was not angry but puzzled. Why, she asked several times, “do they want to do this to us again? I don’t understand, can you tell me?”

It’s a question many residents of the Iraqi capital were asking last week. The pretense of life as normal and business as usual was finally collapsing as events gathered pace in New York City and Washington. Suddenly piled-up sandbags began appearing on street corners. People whispered that ministers and senior officials had sent their fam-

ilies abroad. The rich had left before the border with Jordan was closed to Iraqi citizens. The less rich and less lucky lined up at passport offices, hoping to pay the necessary bribes to get the document that might take them to Syria and out of harm’s way.

Some sold their houses and their furniture to find the money for the bribes and the safe sojourn in a quiet neighbouring country. Others were torn. “I have four shops, and I could go,” said one businessman. “But my mother is 84 years old, and I can’t leave her, so instead I will stay in my house, and dig my well.”

In the past few weeks the government had sent squads to dig new neighbourhood

wells, complete with generator-operated pumps, in many areas of this city of five million people. The call to dig wells in backyards, along with family trenches, came from Saddam Hussein himself and, as the threat of war loomed larger, many began shovelling.

In residential areas, officials of the ruling Baath party distributed weapons to party members. Street monitors were appointed and orders given to enforce a strict curfew, if war broke out, by shooting on sight. Some said that order was aimed less at an external invader but at the potential enemy behind the lines: the restive poor who had already risen up and rioted once in Saddam City, the vast suburb where raw sewage runs in open ditches. The uprising there took place after the Gulf War in 1991. It was brutally put down.

There were signs of military preparations. At Baghdad’s central bus station, men in uniform seemed to constitute half the crowd of travellers. The regime had issued a special call to reservists aged 30 to 34 to rejoin their units. And so, they were taking buses north and south, to their staging units. Some paused to get their boots shined by soldiers of another large army in the capital, the boys and men who patrol the city with their shoeshine kits, ready to polish for

10 cents a pair.

In front of the old, battered buses, men shouted the names of cities and towns: “Mosul, ready for Mosul... Tikrit, Tikrit.” The buses only left when they were full, and the criers were having trouble finding customers. “People don’t want to travel now, especially to the north,” one said. “People are scared. They worry about war. Only the soldiers are travelling.”

Driving out of Baghdad you could see tanks sitting on railway cars at the gates to the city. These were old and small: Soviet models from the 1950s and 1960s. In the open terrain, some field guns were positioned. Great trenches dug at the edge of Baghdad were filled with oil. One day, a vast curtain of oily smoke rose and hung over the horizon. The Iraqis were apparently testing their newest defence. They had set fire to the

011 in one of the trenches; they hoped the smoke would disrupt the trajectory of incoming laser-guided missiles.

And yet many people tried to cling to

the belief that war was a cloud that would evaporate. The al-Baghdadi café was full every evening last week. Here men came to play, drink tea, and smoke from water pipes called argile in Iraq. The game of choice was dominoes. The riverfront café was filled with the clacking of counters on tables and the shouts of victory and defeat. Mahmoud Shaki and his three friends came almost every night. They were men in their late 30s and had been playing dominoes together for more than 25 years. Mahmoud had studied computer science at university but now was happy to have found work in a little grocery store to support his family. “What can we do?” he asked. “We have been through two wars and we’ll have to get through another one if it comes. In the meantime, there’s nothing else to do but play dominoes. We’ll try to play through the next one.”

That may be difficult—across the river from the al-Baghdadi café stands one of Saddam’s immense palaces, a likely target of American missiles and bombs. UN economic sanctions have hurt. Sadoun Street is tattered now but in the 1970s it glittered with cafés, theatres and cinemas. Many of the cinema houses are closed or converted; one of the casualties of the sanctions was the importing of first-run films. But people still come to the theatres. “The only thing people want to see are comedies,” one woman

‘I fear for my country,’ one Iraqi said. ‘But I don’t fear death for myselfbecause I have seen death before my very eyes.’

said. “They want to laugh and they want to forget about what they are facing.”

And so they went to I’ve Seen It With My Own Eyes. This was the most popular comedy in Baghdad and had been for more than three years. Every night of the week people streamed to the Al-Nasr (Victory) theatrefamilies, and young men in groups. The families sat in the centre aisles, the young men together in the side aisles.

What took place on stage was hardly a play, and more a series of loosely connected vaudeville sketches. The plot concerned two down-at-the-heel Iraqis kidnapped by aliens. The aliens are concerned for the Iraqis’ welfare and want to warn them about a dangerous superpower that is preparing to start a nuclear war. The political commentary was hardly subtle.

The social commentary was more interesting. One of the protagonists is unemployed; the other is a public drunk, this in a city where the regime banned the public consumption of alcohol in the mid-nineties

to help shore up relations with the Islamic establishment. “What do you think you’re drinking,” the drunk’s wife asks. “This isn’t 1975. That isn’t oil. Do you know what year it is?” He answers: “Of course I know. It’s 2003, everybody is drinking now.” Money, or lack of it, was also a constant theme. “Why would any woman want to marry him?” one character asks. “He doesn’t have any ration tickets.”

The stifling bureaucracy of the regime was another target. A desperate resident of the south of the country phones Baghdad, pleading for help. Sewage has blocked the pipes in his neighbourhood and is flowing into houses. Baghdad laughs and suavely promises help. But there are forms to fill, rules to follow. The calls become more desperate, the voice of the resident more strangled as the sewage rises to his chin. Help never arrives. But a file has been opened.

This four-hour show was regularly punctuated by explosions of laughter and applause. The audience pounced on any joke, willing itself to laugh and forget. The largest laugh came toward the end, when one character turned to another and said, shrugging, “The other Arab leaders won’t help us. They’re too busy to worry about our problems.” There was another roar of laughter, this time tinged with bitterness; once again the Iraqis know they are alone.

THE AL-AMARIYA bomb shelter stands in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. Children walk by it on their way home from school. It is a memorial now, the gaping hole carefully preserved where the missile ripped through the roof as if it was no more than the lid on a tin can. Inside, in the vast room of twisted metal and scorched concrete, are the photos of the dead, almost all children staring solemnly at the camera. Outside are their graves, in a special cemetery.

As Iraqis reluctantly prepared for another war, the shelter stood as a grim warning. Everyone I talked to said they would not seek refuge from bombs in such a shelter this time. It might become their tomb. From his parents’ garden with its lemon trees, Achmed can see the shelter where his life was shattered on that night in 1991. “I fear war but I’m not afraid,” he said. “The tragedy will happen again and I fear for my country. But I’m not afraid for myself, I don’t fear death for myself, because I have seen death before my very eyes.”