Broken Baghdad Brutal, Bloody and bellowing

BAGHDAD, Oct. 28-“This is not the time for the Americans to get out of the country. This is not the time …. Life is better here. Better! A hundred times, life is better.”

Of all the places to meet an Iraqi doing unpaid public relations for the Bush administration, this one seemed highly unlikely. Ali Al-Shikhly, 50, was pausing on the stairwell of the downtown building where his office is located. He had not been in the office at around 8:30 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Oct. 27, when an ambulance ran a barricade outside the nearby headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross and exploded, killing some 15 people. But soon afterward, he arrived to find his workplace a total shambles.

The street outside was not a total shambles, and the prompt arrival of various types of top-notch professionals to do their various tragedy-related jobs-soldiers moving in and widening their razor-wire realms; fire trucks trying to snake through the clogged drain of traffic; reporters sizing up which nearby roof would have the clearest view-threw an odd blanket of routine over everything. At one point, an Iraqi man who was screaming in Arabic began hurling himself into the razor wire and, he seemed to hope, through the armed guards, presumably because he had a loved one inside. His was by far the most logical reaction, and yet he stood out.

Then again, it isn’t just the people here whose sense of normality has turned upside-down. It is Baghdad itself, where there are so many bombed, burned-out or bullet-riddled structures that it isn’t always easy to tell, upon arrival at such a scene, which ones have been damaged by the present blast.

The upscale furniture store that occupied the first two floors of Mr. Al-Shikhly’s building was definitely a fresh casualty. The spectrally thin Iraqi security guard was wandering around with a thick, red-stained patch of gauze taped on his forehead, and there were more varieties of shattered window-glass than there were upholstery samples. Shards of glass, chunks of glass, icicles of glass, little tiny pinpoints of glass covered the stairs outside and the floor inside, as well as many of the sofas and bureaus and tables, none of which were damaged-and all of which, therefore, just stood there still and lovely, like invited party guests pointedly ignoring a bunch of drunken gate-crashers.

“This is not about the Americans,” Mr. Al-Shikhly continued. “This is bad people who make this …. They are not looking for America to get in or out. They only want to destroy everything.”

As it happened, Mr. Al-Shikhly fit right into the piece that I was typing away at when the bomb went off. (Although more than two miles away, it was so loud that it sounded to be right outside; I actually started a little.) The piece proposed itself to me over the weekend, when I flicked on BBC World coverage of the antiwar protests going on in the United States and then, on Sunday morning, of the six missiles that hit the al-Rashid Hotel when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was in it. My piece was about the total disconnect between what matters to most of the people in Iraq and what seems to matter to most of the people elsewhere who are upset about Iraq. Or, as a young Iraqi friend said to me right after I arrived at the end of August: “Everybody in the world is so obsessed with weapons of mass destruction. Nobody in Iraq gives a shit.”

Most of the people outside Iraq seem to be obsessed with giving the Bush administration what they think it deserves. Most of the people inside Iraq-i.e., the Iraqis-are fixated on getting what they think they deserve. For all too many champions as well as critics of U.S. policy, this is all about American vindication versus American mortification, and Iraq is a car to be stripped down for its rhetorical parts. Some parts make the Americans look good, so the White House and company take those and wave them around. Other parts make the Americans look bad, so the antiwar crowd takes those and waves them around. Still other parts-most of the car, of course-are harder to classify, or are subject to change from one week to the next. These pretty much get junked.

For the Iraqis, who tend to view this as a place and themselves as people, both sets of analysts are transparent opportunists. Nonetheless, from here, it is disturbing to note the momentum that seems to be gathering behind those who are back home chanting for the U.S. to get out now. It is scarcely less disturbing to contemplate the belief of some leading American politicians that they can go halfsies: keep funding Iraqi reconstruction, for instance, but put the funding in the form of a loan. (Whoever thought of that probably had a cash bar at his wedding.) This is not because the occupation is some sort of triumph. But if this is about the Iraqis, it simply doesn’t matter whether it is in the context of American glory, American gloom or something in between that these people finally get a decent shot at a decent life. It only matters that they do get it, and the only question is how.

Americans, of course, have the right to criticize the occupation. But they also have an obligation to criticize it proportionately, accurately, realistically-and, above all, with the Iraqis constantly in mind.

Of course, I cannot speak for the Iraqis. But after spending four of the past six months talking to Iraqis, I do feel that it is relatively safe to make the following five points:

One, most Iraqis do not want America to leave now or very soon. Two, while it is true that a huge proportion of Iraqis have at least some very negative opinions about the war and life here since, it is also true that a huge proportion of those opinions boil down to anger at the Americans for not being enough of a presence here, not anger at the Americans for being too much of a presence. Three, there is very little to support the notion that Iraqis would be, or feel, notably better off under United Nations occupation than under a United States–led occupation. Four, although the Bush administration should be hung out to dry for whatever it has lied about, it is widely accepted here that various of their pet assertions happen to coincide with the truth. Iraqis do not need Mr. Bush to tell them that most of the troublemakers here are not resistance fighters, but highly paid, often imported thugs; Iraqis have been saying that from the start. Fifth, a steady stream of terrible events has generated a steady stream of legitimately negative news stories about Iraq, the sum effect of which seems to have been to leave the rest of the world with the impression that Iraq now appears in the dictionary next to “unqualified disaster”; that hardly anything is improving here, and that hardly anyone is or feels any better off than he or she did before the war. This impression is false.

First point first. As Mr. Al-Shikhly said in the stairwell, an immediate American withdrawal is the last thing on earth that most Iraqis want. The desire for Americans to remain here for a clearly finite but considerable length of time (say, one to two years) is the view expressed in every public-opinion poll; by almost every Iraqi leader of any consequence, including some of those least comfortable with the whole idea of Western influence, let alone occupation; and the vast majority of Iraqis whom one meets.

To be sure, it sometimes feels as if this majority is shrinking fast. And even if it’s not, the calls for America to stay rarely come out of any great adulation, but rather out of a very widespread conviction that if the U.S. leaves now, or very soon, the effect will be to plunge this place into a catastrophe that will make the last six months look like a weekend in the Hamptons.

In order to sense the amount of Iraqi anger that is based on the notion of too little American effort rather than too much, just think of all the Iraqis whom you have seen quoted faulting the Americans for not doing enough: not providing enough security, not enough jobs, not enough improvements in the infrastructure. Comparatively muted though they may sound, these arguments are every bit as flammable-and a great deal more common-than the variations on “Yankee go home!” These concerns are urgent, and disengagement is the last way to address them.

As for the United Nations, many benefits would flow from the decision of countries that didn’t support the war to help with the peace. It is anything but clear, however, that automatically enhanced stability would be one of them. If anything deserved to die in the August car bombing of the U.N. headquarters, it was the assumption that if only the U.N. were in charge, presto, the bad guys would do fewer bad things, the French and Syrians and Canadians would rally round, and the Iraqis would feel all-around less occupied. By resurfacing at the protests-after an attempted second bombing of the U.N. headquarters, but before today’s attack on an international, neutral humanitarian organization-that assumption is proving as resilient as it is ridiculous.

This whole question brings out another strange tendency that is shared by hawks and doves, which is the tendency to see Iraqi affection as a zero-sum game: to reason that Iraqis who hated Saddam will love America for getting rid of him, or that Iraqis who resent being under U.S. occupation will not mind so much being under U.N. occupation. Not so. Even now, the idea that most Iraqis like the U.S. less than they like everybody else is questionable at best. But that’s not even a question worth asking. The truth is, at this point, many Iraqis have no trouble hating the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the rest of the Arab world.

Last, and least clear, is the matter of real life for real people: Are the Iraqis any better off-or can it be said with confidence that, sometime soon, they will be better off-than they were before the war? This is hellishly difficult to say.

‘Jewish and Imperialism’

The list of ways in which Iraq could go to hell in a handbasket is long, and it is legitimate. Like any reporter here, I have interviewed many cops without guns, workers without work and bureaucrats without clues. I have encountered serious, ominous dissatisfaction among Iraqis whom Saddam Hussein favored, and among Iraqis whom he damned. A few weeks ago, in the lush but tense environs of the notorious “Sunni Triangle” point of Fallujah, I had lunch in a home where the conversation consisted of three generations of women literally weeping for the return of Saddam. Last week, in the holy Shia city of Karbala, I interviewed partisans of the young, extreme Muqtada al-Sadr and the old, measured Ali Sistani. The topic was a major intra-Shia shootout that had flared up at a mosque. The violence had lasted overnight-long enough to reconfirm beyond question the rancor between the two camps, and to expose the powerlessness of outsiders to mitigate it.

At the risk of coming across as a little ray of sunshine, though, I have to tell you that I have also found a great deal of the opposite. It is not uncommon for me to go into a situation expecting to get a bucket of vitriol thrown in my face, and getting a splash of something good instead-patience, or ingenuity, or optimism. People have actually said things to me along the lines of: “I used to make more money and now I don’t have a job, but I don’t care because I have freedom.” That exact quote, in fact, was said to me by a very unlikely person in a very unlikely place: a 27-year-old Iraqi whom I met at a morgue, where he had followed the corpse of a neighbor murdered in broad daylight in front of his house.

On a more practical note, I recently went to Sadr City, where I saw public-works projects in which previously shut-out Shia contractors were hiring previously unemployed workers to lay pipe so that, when the winter comes and it rains, the streets will not be awash in sewage. That experience didn’t make me forget that the sanctions of the 1990’s helped to corrode the infrastructure, nor that the war undeniably made this area’s dreadful sanitation problems worse. But it did make me question the wisdom of drying up these folks’ funding. I went to Karbala on the eve of the feast marking the birth of the last imam. This was also the eve of the aforementioned shootout, but when I was there, it was just a huge street festival, with young men stirring enormous vats of warm milk to give free to pilgrims, and table after table of glazed sweets and powdered sweets and frosted sweets and cradles small, medium and large, draped in green and displayed every place, very much like mangers at Christmas. As usual, the security checkpoint for women doubled as an Islamic-attire checkpoint. Although I was swathed in black from head to toe, I was told that the little tile of bare foot inside my shoe was enough to turn me back-but even this exchange turned sweet, as the very young women pressed a pair of black knee-highs on me, squealing ” Hadia ! Hadia !” (“Gift! Gift!”) A year ago, if the Shia had staged anything like that scale of celebration, there would have been hell to pay. It is very hard to realize that and believe that absolutely no good has been done here.

As anywhere, though, most experiences here are neither epiphanies nor traumas. Most people are neither showering the Americans with praise nor targeting them with grenades. For now, most people will settle for a sign-any real sign-that this place is going to work.

“In the old time, it was not enough for three days,” a teacher recently said of her salary. “Now it’s enough for 20 days.” Not enough, period-but, like a lot other things, sufficiently closer to enough to keep her keeping on.

Then there are the times when I expect a faceful of vitriol, and I get it.

“The Americans will leave when the explosions are against the Americans, not against us,” a 45-year-old pharmacist named Ahoob Khalil said, and she said it almost licking her lips. Her store is in the al-Shaab district of Baghdad, right across the street from one of the three police stations that were suicide-bombed on the same morning as the Red Cross. A display case, having fallen flat on its face, lay at her feet, and the sweetness on her face was betrayed by the bitter tangle in her voice. “I know the Americans have good technology,” she said. “They have the technology to detect explosives of all kinds, even a very small quantity. Why did they not bring that technology to Iraq? One day before the bombing, they opened this road. When they were there guarding the police station, it was closed. They want to protect themselves, not to protect us.”

On the street outside, one crushed Coke can of a car after another stood, awaiting decent burial. One man and boy after another also stood, awaiting the opportunity to spit out well-chewed seeds of American conspiracy theory: The Americans knew about the attack ahead of time; their helicopters had been circling above, and they pulled their own people out of the building just in the nick of time. The Americans are plotting all this violence against themselves, to create a pretext to stay forever. The Americans are doing it all for the sake of Israel.

With all of this and more, the pharmacist concurred. “I don’t think we will have a good future when our government is Jewish,” said Ahoob. “Jewish and imperialism.”

Ahoob Khalil in the pharmacy is as much of an Iraqi as Ali Al-Shikhly from the stairwell. As far as I can tell, his viewpoint is by far the more common, but hers may catch right up.

In or out? Aid or loan? It all adds up to asking: Which one should win the right to say “I told you so”?