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[casi] The mean streets of Baghdad

Sep 23, 2003

The mean streets of Baghdad
By Pepe Escobar

BAGHDAD - Ahmad, a 23-year-old Jordanian student, stepped out of his
apartment in Haifa Street this past Saturday morning to hail a taxi, but he
was confronted by a US checkpoint. "Move your ass from here," a GI ordered
him. "Don't talk to me like that. I'm not your slave," answered Ahmad.
"Aren't you? taunted the GI. Ahmad rose to the bait and answered back, so
the outcome was inevitable. He was arrested.

Ahmad was kept in a Hummer for two hours, and then taken to the main
building at Baghdad (former Saddam) International Airport. A translator said
to him, "Are you crazy? Never talk to these people, whatever they say to
you." Ahmad finally managed to show the translator his Jordanian identity
card. The Americans were not convinced. "What are you doing in Iraq? Are you
a fedayeen [paramilitary]?" Ahmad replied that he was a student, and showed
his university papers. The Americans said these might be fake.

Ahmad was then taken to a big hall inside the airport crammed with about 400
people. "They look like killers, or probably looters," Ahmad thought to
himself. The "killers" then began talking behind his back: "He looks like a
fedayeen. There's no future for him." Ahmad remembered that many foreign
fedayeen - especially in Basra and Najaf - had been killed by Iraqis.

Then a soldier arrived in the hall and read a list of 10 names: these people
were taken away. After a few hours, an Iraqi soldier came to talk to Ahmad.
"You're lucky they [other detainees] didn't hurt you. Because they don't
care. You're Jordanian, you have no family here. If they kill you, who cares
about you?" Ahmad argued that he was not carrying his passport because
there's no security in the city, and muggings are rife. The Iraqi soldier
went out to plead Ahmad's case to the US commander. He came back half an
hour later: "You can go. But don't do this again. And if you see an American
tank or vehicle driving in the street, don't go near them."

Ahmad's experience is positively mild compared with what happens daily to
others in Baghdad - and he managed to get away just because he is a
foreigner. A curfew in the capital starts every night at 11. But in many
places everything has stopped by as early as 2 in the afternoon because
there's no security in the city.

Last month, Nudir, a young engineer, was arrested with two friends in a BMW
because GIs found a revolver in the glove compartment: practically every
Iraqi carries a gun for self-defense. Nudir says he was beaten up by the
soldiers and then spent 16 days in Camp Cropper, the prison inside the
airport grounds that Ahmad was lucky not to see.

US repression is relentless. Red Cross officials confirm that more than
20,000 people have been arrested in Baghdad in the past few months. Most
come and go - but there's no way to keep tabs on all the cases: there are no
functioning courts and judges. Amnesty International has already denounced
cases of "torture", and an unknown number of Iraqi civilians have been
gunned down by US search patrols. The bunkered-down Coalition Provisional
Authority simply refuses to mention how many Iraqi civilians are being shot
or killed every day - either victims of crime or victims of US repression.
Like the Iraqi interpreter killed by an American soldier in the front seat
of a car occupied by Pietro Cordone, the Italian diplomat who is the
official adviser to the new Iraqi Ministry of Culture. Baghdadis take for
granted that American soldiers are now free to shoot civilians in any Iraqi
civilian vehicle if they look even remotely suspicious.

Iraqi police now man several checkpoints in Baghdad - but they don't seem to
have been trained well enough. On Saturday, two "Ali Babas" - thieves -
stole a battered Toyota and managed to cross a checkpoint close to the
Palestine-Sheraton hotel complex, slaloming through a hail of bullets from
the agitated guards. They were only stopped near the hotel entrance. Cynics
speculate that this was a trial run for a car bombing, as the Palestine
remains a key target for the Iraqi resistance.

But while ordinary Iraqis may be treated like cattle, VIP Iraqis - for
propaganda purposes - receive red-carpet treatment, even if they are
included in the US 55-most-wanted pack of cards. That's the case of General
Sultan Hashim Ahmed, the former minister of defense, who surrendered to
Major-General David Petraeus. This US general in charge of northern Iraq has
written a letter to Hashim describing him as "a man of honor and integrity".

That's not the word in Baghdad. It's an open secret that Hashim was
instrumental in Saddam Hussein's bloody repression of Shi'ites and Kurds
immediately after the 1991 Gulf War - a repression that the Americans did
nothing to prevent. And many know that Hashim was the northern coordinator
of the so-called "Saddam network" - the Saddam-sponsored faction of the
resistance that includes "remnants of the regime" and disgruntled,
unemployed former army officers. The Iraqi perception is that by treating
Hashim with velvet gloves, the Americans may expect to defuse at least this
faction of the resistance. "They are desperate. Now they are doing deals
with anybody," says a retired army officer.

The more exalted factions of the resistance are far from being appeased. And
they proved it by their assassination attempt on Akila al-Hashemi, a woman,
a Shi'ite, a diplomat and one of the only members of the 25-member Iraqi
Governing Council actually enjoying the respect of the general population.
The council is called "the imported government" by practically everybody in
the bazaars and kebab shops of Baghdad. Hashemi, shot in the abdomen, is in
critical condition in a US Army hospital. She would have been one of the
members of the Iraqi delegation attending the United Nations General
Assembly that opened in New York on Monday.

The only possible way out for the Iraqi quagmire lies at the United Nations.
The US draft resolution to be presented to the UN in essence means that
President George W Bush needs money and blue helmets - but is unwilling to
surrender any US control of Iraq. France, on the other hand - followed by
Germany, and in a certain measure by China and Russia, and arguably by most
of the UN - wants a swift transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi provisional
government: not in the next few years, but in the next few months. That's
exactly what the Iraqi Governing Council itself demanded last week in

France wants a key role for the UN Security Council (the United States,
Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France). And it wants a constitutional
convention for Iraq, as soon as possible, followed by general elections in
the spring of 2004. If the plan is approved by the UN, the European Union,
as well as Muslim countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia, would
certainly participate in a UN-mandated, perhaps US-led peacekeeping force.
Baghdadis tend to consider this a rational, sensible plan - although they
would prefer the UN totally in charge.

But the hardcore faction of the Iraqi resistance has once again made clear
that it will not compromise. That's the message of the car-bombing on Monday
against the already badly damaged UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed
two and injured eight. Practically everybody in Baghdad heard the blast -
which is nothing but a metaphorical warning to both Bush and UN Secretary
General Kofi Annan, who insists on security guarantees for UN staff in the
event of a more substantial role in Iraq.

The car-bombing proves once again that the Americans cannot guarantee
anyone's security. A solution for the Iraqi situation might be around the
corner, this week in New York. But many in Baghdad see the future as nothing
but bleak, even in the unlikely event of Bush and the Pentagon seeing the

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