Christian Parenti / SF Bay Guardian – 2005-01-28 18:34:57
We are in for many more years of turmoil and misery in the Middle East, where one of the main problems is, to put it as plainly as possible, American power. — Edward Said, July 20, 2003
BAGHDAD (January 26 – February 1, 2005) — For the Bush administration, the imminent vote in Iraq poses two problems – and one rather flimsy possible tactical victory. First the problems: What if the vote is a failure? In other words, what if the polling is marked by low turnout in Sunni and mixed areas, mass fraud, and a spate of bloody car bombings, along with more abductions and political assassinations, all ending with millions of Sunni Iraqis and millions of others worldwide viewing the vote as illegitimate?
In the four central provinces, where 40 percent of Iraq’s population lives, it’s almost certain the elections will be a violent spectacle serving to highlight the misery and chaos – that is, “the freedom” – of occupied Iraq.
The second problem is of an opposite nature: What if the elections “work”? What if the Iraqi majority, the long-oppressed, not very pro-American Shiites, wins in a fair vote? This would present President George W. Bush with an example of Samuel Huntington’s charmingly named “democracy paradox.” In other words, democracy, America’s purported goal for the world, comes back to bite Uncle Sam in the ass.
That’s what could happen if the two-thirds majority Shiites create a government dominated by politicians of the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Both of these forces follow the Grand Ayatolla Ali al-Sistani, and once in power they would likely have a fundamentalist religious agenda, anti-American attitudes, and close links to Iran. (Though, to be fair, Iraqi Shiism is very different from the brand of political Islam that runs Iran.) Whatever the case, a Shiite-dominated, Iranian-leaning Iraq is not part of the Bush crew’s plan for Planet America.
Remember: The Shiite majority has been demanding elections from the earliest moments of the U.S. occupation. The Shiites argued that the records of the Saddam Hussein-era food-rationing system (which still continues) could have been used almost immediately as the basis for voter rolls, because all Iraqis rich and poor were listed in these records. It was the U.S. proconsul, Paul Bremmer, who endlessly prevaricated, claiming a census was needed, or more studies, or a subcensus, etc., etc.
Last January there were mass street mobilizations by al-Sistani followers demanding a vote and threatening mass disobedience if it wasn’t delivered. As the Sunni-dominated insurgency picked up steam and the U.S. political and military crisis deepened, U.S. strategy shifted. U.S. officials embraced elections; they had to, if for no other reason than to buy time and divide Iraqis along the Shiite-Sunni line. Under United Nations brokerage, the occupiers agreed to a vote no later than the end of January 2005.
Now the United States seeks to use the elections to rebrand its war – once about weapons of mass destruction – as a mission of mercy. At the same time, it will seek to control the Shiites, corrupt their leaders and present itself as the only solution to, or bulwark against, a Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq.
Internationally, the elections could offer the possible tactical victory of legitimizing the occupation, casting it as worthy of U.N. and European support. But that won’t work for long, if at all. The Sunni-led insurgency of hybrid Baathist and Salafi fundamentalists will continue to wreak havoc on the occupation. There will be no Pax Americana. In fact, chances are that after the elections the United States will face renewed pressure to leave Iraq, and that this will come from both the newly legitimized institutional forces of Shiite power and the well-organized and utterly tenacious Sunni insurgency.
Al-Thawra: The View from ‘Sewar City’
If Iraq’s social geography were reduced to political antipodes, one pole would be the fortified and manicured Green Zone, the huge US-occupied palace and office complex originally built by Hussein. The other pole would be the fetid, baking east Baghdad slum of Sadr City, also known as al-Thawra (the Revolution).
More than a year into the occupation, entering the Green Zone is still like consuming a 1,000-milligram tablet of denial washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice. The air conditioning here is superb; everyone looks happy.
David Bourne is working on his laptop at the Iraqi Business Center, a near empty, glass-walled subsection of the Convention Center. Bourne, wearing a crisp, medium blue oxford shirt and dark slacks, exudes Ivy League confidence. His mission here is to do good and to do well at the same time.
“When we get the business center running, local subcontractors will be able to network and learn about bidding,” he explains, as if the occupation weren’t already 14 months old. “A lot of the reconstruction hasn’t begun yet, and the center will facilitate capacity building with local firms.”
He pauses and then adds with considered honesty, “A lot of Iraqis think it’s just about who you know. But government-funded work requires competitive bidding, transparency, quality control, all that.”
He won’t comment on how Halliburton and Bechtel got their huge slices of the $18.5 billion reconstruction pie. But that’s already a matter of public record. Bechtel got the first installment of its no-bid billion-dollar contract in April 2003, after secretive dealings with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
On the other side of the glass wall, a uniformed janitor pushes a Zamboni-like buffer across a shining expanse of floor. Iraq seems a thousand miles away.
Now unplug from the Matrix: the temperature suddenly soars to a brutal 115 degrees Fahrenheit; the air reeks of sewage; hot, furnace-like gusts blow grit into your eyes. An urbanized plain of misery and squalor opens before you, hyperviolent Sadr City.
Ankle-deep in Sewage
The wide boulevards, laid down in the late 1950s by the optimistic planners of the Qasim regime, are now flooded for blocks at a stretch with ankle-deep pools of green, algae-rich sewage. Heaps of garbage smolder on the medians and in empty lots. Pirated electrical wires crisscross dense side streets of mud-brick homes. Small flocks of mangy goats and sheep, shepherded by women in flowing black abayas, forage in the trash.
The lumpen Shiites who live here are derided by Baghdad’s more urbane Sunnis as sharugees – an insulting term meaning “easterners” but connoting ignorance and filth. Like the n-word among some African Americans, sharugee has been defiantly appropriated by streetwise young Shiites for their own use.
The sewage problem in Sadr City is not merely unsightly: it is a major health threat. As the head of the local public works department, or Baladia, explains, the sewers here were never very effective, but the constant backup and nauseating overflow are new problems.
First there was bomb damage. Then, as Baghdad’s garbage trucks were looted or destroyed, trash clogged the sewers. Most of the trucks needed to clear the lines were also looted. The last four were recently commandeered by U.S. contractors for use elsewhere.
Bechtel has the $1.8 billion contract to rebuild Iraq’s water, sewage, and electrical systems. Electrical-grid and water-system work are also being done by Washington Group International. Local engineers say the firm has done next to nothing.
At Sadr City’s al-Jawadir Hospital, the halls are crowded with worried-looking men and women. An emaciated man with greenish skin is wheeled by on a gurney. Here one clearly sees the social impact of the sewer problem and the general chaos of which it is a subset.
The hospital director, Dr. Qasim al-Nuwesri, explains that the hospital serves at least a million and a half people and sees 3,000 patients a day but lacks adequate medicine and medical equipment, clean water, and security. “We have to get clean water shipped in,” he says. “A German NGO delivers it in a tanker truck.”
Typhoid is rampant, he adds, and an outbreak of hepatitis E is gathering momentum, with 40 new cases a week.
“The coalition promises money and supplies, but there is never enough. I am forced to reuse needles and deny people anesthesia. We do only serious emergency surgeries.”
Upstairs in one of the wards, I meet a 25-year-old internist named Ali Kadhem. Like many Iraqi doctors, he speaks English. His face is open and boyishly innocent, and he possesses an understated yet intense charisma. When he talks, the other doctors and orderlies watch and listen.
Kadhem says gunmen frequently enter the hospital demanding special treatment for relatives. Two weeks ago an addict pulled a pistol on him and stole morphine. One doctor was shot by thieves right in front of the hospital. He says that since April, U.S. troops have raided the wards on three occasions, looking for wounded fighters from the Mahdi Army, followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. “They interrogated the wounded and searched in a very rough way and tore down religious posters.”
Several wounded Mahdi men, as well as civilians, have fled the hospital in fear of the raids. “I know that some of these people died because they hid in their homes and we could not treat them,” Kadhem says. “We could have saved them. The cause of all these problems is the Americans. We need for them to go.”
A Measure of Order
The Mahdi uprisings in Karbala and Najaf, provoked in large part by U.S. assaults, alienated large sections of the mainstream Shiite community, particularly the merchant class, which depends on pilgrim traffic to the holy cities. But spend a day or two in al-Thawra and it’s not hard to understand why people follow al-Sadr. He’s a junior religious scholar, unlike his father, who was an ayatollah, but al-Sadr’s leadership is primarily political, and his following is mainly Shiite but religiously diverse. His power is rooted in his willingness to oppose the occupation openly, just as his martyred father opposed Hussein.
More practically, he is followed because the branches of his organization deliver a small measure of order and stability to a few parts of Baghdad and cities farther south.
In front of the hospital, a man named Uda Mohame explains the logic: “Everyone cooperates with the Jeshi Mahdi [Mahdi Army]. There are no police here, no government. The Mahdi direct traffic, they fix things, they do all the work.”
At an office on one of al-Thawra’s main streets, I try to meet al-Sadr’s local representative, a 29-year-old sheikh named Hassan Edhary, but he’s on the run. The 1st Cav wants him, dead or alive. His two predecessors are already in Abu Ghraib. A few weeks ago U.S. tanks blew up his office. Reconstruction started the next day at dawn.
“Little boys cleaned the bricks while the men rebuilt,” a local man named Samir explains.
Now the walled compound, draped in black banners mourning the dead and topped with big fluttering green and black flags, looks as good as new.
The men here are all Mahdi, but they’re unarmed by day. There can be no formal interviews without the sheikh’s permission. For the better part of a week, I return again and again looking for Sheikh Edhary, but he’s still on the lam.
As I’m leaving the office after one more failed attempt, a young Mahdi man says to me, “Look, the Americans attack us. That is why we fight. We have a right to respond.”
It’s late afternoon, and we’re on another trip to Sadr City. Dahr Jamail (see sidebar) and I and a translator named Samir roll out determined to find the Mahdi in action. They’re out here somewhere – we’ve already seen a U.S. patrol of two tanks and three armored Humvees.
On one of the slum’s main thoroughfares, al-Radhewi Street, are several walls marked with a message in English. Big block letters read, “VIETNAM STREET.”
Farther on, a wall bears a crudely painted mural depicting a modified version of an infamous Abu Ghraib torture photo. It is the prisoner in the hood and cloak standing on a box, arms outstretched, electrical wires dangling from his limbs. Next to him in the mural is the Statue of Liberty, but in place of her torch she holds the lever of an electrical switch connected to the wires.
Below is scrawled “THE FREEDOM FORM GEORGE BOSH.” We snap photos and move on.
Then, before we find them, the Mahdi Army finds us. Two men in a sedan are suddenly next to us. “Pull over!” Now they’re at our car doors, hands on the pistols in their waistbands. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Why are you photographing things?”
“Sahafee canadee, sahafee canadee!” I show them my counterfeit Canadian press pass. Our translator is talking fast, explaining that we’re anti-occupation, that we’re trying to show the truth. He’s naming his family, naming sheikhs, naming al-Sadr men who are old friends. The undercover Mahdi guys fire back questions and suggest that we get out of the car. We show them the digital photos of the graffiti and offer to erase all the shots, but we ignore their request to get out. More fast Arabic.
Finally the Mahdi begin to relax. “This is called Vietnam Street because this is where we kill Americans,” one of them says. “We are in a war with them. That is why we stopped you. You understand? We have to protect our people.” The man in charge adjusts his pistol one more time, looks around, then says, “You can go.”
Progress in the Rubble
Finally Sheik Edhary surfaces. Perhaps this has something to do with the Americans’ new offer to allow al-Sadr’s organization to participate in electoral politics. (The al-Sadr people are still quite cagey about what they will do on that front.) Edhary grants an interview, but mostly we just sit and watch him in action, our hacker pal Hussein quietly translating the conversations around us.
Edhary wears a white turban and flowing robes. His beard is full but short, like al-Sadr’s. He is dark, intense, and very handsome. I can’t help thinking that Edhary looks like a cinematically improved version of al-Sadr, who is stooped, pudgy, and frowning.
A stream of supplicants files through Edhary’s little office, asking for advice, money, and letters. One lives in a camp for internally displaced people, and his shelter has no roof. Can the organization help? Edhary says, “I don’t have enough people to go investigate your claim. But if you can find a religious sheikh in your area to write a letter on your behalf, then come back.”
A young doctor explains that a group of medical workers has some money and wants to open a free or low-cost pharmacy to serve the people. Can the office contribute some money? The sheikh leans close and plays with his string of black prayer beads as the young man talks. Finally, he tells the doctor that Hussein can help the clinic with its computers. Hussein and the doctor exchange numbers.
Then come a few high-tension cell phone calls. Some sweaty Mahdi fighters rush in. They’ve just busted looters with four stolen trucks full of sugar. It turns out the trucks belong to a European NGO, not the government or some rich company. The sheikh wants the vehicles and sugar returned, via the police, to the NGO.
“We have the trucks in storage. Can we turn them over tomorrow?” asks the rotund Mahdi man in charge of the bust. He’s wearing a dirty football jersey. “I am your servant. I have given my whole life to the religion, but I really cannot do this tonight.”
Someone else bends over and whispers to the sheikh. Edhary looks worried. There’s more whispering. Edhary leans away from the men at his desk and snaps taut a section of his black prayer beads, then counts the little glass balls. He is “asking God” for advice. An even bead count means yes; odd means no.
“No! No! Absolutely not.” The sheikh bounces up from the desk, his black outer robe slipping from one shoulder. He’s addressing the sweaty man. “The trucks must be returned tonight. If the trucks do not move now, we will be blamed. Either you do it now or just go and don’t do it at all. I will find someone else.” The sheikh is electric with stress but at the same time dignified.
“I am your servant. As you wish,” the Mahdi guy says, but he looks pissed as he and his posse sweep out to deal with the trucks.
If there’s anything like “progress” in Iraq, it takes place here, under the radar, in the rubble of occupation. Al-Sadr’s followers, despite many faults, including thuggishness and misogyny, are central to creating what order there is in this ravaged ghetto.
On the last Friday before the handover of official authority to the interim Iraqi government, I go back to Vietnam Street with Dave Enders for a mass prayer. This time the Jeshi Mahdi are out in full force, armed with pistols and AK-47s. Line after line of them are politely and efficiently searching a crowd of more than 10,000 people who have come to lay their prayer mats in the street, worship, and hear a political sermon. The Mahdi search us several times, and we are ushered to the front, walking shoeless across the solid field of prayer mats; some are mere towels, others are colorful, intricately patterned carpets. “I bet this is the first pair of Brooks Brothers socks that’s ever touched down on Vietnam Street,” Enders quips, pointing to his feet.
The sermon, by an al-Sadr sheikh named Ous al-Khafji, attacks the occupation but asks the people to remain calm. The Mahdi have declared a cease-fire.
Under a blazing sun, with squads of men and boys spraying rose water on the congregants, the crowd chants, “Ya Allah, ya Ali, ya Hussein,” meaning “with Allah,” etc., then “Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!” At the end the worshipers all shake hands, then disperse.
Later I’m granted an interview with some Mahdi fighters. They make sure I can’t see where we’re headed as we drive deep into the side streets of Sadr City. Our interview takes place in an abandoned shop; there are three fighters, two of whom were jailed and tortured under Saddam Hussein.
They repeat the party line about wanting peace but add, “If the Americans arrest people, we will strike.”
One of them moves a tarp and reveals a huge 155-millimeter artillery shell and a long spool of wire. “If they attack, we have this rat poison for the American rats,” the fighter says, pointing to the bomb. “But, God willing, we will not be forced to use it.”
It’s time for me to go.
Clearly sovereignty remains fragmented, localized, ephemeral – and mostly imaginary. Neither Iraqis nor the Americans have control. The new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, threatens to declare martial law. How he might impose martial law and how it would differ from the current methods of the occupation are difficult to envision. In the new Iraq, only chaos is truly sovereign.
Christian Parenti is the author of The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, from which this piece is excerpted.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.