THE THEFT OF BAGHDAD
Saddam was a thief, so in a way it’s fitting his palaces were plundered,
IN MY OWN WAY I too feel free of Saddam’s tyrannical hold on this place. His network of secret police has disappeared and I’m no longer held, for my safety and that of my adopted family, to a precarious spy-like existence. Late one night, I decide to take advantage of this new freedom, don a robe, and wander out into my neighbourhood. Some men sitting in the shadows call out to me. My stumbling greeting reveals that I’m not of this place; I explain that I’m off to visit my friend Jamal. Luckily, they know him. “You are Jamal’s friend,” one of them tells me in good English. “Well then, you are welcome.
Have tea with us.” They are middle-aged, armed with a pistol and a Kalashnikov. “Iam a dermatologist,” one says. “I know nothing about guns. But here I am sitting in front of my house protecting my family and my belongings. It’s the time of thieves in Iraq. What can I do?”
I arrived in Baghdad on March 18 to make a documentary film about the U.S.-led invasion. As I sip my tea I ask him an obvious, yet crucial, question: how does he feel with Saddam gone and the American army occupying the country? “I feel neither happy nor sad,” he says. He repeats what he has al-
ready said. “Here I am, sitting with a gun in front of my house, protecting all that I have.”
SADDAM HAS FALLEN. The world watched a crowd of Iraqis topple a statue of the dictator in Baghdad. Many of these same people, perhaps, and thousands more, went on a massive looting spree. Images of this have also been broadcast across the planet. But they don’t come close to capturing the mad spectacle here. Liberation meant a licence to plunder, and the white flags of peace are paraded through the streets in the hands of thieves. I watch men pour into govern-
ment compounds, emerging with fans, chairs, cars and car parts, carpets, furniture, appliances, tubing, piping, wiring, rubbish, knick-knacks. And yes, even kitchen sinks.
Schools, hospitals and museums are robbed. Children sit atop small mountains of goods as their parents rush off for more. Fat matrons in full, black veils lord it over rows of office furniture; veiled mothers bark orders at small children dragging away drawers filled with junk. In the haze of early morning, thick with the fumes of honking cars overloaded with booty, I see a rusty pickup truck go by trailed by two purebred
Arabian racehorses—black, glistening creatures prancing across the dusty pavement.
My friend Omar, with whose family I am staying, and I drive through Baghdad as it all unfolds. One of Saddam’s palaces, where once a mere glance over its massive walls would have gotten you arrested, appears before us. Its gates are wide open, and looters are streaming in. We enter under its great portico and proceed down the majestic tree-lined driveway. Omar and I are awed. But the palace itself is crawling with frenzied thieves, like maggots devouring a rotting carcass, and we quickly decide
that we’ve seen enough and drive away.
Saddam was a great thief, so in a way it’s fitting that what’s left of his regime is being plundered. But many people in Baghdad are disgusted, especially because the looting is often followed by the burning of sacked buildings. At one point, while I’m filming the destruction of an office tower, a downtrodden man approaches Omar and pleads: “Ask your friend to stop filming. This is such a bad picture of Iraq. The world shouldn’t see this.” Another time, a neighbour comes to Omar’s house, with the sole purpose of apologizing to me. “We are not all like this,”
he begs me to understand. “They are stealing from themselves. They burn the buildings they steal from. Those are our jobs, our future, going up in smoke.”
As I walk through the streets with my camera, a bespectacled, polite young man comes up to me. “I need you to witness something,” he says. “Please come with me.” I follow him to the Saddam Cardiology Hospital, where he was a resident specialist. It has been looted and burned. “This was the very best that the Middle East had,” he explains. “It took 10 years to build—we struggled to get the very best facilities despite
the economic sanctions.” He stands in what he says was once an operating room. It is roofless and unrecognizable. “This place was my life,” he says. I wonder whether the hospital’s name may explain the looting. “We all hate Saddam,” he answers. “His name was everywhere, but he has nothing to do with heart surgery. There are evil forces at work here—someone wants everything honourable in Baghdad to be destroyed.”
IT’S A SAD REALITY, but a great many of the so-called thieves are the desperately poor people of Saddam City, an area known locally
as Thora. They are mostly Shia, and were victimized by Saddam and his largely Sunni regime. I insist on visiting Thora. We’ve been there before but Omar has never really liked going—now even less. But he finally acknowledges that it’s important, and agrees to take me. On the main road to Thora, there is a constant flow of pedestrians, cars and donkey carts, all returning with booty. There is, however, one building that will not be looted. At its gate, two American soldiers are manning a bunker. At their feet, a handwritten sign says Looters’ Lane—while above them the grandiose entrance has a huge in-
scription: Ministry of Oil. I ask them how the campaign went. “Fun,” one says. “Hot,” the other adds. “But I’m disappointed that I never got to fire my weapon.” A big tattoo on his forearm reads: “Warrior.”
Thora has become dangerous. As Omar and I head deeper into its streets we encounter numerous unofficial gunmen. “This is not good,” Omar says. We drive on, through checkpoints made of bricks and trash. We play it cool at yet another checkpoint, passing through while calmly waving to the gunmen. It doesn’t work: Omar looks in the rearview mirror, sees one of the men raise
his weapon, then quickly throws his hands up as a signal of submission.
The man heads for me and growls something. “Canadian journalist!” Omar and I both repeat. He opens the door and yanks me out. With a wave of his Kalashnikov, he motions toward a mud wall, then shoves me. I search his face for someone I can appeal to, but there is no one there. Omar stands by the car shouting a man’s name: “Sayid Mortaba.” He is an important religious figure in Thora—and a friend of Omar’s. We have visited him a few times before. Another man arrives; he speaks English. I tell him we are on our way to visit Sayid Mortaba. He is suspicious. “You are Sayid Mortaba’s friend? Where does he live, then?” I don’t know the address, but, eager to get out of this place, I try to bluff, saying I would be happy to show him. The English-speaker slyly says: “Of course, but first come with us.” He and the Kalashnikov-toting man lead me deep into a dusty laneway. Am I being taken away to be slaughtered? We arrive at a scene of devastation. Amid the mud shanties, there is a space filled with rubble. “This was his house,” says the English-speaker, motioning to the gunman. “This was his family. Three children are under there.”
I turn to the gunman and say I’m sorry. He silently surveys the mess. “I used to be a teacher,” the English-speaker tells me. “This makes no sense. Why bomb Thora?” I am taken to a home to drink tea with them. Sitting across from the gunman, I see that this broken man, still cradling his gun, has no shoes. He has been going barefoot through the trash-filled streets. “I am sorry that I was going to kill you,” he finally tells me. “When I have a house again, you will come stay with me.”
SAYID MORTABA’S HOUSE is a meeting place of sorts. In a sparse room with some carpets and cushions, men are lounging about, drinking tea. “Not so long ago, coming to my house would have gotten you arrested,” Sayid tells me. “I myself spent six months in jail because a friend spent the night here.” The gentle-mannered imam, who is also a local businessman, speaks perfect English (and Slovenian). He tells me about Thora. Al Thora means “the revolution,” and he says the area was established by the president of the first Iraqi republic to attract poor people from the countryside who were to be the workforce for Baghdad as it industrialized. The president
died in 1966, and for 40 years, Sayid says, Thora was forgotten. “We are now three million people,” he says. “And for us anything is better than Saddam.” As we talk, a U.S. tank convoy rumbles down the street. We rush outside, where the men jump like children, cheering on the Americans.
The imams have decreed that theft is unlawful. At a nearby mosque some looted goods are being returned. Outside of the building are a number of stolen buses and construction vehicles; inside there are dozens of boxes of medication that were looted from a military hospital. There is also a prisoner the imams are holding. They proudly tell me he is a mercenary from Lebanon sent to fight the Shia who opposed Saddam, and that he was captured doing reconnaissance in Thora.
The man has been tortured—the bones in his hands, forearms, legs and feet are broken, and his face is so badly beaten his features are indistinct. I learn that he is indeed from Lebanon, but a Shia himself. Why would he attack his fellow Shias? “I was tricked,” he says. “I was paid $600 a month to come here and fight.” I then ask if he is prepared to die here, and he answers, “If God wills it.” I can’t resist asking whether he has a family, and he says he has two children. “Who will look after them if you die? ” I ask. “God will provide,” he responds. “Do you really feel this way—ready to die? ” I ask one last time. He gives me a sad, toothless grin. “No,” he responds. “I’m a changed man.”
The tortured Shia is not the only foreign fighter I’ve met. During one of the last battles in Baghdad, Omar and I made a run through the city. We came across a dead man, sprawled on a sidewalk. A man approached and told us, “He is Lebanese. His name is Ibrahim Abdul Houry. He went out into the street in front of an American tank with a rocket-propelled grenade. It misfired and he was killed. He is a martyr.”
Even with the Americans controlling most of Baghdad, there are still pockets of these foreign fighters. In one area, they are the only force of law and order. Wearing the black bandanas of martyrs, they help direct trafficmuch of it cars belonging to looters. When Omar’s wife Miriam sees this, she angrily says: “Look—foreign Arabs are here to fight and die for Iraq, and Iraqis are stealing.”
THROUGH MIRIAM’S relations I get a chance to talk to an officer of the infamous
Republican Guard. As soon as I arrive at his house, Maj. Walid gives me a cigarette. I learn later that he has been rationing cigarettes for weeks, and it was his last one. (Arabs take great pleasure in this kind of gesture—hungry, they will empty the larder to make a meal for a guest.)
Walid, who speaks very elegant if rusty French, has a sad dignity about him. “The plan,” he tells me, “was to put up an evasive fight in the south, always retreating toward Baghdad, where we were to make our last stand. But they bombed us everywhere we went and by the time we arrived back in Baghdad there was nothing left of us. Without planes, armour or artillery of any significance, we never really had a chance.” I ask him what he intends to do now. “My future is not in my hands,” he says, “I served my country as best I could.”
Not far from Walid’s home, a house has been obliterated by a bomb. The one next to it is barely standing. Khaled, the owner, welcomes me into his damaged home with gusto. With his family sprawled about on couches that are in various states of disrepair, he is strangely good-humoured. In his daughter’s bedroom, the outside wall is all but destroyed, the gaps revealing a field of debris outside. “It was like judgment day,” he says. “This is Saddam’s fault. He had this coming to him for years. But now that the Americans are here I intend to sue them for what they have done to my house and my family without just cause. That’s the American way, isn’t it?”
AT ONE POINT, frazzled by the chaos, Omar and I go to the relative safety of the Red Cross offices, intending to have coffee with my new friend, Vatche Arslanian, an Armenian-Canadian from Montreal. I liked him as soon as we met. He always has time for people—all the more exceptional because, as chief of logistics for the Red Cross, he has a demanding job delivering medical supplies to hospitals.
The hospitals have been the scene of gruesome suffering, filled with the injured and the dying—both civilians and soldiers. “Blood everywhere,” Vatche has told me. “Like a slaughterhouse.” But even as war has devastated the city, he has continued to race around, delivering water, medicine and supplies. He studied political science at the Université de Montréal, and later joined the militia in Montreal—an artillery regi-
ment that occupied the same barracks as the Royal Canadian Hussars, an armoured regiment I once served in. Vatche went on to become a captain in the regular forces, and a municipal councillor for the town of Oromocto, N. B.—close to CFB Gagetown. Fed up with the military bureaucracy, Vatche joined the Red Cross in 2000. His relaxed manner and organizational skills have made him a valuable asset since his arrival in Baghdad in 2001.
When Omar and I get to the Red Cross compound, it is surrounded by armed soldiers in Humvees. I tell them I’m a Canadian journalist, and they allow me to approach the gate. I ask for Vatche. But the gate-
keeper sighs. “Vatche,” he says. “God have mercy on his soul.” My friend is dead, killed in a crossfire while making his rounds.
Vatche was a messenger of life, in a place of death. Canada’s answer to a confused world should be legions of the likes of him. Skilled soldiers of peace who bring order, hope and humanity where superpowers have trod. I leave the Red Cross. The streets are suddenly quiet again—sometimes, this war just turns on and off. Without speaking, Omar and I drive through the streets, looking for a safe route to the other side of the river where home is. I wonder at what price freedom comes—and who sets that price. lifl
RESTORING ORDER IN BAGHDAD WHILE WARNING SYRIA
The TV images broadcast by Abu Dhabi television showed a smiling Saddam Hussein wearing a black beret and olive uniform, with a thick golden chain around his neck, wading into adoring crowds. “Aggressors are always defeated,” Saddam said in the accompanying address to the Iraqi people. “Your leadership is unshaken.” The speech and video footage was reportedly from April 9-the day U.S forces moved into Baghdad. If authentic, it would mean an American bomb attack on April 7 aimed at killing the Iraqi president was unsuccessful. But even many of his supporters believed the tape predated the bombing, and that Saddam really was dead. To verify that, workers started to remove rubble from the site of the building where he was believed to be meeting with his leadership when it was hit.
At the same time, calm was slowly returning to Baghdad, where Iraqi police began working with U.S. troops to enforce order in a city devastated by widespread looting. The Na-
tional Museum of Iraq was plundered by what authorities believe were professional thieves, and the FBI and Interpol are investigating. Reconstruction of Iraq, meanwhile, gained momentum when European leaders meeting in Athens tentatively agreed to a plan that would see the UN play a role in the rebuilding effort.
But as the war slowed in Iraq, the Bush administration took aim at neighbouring Syria, accusing it of possessing weapons of mass destruction and giving safe haven to some of Iraq’s former leaders. Syria denied that it has chemical weapons, and, in turn, accused Washington of ignoring Israel, which is widely assumed to have nuclear weapons. But the U.S. is expected to keep up pressure on Damascus, and Secretary of State Colin Powell said he expects to soon travel to Syria as part of a “very vigorous diplomatic exchange.”