There are two main reasons why I don’t write a great deal about politics here. The first, and most important, is that I tend not to like the way that I end up sounding when I go off on political topics. The second, only slightly less important, is that I rarely feel like I have anything worthwhile to add to the discussion that a hundred other homebrew pundits won’t also say.
This is one of the exceptions. A good friend of mine from college– the best man at my wedding– is a journalist working for the French wire services in Baghdad. He sends occasional email updates about what’s going on over there, which are generally fascinating. I got another one today, and permission to excerpt the email here, so we’ll turn the rest of this over to our Official Middle East Correspondant, Paul Schemm:
It was supposed to get better. That was my tacit, agreement with myself about
coming here. The idea being that 2005 was a bad year, some kinks had to be
worked out and then this year it would all get better.
There were to be elections, and then a new government and then Iraqis would
take over the running of things, the insurgency would be defeated or
re-absorbed, the Americans would leave and the streets would be safe again.
And most importantly I would be able walk through a marketplace – which as far
as I’m concerned is the God-given right of anyone living in a Middle Eastern
city and something I have yet to do here.
(More behind the cut.)
So I was there for the elections, I went to the half-destroyed town of
Fallujah and watched people go out and actually vote. It’s not like they’d
forgiven the Americans for flattening their town a year before, but they were
buying into the whole process, and that was important.
I watched the new government – one with Sunnis participating — being sworn
in. I walked over the final resting place of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and picked
up the shredded pages of a Arabic-language edition of Newsweek that might have
been the last thing he read before two 500 bombs hit this homey little
structure nestled in a palm grove.
All of these events should have meant that buy mid-2006, things should now be
The day started with the usual odd incident here or there, until suddenly came
the awful news that a LOT of people had been killed in the unfortunately-named
west Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad. Masked gunmen had gone on a rampage
through the area, setting up checkpoints, shooting people on the basis of
their names (Marwan, Omar, and Othman are typically Sunni names, so are tribal
names like Dulaimi, Janabi and Juburi – Shiites tend to be called Ali and
It was like the stories of Lebanon on all over again. I remembered an Iraqi I
met working for ABC news who had an hour’s drive to work through several
neighborhoods and carried with him a variety of fake IDs, giving different
names depending on what kind of checkpoint he was stopped at.
A few months ago, one of our tech guys was stopped in the Sunni stronghold of
Adhamiyah by gunmen who thought he was Shiite, he managed to convince them he
was Christian, which apparently baffled them and they let him go.
Our drivers used to have a rotation whereby one would sleep in the hotel every
night in case we needed a driver – it was considered a bit of burden, but now
two drivers just spend every night at the hotel because they are afraid to go
home. One’s a Turkmen Shiite from Sunni Adhamiyah, the others a Sunni from the
mixed neighborhood of Dura, in southern Baghdad.
We called the imam of the lone Shiite mosque in the area and he was quite
frank – of course those were Shiites doing the killing, could you blame them?
They’ve been killing Shiites in this neighborhood for months. In fact just the
night before this man’s mosque had been bombed, killing a half dozen people.
Of course that might have been a retaliation for the bomb left in front of the
Sunni mosque not far away. In fact that Friday three Sunni mosques and two
Shiite mosques were bombed during prayer time. You look at the patterns in
retrospect and it becomes more of a case of wondering why it took so long to
happen rather than being surprised at it taking place.
After all, only ten days earlier an enormous truck bomb killed 66 Shiites in
the Sadr City slum… they don’t appreciate that kind of thing.
We like to think that that night everyone took a break. Maybe watched the
World Cup final and held off going on a midnight rampage (rumor has it the
Shiites supported the Italians and the Sunnis backed the French). Not too many
corpses turned up in the morning, but the killing continued and we heard
several more explosions from our perch on the Tigris.
It’s often said that the US needs to stay in Iraq to prevent the country from falling into civil war. This looks an awful lot like civil war.
Of course, lest you think there are no decent people left, he closes with a more uplifting anecdote:
The other day I visited a water treatment facility north of the city, it
serves about a quarter of the city’s population, including Shiite Sadr City
and Sunni Adhamiyah. It had just been rebuilt and renovated by USAID.
I met the head of maintenance there, a spry, gray-haired gent, with flashing
eyes and a white hard hat who was really excited to take about his plant.[...]
The old engineer (who was actually only in his mid-40s but looked a lot older)
had worked there since 1992 and described how when the old regime fell and the
looting started, he and the other employees banded together, fought them off
and protected the creaky old plant.
“If it hadn’t been for us, the city would have had no water,” he recalled with
pride. And the plant kept on pumping water, to each neighborhood, regardless
of who lived there.
So, there you go. The bad, and the good, in Baghdad as everywhere else. I’ll probably post excerpts from future dispatches, and if there’s interest, I may excerpt some stuff from past emails, at some point when I need lazy blogging.