In Baghdad, if you put your head out of a speeding taxi, it’s like pointing a hair dryer at your face. The city is yellow with heat and dust. Shattered buildings, like skeletons, totter in the streets. There is neither electricity nor order. Baghdadis sleep on their roofs, with guns under their pillows.
I’ve been here three weeks, trying to pick up the word on the streets, trying to find out where Iraqis think they’re headed. Iraqi society no longer exists. The thriving middle class of the ‘70s and ‘80s no longer exists. Professionals earn a fraction of a taxi driver’s wage. The most secular country in the region is taking a sharp turn toward God. I have two advantages: I speak Arabic, and if I’m a bad journalist, I’m a good listener.
I spent this morning at the political science facility of Baghdad University, a part of the campus that was spared the worst of the fires and looting. Students have returned for classes three days a week, their exams either looming or already underway. Pictures of Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the most powerful Shiite party in the country, clutter the walls of the cafeteria. Beside them, the Union of Free Students has posted calls for more demonstrations against the U.S. military presence on campus.
I sat next to two girls: Nadya and ‘Alia, who wears a headscarf. Others swarmed us immediately. Being a journalist here is like being a Baathist under Saddam—you’re royalty, and everyone wants to know you. It’s the novelty of talk. And the students talked for hours. Amongst the seven or so who sat with me around a table and shared Pepsis, there was not a single shared opinion. Some wanted monarchy, others swore on the republic. They disdain the current various political pretenders, but they have no sense of an alternative. There was relish—savage and vengeful—at the Baath Party’s demise, and calls for clemency, and despair. The students agreed about nothing except their terror of anarchy. Then they asked me if I wanted to talk to a Baathist. To my immense surprise, a young man sitting behind me volunteered.
Qusay Abd al-Aziz Mohsen al-Salem is 27 years old and was named after Saddam’s youngest son. He also happens to be from Tikrit, the town where Saddam was raised. In contrast to the others, he has convictions. He spoke in rapid-fire sound bites. “Of course life was better under Saddam. He was a nationalist, a patriot, and he was Iraqi. He fought for the interests of our country. We do not accept occupation. AlMa’rakat Al-Hawasim is not over.” (AlMa’rakat Al-Hawasim means “The Defining Battle,” Saddam’s term for “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”) “We will continue to fight. As for mass graves, they are like WMD—an American lie.” Hala, another Baath student, had joined us: “The Halabja incident [when Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam’s cousin, used chemical weapons to annihilate the village of Halabja and its 5,000 Kurdish inhabitants in 1988] was just Kurdish in-fighting.” Qusay finished: “There are three kinds of Iraqis. The Looters, who should’ve have wept over the occupation and instead used it. The Dancers, all those opposition parties who are paid for by the U.S. And the Iraqis, who wait and watch as the chaos escalates, and who will eventually throw the U.S. out of the country.” As I left, a student named Amina approached me with the address of the hide-out of a top-ranking Baathist. She’s selling him out. “I want to avenge my father,” she tells me. “He spent four years in jail. He was tortured.”
Later this afternoon, at the (pro-coalition) Iraqi National Accord Party conference, I sat in a velvet-padded room with no air conditioning and listened as high-ranking civilians cast their grievances: no constitution, no acknowledgment of the professional associations, no security, no police, no salaries, no electricity. These doctors and lawyers and community leaders don’t know whom to turn to. They say the coalition doesn’t listen to them and that they don’t know what rights they have under occupied law. They say no one in Baghdad knows what Security Council Resolution 1441 actually says. An old sheik, dressed in the traditional white Jallabiya robes, stood and in slow, patriarchal Arabic declared: “Let the [opposition] parties stop their politicking, lest the Iraqi people leave them behind.”
I’m typing from the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad, home to many foreign journalists. The hotel faces the Palestine Hotel Meridien, where an Al Jazeera correspondent was killed by coalition fire during the war. Roadblocks and a barricade separate us from the outside world.
At the hotel’s entrance, a 30-year-old man is begging, the stub of a leg propped against his crutch. He lost it in Basra, in 1991. Late this evening, I heard that the British free-lance journalist killed last week in front of the Baghdad Museum was Richard Wild. I was supposed to meet him tomorrow. We were going to travel south together.