There are more political parties in Baghdad than there are supermarkets. In every quarter, on every main street, they compete with each other for space, and the less powerful they are, the bigger their signs. Over 70 new political parties have registered themselves since the war. Their names are all a variation on the same buzzwords: the Iraqi/Kurdish/Assyrian/Turkoman Patriotic/Islamic/Democratic/National Party/Union/Accord/Congress. These are the busiest men and women in Baghdad—chasing Ambassador Bremer, who holds the keys to any future power, and chasing each other away from him. Iraqis see them as hyenas, circling the biggest carcass in the region.
I spent the morning with ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Amir, spokesperson for the Iraqi National Accord, led by Ayad ‘Allawi. I didn’t have lunch—it’s too hot to eat—but I drank liters of tea with Nuri as-Safi, a top-level member of the Majlis al-’Alaa (Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim’s Shiite party, called SCIRI) in one of their Baghdad party headquarters. I passed the afternoon at the Iraqi National Congress weekly press conference. Each of these parties has a member in the current seven-man political council appointed by Bremer to oversee the creation of the new Iraqi interim government.
’Allawi, an exiled Iraqi closely allied with the U.S. State Department, was a Baathist student leader in the late 1960s, but fled to Beirut in 1971, when he saw Iraqi Baathism turn tyrannical. Ali, his representative, tells me that Baathist ideas—socialist and (especially) pan-Arab—no longer play any part in INA thinking. Ali is particularly concerned to highlight the dangers of religion. He tells me that the “Golden Triangle” between the towns of Yusufiyya, Mosul, and Tarbiyya is awash with extremist Wahhabis (members of the conservative Sunni Islamic sect), that the Muslim Brotherhood has cells all over the country, and that the as-yet-unfinished Jamia al-Umma—Saddam’s enormous 18-halled mosque complex in the Mansur district of Baghdad—was under al Qaida control. Ali tells me Iranian and Saudi agents are trying to undermine Iraqi society. His ideas play straight to a coalition audience, as frightened of Iraq’s fragmentation and regional unrest as it is of the growth of extremism. It’s a canny way of shifting the focus away from Baathist troublemakers with whom, indirectly, his boss is associated.
Nuri as-Safi, on the other hand, explains why he is having so much trouble with the coalition forces, who keep on raiding SCIRI offices. As we talk, shaven-headed, bearded men in white robes waft through the room, silently exchanging kisses. Nuri blames his opposition comrades: “The advisers to the U.S. don’t want peace—some are Baathist, some are Jewish,” he tells me, but he swears that top-level relations with the coalition are good. Nuri, unsurprisingly, tells me that all the sabotage in and around Baghdad is Baath-inspired. He tells me extremism doesn’t exist among Iraqi Shiites. All seven supreme Shiite leaders have issued fatwas declaring sabotage haram, which means forbidden by Islam. Shiites, who suffered the most under Sadaam, welcome the coalition. Unprompted, Nuri repeats that SCIRI wants nothing of the Iranian model in Iraq’s future political set-up. “Why,” he asks, “when SCIRI welcomed the coalition, when they helped them secure so many towns in the south, are they being treated with so much suspicion?” The answer is simple. SCIRI is by far the most powerful new party in Iraq today. It has its own 10,000-strong militia, the Badr Brigade, and America believes Iran is behind its politics.
The INC press conference is held at the old Baghdad Hunting Club—one of Odai Hussein’s many hangouts. The INC is headed by Ahmad Chalabi, known in the press here as Dr. al-Harami (or “The Thief”). Of all the ex-opposition parties, his is the closest to the United States, and the only one sanctioned to fight on its side. Entifadh Qanbar, the INC spokesman, speaks firmly, in full, loud sentences. He wears a dark cotton suit, gold cufflinks, a double-Windsor knot in his tie, and his handkerchief is folded into four flames that lick his breast pocket. Chic is the INC uniform. Nabeel Musawi, another INC chieftain whom I met in London, asked me to join him while he moved his private number-plated Mercedes round the block to avoid traffic wardens. The INC, with no power base anywhere in the country, defines itself primarily as what it is not: Baathist. Qanbar speaks of almost nothing else. “To complete the liberation of Iraq, we must completely uproot Baathism from Iraqi society. … The Baath was a system, not a political party. … Cronyism, mass graves, even Saddam himself are all outcomes of the Baath party.” Chalabi’s party has put itself forward as the dragon-slayer. I asked Qanbar why he would outlaw the party. “The Baath party is 35 years ahead of us all in the political game. It would not be fair to give them equal footing as the other parties.” Listen to Qanbar long enough, and you begin to think free elections might actually put the Baath party back in power.
As I left the meeting, I saw a long line of men wearing newspapers folded into sun hats, waiting to change their salaries—issued by the coalition in 10,000 Iraqi dinar notes—into sacks of 250 ID notes. Merchants will not accept the higher denomination. Since the banks (which carried all their currency in 10,000 ID notes) were looted, those notes are now haram, too.
Anti-American graffiti is splashed all over Baghdad’s walls. On the base of the statue pulled down in front of millions of viewers worldwide, a scrawl reads “All Downe Go Home.” But most of the graffiti is written in Arabic and goes unnoticed. The statue’s base is surrounded by dozens of columns; the letters “S” and “H” are carved into each of them. “SH” obviously stands for Saddam Hussein, but it also spells sah, which in Arabic means truth.
It’s now evening. I’m staying with an Irish friend who has rented a house here. The electricity, as ever, is down. I’m reading by the light of a gas lamp and facing the beginnings of a garden. For an instant it all feels strangely colonial. Truly colonial—I can hear rifle fire in the street behind me.