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Baghdad Journal: The Clock Is Ticking

Despite a few hopeful signs, for most Iraqis post-war life is a nightmare of fear and discomfort that is getting worse, not better.
 
 
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BAGHDAD -- There are two ways to get to Iraq from Jordan--by air and by land. The air option is at best limited: there are no commercial flights and the few UN planes that have extra room are either booked or get canceled at the last minute. Thus, the advance team to set up the International Occupation Watch Center, consisting of myself and Gael Murphy from Code Pink took the overland route.

The International Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad will be an on-the-ground effort to get out reliable information to the global peace movement about the actions of the occupying forces and U.S. companies. The center will also support emerging Iraqi independent groups and serve as a hub for international visitors who want to support Iraqi efforts to end the occupation and rebuild their country.

But first we had to get there, and in the process we learned just how fast the situation is deteriorating for the Iraqis and the U.S. troops stationed there.

Our first encounter with U.S. troops came when we crossed the Iraqi border. Two red-faced boys with fuzzy cheeks who couldn't have been over 18 ran up to greet us, happy to find English speakers. At 9 AM, the day was already promising to be a scorcher and these poor kids, one from Kansas and the other from Arkansas, were dripping with sweat as they stood in the sun in their combat boots, flak jackets and thick helmets, holding submachine guns.

As we waited for our passports to be processed, we talked to a dozen more soldiers. They didn't speak the language or understand the culture here. Their bodies weren't conditioned for the oppressive heat that shot up to 120 degrees in the shade. They were sick of eating tasteless military rations ("What I'd give for a REAL meal," one of the boys said wistfully). They were mostly young kids dreaming about their girlfriends and families and air-conditioning and hamburgers. All they wanted was to be sent back home -- "Yesterday wouldn't be soon enough," said a freckle-faced recruit from Wisconsin.

They had come to fight a war and now found themselves patrolling the border, searching for stolen goods or fake passports. While they were good-natured to us, they were gruff with the Iraqis. They barked orders at them in English, with hand signals. "Stop, pull your car over, get out, get in line."

The Iraqis waiting in line for their entry stamps looked tired, hungry and exasperated at having their country's border controlled by 18-year-old foreigners strutting around with guns or sitting atop heavily armored humvees and tanks. The whole scene was unnerving, a flashback to the days of British colonialism. The U.S. weaponry might be modern, but the model of occupying someone else's country is definitely an old one. Just from watching the scene at the border, you could smell trouble.

We made the dash from the increasingly tense border to Baghdad - through what our driver called "Ali Baba land," the highway robber paradise - at about 120 miles an hour. At about 5 PM, after 11 hours of whizzing by the debris of war -- carcasses of tanks, overturned buses, bomb craters and abandoned houses, we made it safely to Baghdad.

At our hotel, the Andaluz Apartments, where we stayed earlier this year, the owners and staff greeted us with joy and open arms. We were delighted to find them all in one piece, but they told us their terrifying stories of living through the invasion. The manager's home had been bombed by mistake, and several journalists had been killed in the hotel across the road by U.S. munitions. When we asked about conditions right now, their biggest complaints were about two things: the lack of security and the lack of electricity.

The security problem is mainly the result of the chaos the invasion unleashed. With no government and no authority, thieves are constantly on the prowl. The "Ali Babas" had already looted and gutted just about every government building; now they break into businesses and homes, even pulling people from their cars to steal the vehicle. Stories of girls being kidnapped and raped make many women afraid to leave their homes. Gunfire could be heard in different parts of the city every night. Without security, said one of the staff, we have nothing.

The lack of electricity is an equally pressing concern. The gas pipeline that fed power stations in Baghdad was bombed during the war. Since then looters or saboteurs have stolen electrical wires and toppled pylons. The suffocating heat only exacerbates the situation. Without fans or air-conditioning, working and sleeping is misery. Without refrigeration, food goes rancid. Without electricity, water pumps don't work. Without electricity, gas can't be pumped into cars. Without electricity, traffic lights don't work; roads are clogged and utterly chaotic. And without electricity, the streets are dark at night, so thieves roam at will.

The complaints about security and electricity that we heard the moment we walked into our hotel were complaints we would hear repeated over and over again during our stay. The other preoccupation was the lack of jobs, with hundreds of thousand of people -- from soldiers to state functionaries -- now out of work. And for the lucky few who have jobs, the salaries are totally inadequate to compensate for the rising prices.

It's true that there are many positive changes since the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Iraqis are for the most part delighted that Saddam is gone. We met people who had family members tortured and killed by the prior regime who, for the first time, are able to openly grieve and seek justice. We met Iraqis returning from decades in exile, overcome by emotion at being able to come back home.

Iraqis are just only now discovering newfound freedoms like freedom of speech, assembly and association. We accompanied workers at the Palestine Hotel who went on strike and successfully got rid of an abusive general manager. We walked with women from a newly formed women's group demanding their rights and a say in the new government. Young students who had little access to outside information are now saving their money to get on-line at one of the new Internet cafes.

But despite these positive openings, most of the people we meet say their lives were better before -- under Saddam Hussein -- than they are now. Before, at least there was order. Before at least they had jobs and salaries, electricity and water. Before, at least women were not afraid to walk the streets. Many ask "How come the Americans were so prepared and competent when it came to making the war but so utterly unprepared and incompetent when it comes to rebuilding?"

Every day, the United States appears to be losing ground here in Iraq. There are an average of 13 attacks a day on the occupation forces, and there is less and less sympathy among Iraqis when U.S. soldiers are attacked. To many, the words freedom and liberation now seem like a cruel joke.

Two elderly moneychangers sitting outdoors in the brutal heat clothed in long flowing robes and white caps sat at their stand hawking thick wads of Saddam Hussein bills, which is still the currency in use. We started chatting. They asked where we were from. "Oh, America," one answered, crossing his arms against his chest, "I love America."

"How about the soldiers?" we asked, pointing behind them at U.S. soldiers sitting atop ferocious-looking tanks, weapons at the ready. The man who "loved America" said how happy they were to be free of Saddam Hussein, but the other man demurred. I asked him directly, "So you think the soldiers should go home to America?" Both men broke out in big grins. "Yes, Saddam gone. That's good. Soldiers should go, too. Many Iraqis don't like them here."

They said if conditions in Iraq do not improve soon -- a month, two months, six months -- it won't be just Saddam loyalists or Shi'ite fundamentalists but ordinary Iraqis who will fight to get rid of the Americans. "We have a 9,000-year-old culture, you have a 200-year-old culture," one of the men said. "I think we can figure out our own future."

Iraqis are puzzled why the United States, a country that can make bombs so smart they target a particular building from 30,000 miles in the air, can't give Iraqis electricity or create a functioning economy. Some are so puzzled that they have concluded that the United States is purposely trying to destroy every aspect of the economy so that they can come in and rebuild it in their own image. Others attribute the mess to incompetence, arrogance or stupidity.

One of our visits in Baghdad was to the famous circle where the statute of Saddam Hussein had come tumbling down, the scene that was showed over and over on U.S. television. Now, a new, rather indecipherable three-headed statue by a young Iraqi artist was in its place. But curiously, on the column just beneath the statue, someone had written in bright red paint and imperfect English, "All donne. Go home."

For lack of an alternative, most Iraqis are still willing to give the United States more time in the driver's seat. But the clock is ticking and their patience is wearing thin.

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of Global Exchange. For more information about the International Occupation Watch Center, visit www.occupationwatch.org.