Iraq

A BLOODY ROAD TO PEACE

Iraqis are demanding that the conquering Americans rebuild their country

ERIC HOSKINS August 11 2003
Iraq

A BLOODY ROAD TO PEACE

Iraqis are demanding that the conquering Americans rebuild their country

ERIC HOSKINS August 11 2003

A BLOODY ROAD TO PEACE

Iraq

Iraqis are demanding that the conquering Americans rebuild their country

ERIC HOSKINS

I’M GOING to tell you something I have not been able to tell anyone publicly in 10 years. On Jan. 13,1993, Saddam Hussein killed my closest Iraqi friend, Raji Al-Tikriti. He was a doctor and president of the Iraqi Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He was, according to his son, hanged for allegedly supporting a coup attempt. As his name would suggest, Raji hailed from the town of Tikrit (Saddam’s stronghold) and was even a distant relative of the former dictator. After the 1991 Gulf war, Raji became even more disgusted than he had been by the regime’s behaviour, and most likely his death was on the order of Hussein’s son Qusay, who headed the elite Republican Guard. It’s possible that Qusay felt such disdain for Raji that he sought to do the job himself.

So when news spread while I was in Baghdad that Saddam’s two sons, Uday and Qusay, had been killed by American forces, my thoughts turned to Raji. And when the first images of their battle-scarred corpses streamed across television, there was a collective sigh of relief across the city. In the lobby of the Palestine Hotel, a crowd of 30 Iraqi men gathered to review the images that they received with a combination of skepticism and intrigue. After a few moments of studied silence, Mahmood, a hotel porter, announced, “Uday is the one on the left.” It didn’t take long for the celebrations to begin. For more than an hour, thousands of bullets, tracers and the occasional mortar round ex-

ploded like fireworks in Baghdad’s night sky.

The day after the faces of Uday and Qusay appeared on Iraqi television, journalists were invited to view the sons’ bodies at Baghdad airport. Images of the cosmetically touched-up corpses with their neatly trimmed beards (a procedure frowned upon by most Muslims) also appeared on TV. By then, the discussion at the Palestine Hotel had turned to an analysis of what would have happened if they’d been captured alive. “They should have tried them in a court so they would have to answer for all the terrible crimes they have committed on the Iraqi people,” said Nawfal Al-Rawi, an engineer. Jenan Awad, our translator, suggested a different approach: “They should have taken them both and put them in a cage together with no food and no water,

so they would suffer like we have suffered.” The U.S. had hoped that the death of Saddam’s sons might break the back of the resistance. But American soldiers continue to die almost daily, and few people in Iraq— troops, civilians and aid workers—will claim they are not afraid. Iraq has become the Wild West of the Middle East and, despite the deaths of the brothers grim, Saddam, its biggest outlaw, remains at large. Last week, U.S. soldiers claimed they’d almost captured him. “He’s going to start making mistakes, and we’re going to catch him,” said Maj. Josslyn Aberle in Tikrit. “We estimate he’s not staying more than four hours at the same place.” As troops searched for Saddam, the U.S.appointed Governing Council chose a Shia politician as the country’s new interim leader. But unless real progress is made—in health care, education, the economy and securityanimosity will continue to grow. When American soldiers are afraid for their lives, it makes democratic reforms and reconstruction extremely difficult, and right now, the troops have good reason to be nervous. Since May 1, the day President George W. Bush officially declared an end to the hostilities, 51 U.S. soldiers have been killed by opponents. On one day alone during my visit, four U.S. soldiers died. Every soldier I talked to wanted to go home. Capt. Dennis Kennedy, the American military liaison officer at the Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Centre, put it bluntly: “Iraqis want us out of here, and we want the same thing.” In a bid to make the environment even more hostile, rebels continue to attack Iraqi civilians and international aid workers. During my visit, a Sri Lankan Red Cross

worker and a UN driver were killed. Our team felt safest driving around in a beatup, mauve 1988 Chevrolet Caprice held together in places with duct tape. Yet, despite our low-rent camouflage, there was not a minute when we felt safe. The situation is so bad that Ali, a security officer with an aid organization in Iraq, has an ID badge that lists not only his name and position, but also his blood type: O negative.

Civilians have sustained the heaviest casualties. It’s estimated that almost 6,000 Iraqis, many of them children, have died since the war started. Iraq Body Count, an independent organization established to

‘A PISTOL will cost you $200,’ says our driver, Inmar. ‘A Kalashnikov $100, a hand grenade $2. You could get a bazooka if you wish.’

monitor the civilian effects of the war, based its calculation on media reports and monitoring by independent investigators. But the 6,000 figure counts only combat related deaths—it doesn’t include those attributed to street violence, crime, contaminated drinking water and shortages of electricity, medical care and food.

The electrical system in Baghdad is operating at half pre-war levels. With temperatures hovering near 45° C, life is nearly unbearable without electricity. Doctors at the Karbala Pediatric Hospital in southern Iraq have seen a dramatic increase in

diarrheal disease caused by tainted water. In Basra, the World Health Organization has confirmed more than 100 cases of cholera. Rebecca Barton, with the aid group CARE, notes that 60 per cent of Baghdad sewage once went through treatment plants. “Now,” she says, “none of the sewage treatment plants are functioning.”

Drug shortages remain widespread. Aminah Wahwah is an effervescent eight-yearold from Karbala. Dubbed the “smartest girl in her class,” Aminah found herself unable to walk a month ago and had difficulty speaking. Admitted to the pediatric hospital, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. But doctors are distraught knowing they lack the anti-cancer drugs and specialty treatment she requires. Their only option, according to Dr. Haidar Saheb, “is to watch her die.”

The health infrastructure is not the only social service in disarray. Most of Iraq’s 10,000 schools barely function. Insecurity has prevented many children, particularly girls, from attending. Textbooks, remnants of the old regime with numerous references to Saddam, are no longer valid, and teachers simply tear out the offending pages. Ismael Yahia Abdullah, the ministry’s director general of administrative and financial affairs, highlights the difficulties. While American and UN personnel enjoy cellphones, laptop computers, sizable budgets and air-conditioned offices, Ismael sits alone at a desk with one pen and three open files. His office, in the ministry’s training centre, is full of bullet holes and has no electricity. I asked Ismael about the ministry’s plan for the future. “There is no plan,” he says, “because there is no work,

because there are no employees, because there is no director, because there is no state.”

Despite the danger, Astabrak, a 17-yearold from the Al Ameriyah district of Baghdad, decided to return to school. She is eager to talk about how American forces detonated two cluster bombs that had been dropped in her school during the war. They exploded the bombs, she said, while the students were still in the building. Embittered by their lack of concern for her welfare, she has taken up a silent protest: she no longer talks to the Americans when they pass in their tanks and Hummers.

Astabrak’s indignation escalated a week ago following a second incident with the troops near her home. To escape the heat, her family sleeps on the roof of their house. “One night, a few weeks ago, a helicopter passed overhead,” she tells me. “A soldier threw something out and it bounced off our neighbour’s roof. We were all scared because we thought it was a grenade.” It turned out to be a Pepsi can, but that hasn’t lessened her disdain. “They want to occupy us,” says Astabrak.

Iraqis are also afraid of suffering violence

at the hands of their American occupiers, and claim civilians are often arrested and some are killed. Donia is a cleaner at the Al Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad. She approached me as we were delivering medical textbooks to the hospital. “On July 16, American soldiers came into my house and took two of my brothers and killed my other brother,” she

said. “Then they stole our pickup truck and all our money. The Americans have replaced one oppressor with another.” According to Donia, her brother’s corpse was returned four days later; the two other brothers remain in detention and the car is gone, along with the money.

While stories such as Donia’s are difficult to verify, American soldiers do seem inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. After all, there is no shortage of weapons. Our Iraqi driver, Inmar, recites the price list by heart: “A pistol will cost you $200 [U.S.], a Kalashnikov $100, a hand grenade $2. You could get a bazooka if you wish.” The presence of weapons is not lost on Astabrak, who describes a tank she saw on her street. “It had a sign hanging from it in Arabic,” she explains. “It said, ‘Give us our safety and we will give you water and electricity.’ ” Iraqis are now waiting to see which comes first. I?]

Eric Hoskins is a doctor who has worked extensively in Iraq over the past 12 years. He recently returned in his capacity as president of War Child Canada, which supports the children’s hospital in Karbala.