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The Mess We Made

When the greatest civilization on earth came to visit Baghdad, it did not bring peace but chaos. The American incursion into Iraq was supposed to be a liberation, and we must all hope that it will one day turn out to be one. But for most people in the Iraqi capital, it has meant a return to Year Zero. Each evening as night falls, the city slides back from the 21st century to the Middle Ages.

This great metropolis has been stripped of almost all the essentials of modern life. By day, it is not quite so obvious. Baghdad looks a little like Moscow in a heat wave, long scruffy concrete boulevards converging on ugly boastful statues. But by night, when the electricity shuts down yet again and there is only moonlight to see by, you understand that the world we think of as normal is built on a very thin crust.

In the festering slums, a firearm provides the only security. Heads of households sit behind their doors, quaking at the sound of gunfire and—if they are lucky enough to have such things—cradling their own weapons. In the suburbs, the middle-class residents are sawing down the palm trees to make barricades in the hope of keeping out organized thieves.

When looters are detected in any district, the besieged householders set off bursts of bullets into the sky to let marauders know that their district, at least, is defended. Those without weapons must submit or be shot. Iraqis, once one of the most educated, civilized peoples in the Middle East, have gone back to the ways of cavemen. Everything that made Iraq a country has gone. There is no single source of power or law, good or bad. The currency swoops up and down in value, and satchels full of dinars are needed to pay for anything important. In fact, the moneychangers have grown so weary of counting out the scuffed blue-green 250-dinar bills that they sometimes weigh them instead. The frontiers are controlled—to the extent that they are controlled—by foreign troops. Iraqi embassies abroad have no government to represent, and nobody here is authorized to defend their country’s interests overseas.

The telephones are dead. Electricity is intermittent and unreliable. The water, tainted with sewage, is not safe to drink. There is no fuel for cooking. And, in the world’s second greatest producer of oil, there is little or no gasoline. Drivers wait in line for as much as 24 hours for a rationed half-tankful of noxious semi-refined muck, which stinks the way you imagine political corruption would if you could smell it, and rapidly chokes engines to death. Baghdad is a big place without much in the way of mass-transit, and many simply cannot get to work—if there is any work for them to do.

Many people have not been paid for weeks and have no idea if their old jobs or businesses still exist or will ever reappear. So many records have been destroyed in the bombing of ministries that they may never be able to prove that they were employed or that they are due for payments.

Meanwhile in their guarded, walled compounds—the very places where the Saddam regime once hid from the people—the American rulers of the city live in air-conditioned comfort. Their electricity never fails, and they ride through the streets in armored convoys, machine-gunners fore and aft glaring suspiciously about them, too scared of the citizens they have liberated to get out, walk, and see for themselves.

If anyone in the U.S. government knew Iraqi history before they decided to take over the country, they were showing no sign of it as I toured Baghdad and the nearby area. Having heard of the Ba’ath Party mere months ago, they now rage righteously against it. A few weeks ago, Gen. Tommy Franks went on the radio and simply dissolved it, the act of a conqueror, not a liberator—and one he has no power to enforce.

Soon afterwards, the second American Viceroy in Baghdad (so far), Paul Bremer, said that he, too, planned to “extirpate” the wicked Ba’ath Party, though one has to wonder how you can extirpate something that has already been dissolved. As it happens, the only thing Mr. Bremer has extirpated is his luckless forerunner, the retired soldier Jay Garner, who had the misfortune to be in charge of Iraq when everything started to go wrong. He was sacked on the old principle that it might encourage the others, but as things stand Mr. Bremer may not be able to do much better.

He suffers, as did Gen. Garner, from the fact that the U.S. is already bored by Iraq’s tedious and complex internal problems, which the White House did not foresee because it was interested in a demonstration victory over a cartoon enemy. The evidence from Baghdad suggests strongly that President Bush’s administration wanted to destroy Saddam but does not want to supplant him as ruler or have any coherent plans for the future of this strategically and politically important nation. This is not liberal imperialism or neo-imperialism, just a gesture with a mainly domestic purpose.

There are many places in Iraq where this is becoming evident, but the classrooms of the schools are a good place to see the nature of the problem. The schools do not know what to teach or how to teach it. The adulation of Saddam Hussein permeated every class and textbook so that math often involved counting tanks, and pictures of Saddam pop up every few pages in even the most innocent volume. Now the children, having been taught to revere Saddam as a beloved father, have suddenly been instructed to rip his portrait from their books and tear it from the walls. Some are reported to have wept. Until now, even their parents had never dared tell them that the man was a monster in case they were inadvertently denounced by their own offspring. The reversal is a distressing shock.

I spoke to Maj. Patrick Vessels, from Indiana, a smart and wise officer who keeps an eye on the schools of Baghdad. If there were more people like him in the U.S. administration of Iraq, I suspect things would be a lot better than they are. He explained the subtle problem the new authorities now face. He told me that the U.S. had to be careful not to replace one dictator with another. “We’re not discouraging them from tearing out pictures of Saddam, but we’re not dictating it,” he said. “The trouble is that school heads are used to being dictated to. They are paralyzed when they are given autonomy. They don’t know what to do with freedom.”

This is, of course, the regrettable truth. Freedom is a risky and unsettling condition of life for those who have not been allowed it and are not used to it, and its proper use has to be learned over time. It cannot simply be exported to every country in the world and distributed in nice parcels. In fact, even the most law-governed and free countries on earth are now having a little trouble handling and preserving their own liberty and are enthusiastically loading themselves with chains on the pretext of defending themselves against terrorism.

It is not that Iraqis yearn for the return of Saddam. Hardly anyone is sorry that he has gone. It is that they recognize—as Washington has yet to—that if you behead a system based upon a single tyrant and his single party, you need to provide an alternative authority immediately. People will not suddenly become accustomed to freedom or able to handle it. Many will take advantage of the confusion. Crime and looting are only the most obvious signs of this.

During my visit to Baghdad, Mr. Bremer was boasting about the increased number of patrols on the streets, the arrests made, and the fact that he had two criminal courts working and had reopened (or should that be reclosed?) two of Baghdad’s prisons. But all Iraqis know that the streets are mainly unprotected unless they have some kind of private muscle to guard their premises. And they also know that Mr. Bremer will have to bring back the Ba’athists and the old Saddam machine if he wants to do anything about it.

I went to the Baghdad police academy, where American military policemen and members of Saddam’s old police force co-operate nervously and set out on their inadequate joint beats, camouflaged Humvees and blue and white squad cars in convoy. They are hampered by the fact that very few American soldiers speak a word of Arabic and also because the two groups do not really trust each other. There I spoke to police Col. Jasim Mohamed, a 15-year veteran of the city force. Yes, he reluctantly admitted, he was a member of the Ba’ath Party, along with two million other Iraqis who had to join if they wanted to get a college education or a decent career. He says, as everybody now has to say, “Of course we are happy Saddam has gone.” He adds, as everybody now has to add, “Of course I want democracy.”

That day, out of the 30,000 members of the pre-invasion Baghdad police force, only 4,000 had come back to work, and there were 24 patrol cars to cover a city about the size of Chicago. There used to be 2,000. The great extirpator, Mr. Bremer, may have to eat his words about Ba’athists if he wants a police force back in Baghdad before Christmas, as I would guess most of the missing men are Ba’ath Party members. For now, all he has is a ludicrous compromise, explained to me by Capt. Steve Caruso, a forceful soldier from Philadelphia who is actually trying to get the occupation to work and does not look as if he is getting much sleep in the process.

“The Iraqi police want to be armed with Kalashnikovs, as they used to be, but handing out 10,000 AK-47s to Iraqi police officers is not the right answer right now,” he insisted. Not surprisingly, the inadequate U.S. force in the city (around 15,000 to begin with, but now rising and at last being replaced by reinforcements who are not exhausted by fighting their way up from Kuwait), do not like the idea of an organized, disciplined force of armed Iraqis in their midst. So as a compromise the Iraqi police are allowed to carry their submachine guns in the trunks of their cars and can only get them out if they are attacked. Since untold numbers of criminals and looters already have such weapons, purchased at arms markets for a few dollars, it is easy to see that this will not do much good. The armed looter is only afraid of an armed law-enforcement officer. Nor will the aggressive but rare American patrols make much difference—especially if they are like the one I saw suddenly pile out of their truck and kick and punch a group of Iraqis to the ground because they suspected them of selling weapons.

The absolute fear of any Iraqis holding arms certainly does not help the pitiful shopkeeper I found at the gate of Saddam Hussein’s old palace complex, feebly trying to explain his plight. There is always a knot of people gathered outside the new seat of power, trying to make contact with the occupiers. The shopkeeper, Mahmoud Namdar, had seen his electronic-goods shop plundered by armed thieves and bought his own gun to protect his stock from robbers. But an American patrol happened by, saw him, and took away his weapon, though he has only one leg and cannot even run after those who steal from him. Now he fears he is defenseless and will lose everything.

After my interpreter explained this to a brusque soldier, the sentry said to Mahmoud Namdar, “You will get your goods back. We will catch the thieves.” Then he turned away. As he made this unbelievable promise, he did not even try to find out the man’s name or address. I do not particularly blame him. He was exhausted and bored and had never thought that simple guard duty would involve trying to solve the problems of distraught merchants. He probably just wanted to go home.

Many people are already starting to wish the Western armies would do just that. They are glad to be rid of Saddam but have no wish to be occupied and have a growing feeling that they will not have a normal life until the soldiers have gone. In the meantime, they want us to bring back the few certainties they used to have, though it is difficult to see how this can be done, and wonder exactly what authority will take over if the troops do leave.

As I walked through the beautiful holy city of Najaf, a middle-aged man, Nazal Shamsah, stormed up to me to ask—in English—why it was that he could not now get the medicine he badly needs for his heart disease. “We’re not your enemies, but your friends, help us, please,” he urged. Mr. Shamsah, who like many people in that part of the world still wears the traditional fez, clearly remembers the period when Iraq was in the British sphere of influence. If only others could also remember it.

If the Americans had studied Britain’s long-ago experience in Baghdad, they might have learned that democracy cannot simply be unpacked from crates and set up in a place like this. They might have learned that if you take over someone’s country you have to use the old institutions and elites even if you do not like them.

When Britain took over the region from the Turks in 1920, she too tried—or at least pretended—to make Iraq a democracy but found things worked better when British officials pulled the strings of government, working through the local Sunni Muslim upper crust. In 1932, London even pretended that Iraq was independent, when in truth Britain was still effectively in control. Not until the gruesome coup of 1958, which was almost certainly a consequence of Britain’s humiliation by Nasser at Suez two years before, did Britain finally lose its influence. Even in the days when London’s word was law, British envoys in Baghdad preferred not to be too obvious. The British ambassador once had to tell the King of Iraq to please stop coming to the embassy and instead summon him to the palace so that it at least looked as if the King were really in charge.

The British Empire was also also ruthless about keeping order. When there was looting in Baghdad in 1941, after British troops had overthrown the pro-Nazi dictator Rashid Ali Kailani, the authorities swiftly hanged several looters and restored peace. But these days, while it is all right to bomb innocent people for their own good, it is apparently wrong to hang guilty ones for the general benefit. So the nightly crackle of gunfire continues.

American sloganeering about democracy and liberation also misses the point that most Iraqis are Shi’ite Muslims, many of whom fervently desire an Islamic republic. What is more, the militant Shi’ites are organized and effective among the urban poor, where their strength is concentrated. I went to the hospital in what used to be Saddam City, a desperate and squalid quarter of Baghdad so wretched that its children make a thin living by scavenging through the stinking rubbish heaps. This scene is next door to the brand new looters’ market, where a mad selection of stolen goods, from air-conditioning units and steel cupboards to crutches and wheelchairs, goes on sale each morning amid clouds of flies.

The hospital is a small patch of calm amid this seething, filthy, lawless place because the local Shi’ite clerics have taken it over and set up their own armed militia, which keeps away marauders. And the same thing has happened all over the Shi’ite-dominated south of the country as the clerics have fanned out from their central college in Najaf, bringing authority and order but also something else.

If you speak to them, they will smile and say they have no ambitions to run the country. No, of course they do not want an Islamic republic like Iran. They want a nice democracy where all can share. This is the official line, laid down by the great Shi’ite leader Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim when he returned after a long exile in Iran last month. So why is there an organization—well funded and competent—called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq? Does Hakim, who attracts the sort of crowds only rock stars can expect in the West, really mean it when he says his ambitions are modest? I don’t think so.

I went to the Shi’ite heartland to see what the unofficial view might be. Outside the majestic golden-domed shrine of Hussein in Karbala, 24-year-old Mohammed Karim told me, “We want Hakim as President of Iraq. We would like to see Islamic law.” When he said this should include a ban on alcohol as well as the shrouding of women, most of the crowd that had gathered round agreed, though one other young man called out that alcohol should be a matter of choice. He may be in for a disappointment. Farther south, in Basra, Christian-run alcohol shops have already been smashed up by Shi’ite militants flexing their Muslim muscle.

The real agenda of the Shi’ite clerics was revealed by preachers at the Saddam City mosque before Hakim even arrived. They, like young Mohammed Karim, also demanded the head-to-toe veiling of women, the banning of alcohol and—this is incredibly important given the collapse of the Saddam cult—Islamic control of the schools. This would be misery for millions of secular Iraqis and for Sunni Muslims, but democracy could actually bring it about.

As I talked to Karim, worshippers at the ancient shrine were constantly carrying crude coffins in and out, chanting prayers as they did so. The roughly made boxes contained the shriveled, pitiful remains of Shi’ites that had just been dug from the mass grave at Muhawil, near the ancient site of Babylon. I had earlier visited this grisly scene. Laid out among the wasteland were the remnants of what had once been hundreds of people: brown bones, hanks of hair, skulls still half-covered in earth, and bits of cloth assembled into shockingly small plastic bags. These piles and bundles had once been Iraqi Shi’ites who followed Western calls to rise against Saddam in 1991, were abandoned by us, massacred by Saddam, and cast, bound and blindfolded, into pits. Some of them, judging from the scraps of synthetic cloth, had obviously been women. Mothers, sisters, and brothers searched among these wretched remnants for identity cards or other proof that these were the bodies of their lost loved ones that could now be given decent burial.

Azaar Husain Jasim, hollow-faced and shrouded in black, had found what was left of her murdered brother, Abdullah, including a disintegrating Koran and an army ID card. Now 24, she still remembers the night Saddam’s men came for her brother and dragged him away. She was bitter but not emotional, saying only, “We are a land of civilizations and religions, and the monster Saddam came among us. America saved us from him, and I thank America.”

America also seemed thankful for the discovery of this site. Just around the corner from the hellish pit and the piles of bones stood a Marine public-affairs officer, quietly and courteously offering help to any journalists who happened to want it. I learned later that Britain’s Prime Minister Anthony Blair had that day told MPs that this mass grave ought to end the doubts of those who opposed the war.

As one who opposed the war and who has seen the grave, I would say it does no such thing. Those corpses are in any case the result of earlier half-hearted Western meddling in Iraq, and I got the impression the Allies saw them as a useful diversion from the fact that no gas or germ weapons have yet been found. I suspect that such graves or torture chambers or other relics of the Saddam tyranny will be “discovered” every time doubts are raised about weapons of mass destruction. There is no shortage of them. As Samir, my interpreter, said to me, “It used to be said that everywhere you dig in Iraq you will find either oil or antiquities. Now you will find corpses.”

I have never seen anywhere like this before and honestly hope I never do again. Everything makes the mind churn at the ghastliness of the past and the uncertainty of the future. Lawless Baghdad yearns for authority to stop crime and restore power, fuel, and water. Poor Muslims turn to their mullahs, who at least offer certainty among the swirling chaos. In the north, Kurds once again hope for a state of their own, even though they know chances are that their hopes will be betrayed as they always have been before.

Back in safety, far from the stuttering AK-47s, the smirking mullahs, the power outages, the teeming mosques, the mass-graves, the strange moonlit cityscape, the stinking fuel, and the poisoned water, I listen to the politicians who got us into this and wonder if they ever understood what they were doing—or if they know how to finish what they have started. 


Peter Hitchens, a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday, visited Baghdad to see the after-effects of the war. This is what he found. 

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