Bitter Baghdad Seeing Disaster As Rebels Rise

BAGHDAD-Even if you are a deaf person and an optimist, it would be hard not to hear the sound of the wheels coming off.

On Wednesday, March 31, four American contractors escorting a food-distribution convoy through the city of Falluja were killed by Iraqi insurgents, and crowds cheered as their charred bodies were mutilated, dismembered and, in two cases, hung from a bridge. By Sunday, April 4, this had emerged as the distantly second worst development of the week. The first worst development of the week was a series of protests in which some 60 people were killed, followed in subsequent days by sporadic shoot-outs in Baghdad neighborhoods between U.S. forces and an outlawed religious militia.

Horrific though the Falluja ambush was, it occurred in a historically, persistently and increasingly pro-Saddam, anti-American area. The protests, by contrast, took place in such anti-Saddam centers as Najaf, Basra and the Sadr City section of Baghdad, and the protests were just the start. Reports of the firefights were supplemented by reports that the al-Sadr people had overtaken various police stations and thus had acquired guns, police cars and uniforms, the better to carry out suicide bombings and set up phony checkpoints.

Worse than either piece of bad news was the possibility of eventual collaboration: the possibility that the mutually antagonistic forces of the Sunnis, who loved Saddam, and the Shiites, who loathed him, would find common cause at last in their hatred of the occupier. Then again, they don’t have to make common cause. The fact is, the Sunnis can do their anti-occupation thing, and the Shiites can do their anti-occupation thing. In a win-win scenario for the enemies of democratic pluralism, they can keep hating each other and still devastate the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition.

In response to all this, the White House will not respond. Both with and through its Iraqi district office, the Coalition Provisional Authority, it will rationalize, pinning the spike in hostilities on the usual suspects: imported terrorists, the dark but fading forces of Saddam, a few wormy Iraqi apples that would not look so big in the barrel if it were not for the distorting lens of the liberal media.

The Bush administration has perfected the smoothing-over of Iraqi disasters the same way that the Clinton administration perfected the spinning of scandal-by getting so much practice at it. Thus, its contentions will contain enough actual truth to have the ring of the whole truth.

But it’s not the whole truth, and it’s nothing like the truth.

It didn’t have to be this way. (The truth could have been so much better.) For those like myself who supported the war, defended its motives, ridiculed its more rabid detractors and strained to sympathize with the failings of its aftermath, that is what makes this week not only a bad week, but a bitter one. Only time will tell whether the present moment is the beginning of a two-front war or the high-water mark of tensions. But let’s face it: Confronted and confronted and then confronted some more with the elements of catastrophe that a blind man could see coalescing, the powers that be in the only superpower that is have spent an entire year looking the other way.

I’d still support the war-and so, I gather from months of putting the question, would most Iraqis. A year ago, when it invaded, the Bush administration did the right thing. But with astounding, relentless, marksman-like consistency, it has been doing the wrong thing ever since. Contrary to the cries of its critics, this long march of missteps has not occurred because the administration is full of flag-waving, U.N.-flouting, slogan-spouting cowboys. It is because the administration is, it is now painfully clear, utterly devoid of cowboys. A cowboy, after all, rides into hostile territory, fights the bad guys, helps the good guys, and protects the women and children. This administration rode in all right. Then they realized that the bad guys were really, really bad, that they did different kinds of bad things that required different kinds of responses, and that they were often hard to distinguish from the good guys.

So the administration of liberation kept right on riding. Soldiers were left behind to deal with street-level realities that properly involved the military and street-level realities that properly did not, and the administration formed a circle of wagons and called it the Green Zone. There, they met with and memo’d each other, bussed in for consultation Iraqis who were willing to be bussed in for consultation, and created Iraqi institutions that they endowed only with the power to paralyze the government. In short, for the purposes of Iraq after the war, this administration is the women and children.

If the Coalition Provisional Authority is not comprised of cowboys, neither is it comprised of missionaries or hawks. They are temps-and not temps in the sense of being temporarily in the country until such time as its rightful return to Iraqi authority. They are temps in the where’s-the-washroom, if-only-everybody-had-a-name-tag, who-is-my-go-to-Iraqi sense. To be sure, some of them are good, smart, well-meaning, hard-working temps. But in a proportion of cases that would worry the floor manager of any self-respecting J.C. Penney, they come in for six weeks or three months, at the start of which many know nothing about Iraq, past or present. (Some do know the future, and they agree-it’s democratic!) If they get to know something, it is out of the goodness of their hearts and the curiosity of their minds, not the requirements of their jobs. As for figuring out the situation more instinctively and immediately once they get on the ground, they have an all-purpose, fool-proof excuse for doing nothing of the kind: It’s too dangerous.

Yes, it is dangerous here-and never more so than it is right now. And it would be folly to lay the entirety of that fact at the feet of administration bungling. Even a perfect postwar plan, perfectly executed, would leave this place vulnerable to true terrorists. Nonetheless, it is a plain fact that the coalition has helped to make the bed in which it is now so uneasily lying. Having declined to control the borders, imprison criminals or undertake any major policy initiatives in any of the areas-housing, employment, public works-that would enhance social stability, the C.P.A. has aided in the creation of bubbles of discontent. And when those bubbles come to a predictable boil, the C.P.A. has one solution: concrete blast walls, armored Humvees and lockdowns to keep the grateful Iraqi people at a safe distance from their liberators.

Apologies, hats off and hosannas to the C.P.A. exceptions, who do exist and who deserve nothing but praise. Even they, however, cannot help but be caught up in the rapidly spinning hamster-wheel of illogic on which their institution runs. It is, for instance, treated as an article of faith that for any C.P.A. employee to venture out of the Green Zone is for that employee to lay his life on the line. Thus, most employees do so with great caution and little frequency. In the many cases of jobs that depend upon verification or inspection or interaction with any Iraqi who does not work for the C.P.A., this means that they are paid serious money for jobs that they are strongly advised not to do. Meanwhile, to the cost of these employees’ salaries and living expenses is added the cost of protecting them with security that, no matter how expensive for Americans or offensive to Iraqis, is invariably deemed inadequate. As a result, the team that America has sent to put to the Herculean task of building Iraq a democracy is basically divided between those who realize that they have no idea what is going on outside their gates, and those who don’t realize that they have no idea what is going on outside their gates.

Unfortunately, one of the things going on outside their gates is that Moktada al-Sadr has become a man to be reckoned with. Right now, there is undoubted and valid official debate as to the particulars of that reckoning: having been branded a criminal, should he be treated, within that definition, as a serious political adversary or a punk? Is his influence apt to spread or wane? Is his power best killed outright or left to wither on the vine?

It is to be hoped-but should not be assumed-that at least one participant in this debate has met someone who has met someone whose mother has a cousin who knows Moqtada from a frittata. But you can bet your bottom dinar that no one is asking: Why is there so much rabble for this kid to rouse? Why, a solid year into America’s self-congratulation on having removed the brute oppressor of the Shi’ite majority, does an at-least-unsettling segment of that majority have the time and the inclination to go forth and menace? Didn’t anyone get the memo that, when you take over a country that is bursting with unemployed and angry young men, it’s just not smart to leave them with nothing to lose?

Here is where the official explainers will explain, as they explain so well: This isn’t as easy as it looks; these problems are much more complicated than they seem; these are matters for the Iraqis to decide; and the all-time favorite, it takes time. Granted, in the abstract, these explanations sound eminently fair. But if you go someplace like the Al Rashid army camp, you can see the degree to which they are not explanations at all. They are excuses, and lame excuses at that.

The camp is located near downtown Baghdad, about four miles from the Green Zone, and occupies an area of five square miles. Under the old regime, it was one of the largest army camps in Iraq; it housed, according to an Iraqi Army officer who used to live there, over 200,000 soldiers. I can’t say what condition the buildings of the camp were in when the war ended, but I can say that the year since has not been kind to them. To this day-a year after the free-for-all of plunder that was first unleashed on Baghdad with the fall of Saddam-the camp is being looted.

This is too bad, because Baghdad could have used those buildings. The city has a housing shortage so acute as to have spawned squatters everywhere; abandoned ministries and houses and power stations are filled with the ranks of the evicted. Its citizens have gotten used to the fact that on the rare occasions when criminals are arrested, they are often released in a matter of days, if not hours, in part because there is no place to put them.

The camp could have served as part of the solution to any number of enormous and enormously pressing social problems. Instead, it is serving as an illustration of such a problem: lawlessness set free.

Actually, it probably isn’t right to say that the camp is being looted, for this is to give the picture of a bombed, burned-out or otherwise pre-ruined building being scavenged by desperate people for whatever fixtures or foodstuffs they can grab. The scene at the Al Rashid, which plays out every day, is both much crazier than that, and also much more systematic. On the day that I visited, in the first week of April, the buildings had long since lost their windows and doors and contents. But there was still looting to be done, and with great industry and ingenuity, thousands of workers on self-appointed deconstruction crews were doing it. Brick by brick, men, women and children were taking down walls and putting them in piles that eventually went into large, professional-quality dump trucks, so as to be sold for profit. They were digging trenches to reach and remove electrical cables, piping and sewage lines. In one quadrant of the huge site, children with shovels were cheerfully destroying the foundation of what had been a military hospital. In another part, a man with a jackhammer was destroying a perfectly good roof to get at the lucrative reinforcement bar within.

As images from Iraq go, this one at first didn’t seem so bad. It wasn’t humanity being dragged through the street. It wasn’t a crowd of protesters fleeing gunfire. It wasn’t a police station set afire by suicide bomb. What it was, though, was something that is, for those who care about Iraq and who want to be proud of America, heartbreak of another kind. It was, in a word, waste. Such waste. Waste in the form of opportunity lost, in good will ungained, in ideas not entertained, in common sense sent out for lunch. However desperate these people may have been, they and their fellow looters had done hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of long-term damage for the sake of pocketing an infinitesimal fraction of that amount. For those hundreds of millions of dollars-actually, far less-the camp could have been guarded, the buildings could have been reused, and Iraqis such as these looters could have been offered jobs. And don’t think that the Al Rashid camp is some wild exception. In Baghdad these days, it is much more like the rule.

It could have been different. It should have been different. And if the lights were on and somebody were home in the future-of-Iraq department, it would have been different.

Could-a, would-a, should-a. Set it to music, and at least the new Iraq will have a national anthem.

In fairness, that’s not all the new Iraq will have. It will also have a house-proud government, and bona fide employment opportunities for those who wish to keep it that way. Just this week, one could see blue-jumpsuited workers, waxing and polishing the marble floors inside the palace that is home to the C.P.A., and pruning the palm trees on the great lawn outside. A lot can happen between now and the June 30 transition of power to the Iraqi people. But you can bet on this: The palace will look mahvalous.