Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Monday, October 25, 2004
American Elections 2004...
Warning- the following post is an open letter of sorts to Americans.

So elections are being held in America. We’re watching curiously here. Previously, Iraqis didn’t really take a very active interest in elections. We knew when they were being held and quite a few Iraqis could give an opinion about either of the candidates. I think many of us realized long ago that American foreign policy really had nothing to do with this Democrat or that Republican.

It sometimes seems, from this part of the world, that democracy in America revolves around the presidential elections- not the major decisions. War and peace in America are in the average American’s hands about as much as they are in mine. Sure, you can vote for this man or that one, but in the end, there’s something bigger, more intricate and quite sinister behind the decisions. Like in that board game Monopoly, you can choose the game pieces- the little shoe, the car, the top hat… but you can’t choose the way the game is played. The faces change but the intentions and the policy remain the same.

Many, many people have asked me about the elections and what we think of them. Before, I would have said that I really don’t think much about it. Up until four years ago, I always thought the American elections were a pretty straightforward process: two white males up for the same position (face it people- it really is only two- Nader doesn’t count), people voting and the person with more votes wins. After the debacle of four years ago, where Bush Jr. was *assigned* president, things are looking more complicated and a little bit more sordid.

I wouldn’t normally involve myself in debates or arguments about who should be American president. All I know is that four years ago, we prayed it wouldn’t be Bush. It was like people could foresee the calamity we’re living now and he embodied it. (Then, there’s that little issue of his being completely ridiculous…)

So now there are three different candidates- Bush, Kerry and Nader. We can safely take Nader out of the equation because, let’s face it, he won’t win. We have a saying in Iraq, “Lo tetla’a nakhla ib rasseh” (if a palm tree grows out of his head) he won’t win. The real contest is between Bush and Kerry. Nader is a distraction that is only taking votes away from Kerry.

Who am I hoping will win? Definitely Kerry. There’s no question about it. I want Bush out of the White House at all costs. (And yes- who is *in* the White House *is* my business- Americans, you made it my business when you occupied my country last year) I’m too realistic to expect drastic change or anything phenomenal, but I don’t want Bush reelected because his reelection (or shall I call it his ‘reassignment’) will condone the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. It will say that this catastrophe in Iraq was worth its price in American and Iraqi lives. His reassignment to the White House will sanction all the bloodshed and terror we’ve been living for the last year and a half.

I’ve heard all the arguments. His supporters are a lot like him- they’ll admit no mistakes. They’ll admit no deceit, no idiocy, no manipulation, no squandering. It’s useless. Republicans who *don’t* support him, but feel obliged to vote for him, write long, apologetic emails that are meant, I assume, to salve their own conscience. They write telling me that he should be ‘reelected’ because he is the only man for the job at this point. True, he made some mistakes and he told a few fibs, they tell me- but he really means well and he intends to fix things and, above all, he has a plan.

Let me assure you Americans- he has NO PLAN. There is no plan for the mess we’re living in- unless he is cunningly using the Chaos Theory as a basis for his Iraq plan. Things in Iraq are a mess and there is the sense that the people in Washington don’t know what they’re doing, and their puppets in Iraq know even less. The name of the game now in Iraq is naked aggression- it hasn’t been about hearts and minds since complete areas began to revolt. His Iraq plan may be summarized with the Iraqi colloquial saying, “A’athreh ib dafra”, which can be roughly translated to ‘a stumble and a kick’. In other words, what will happen, will happen and hopefully- with a stumble and a kick- things will move in the right direction.

So is Kerry going to be much better? I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s going to fix things or if he’s going to pull out the troops, or bring more in. I have my doubts about how he will handle the current catastrophe in Iraq. I do know this: nothing can be worse than Bush. No one can be worse than Bush. It will hardly be fair to any president after Bush in any case- it's like assigning a new captain to a drowning ship. All I know is that Bush made the hole and let the water in, I want him thrown overboard.

Someone once wrote to me, after a blog barrage against Bush, that I should tone down my insults against the president because I would lose readers who actually supported him. I lost those readers the moment I spoke out against the war and occupation because that is what Bush is all about. He’s not about securing America or Iraq or ‘the region’- he’s about covering up just how inadequate he is as a person and as a leader with war, nonexistent WMD, fabled terrorists and bogeymen.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Americans, the name of your country which once stood for ‘freedom and justice’ is tarnished worldwide. Your latest president has proved that the great American image of democracy is just that- an image. You can protest, you can demonstrate, you can vote- but it ends there. The reigns were out of your hands the moment Bush stepped into the White House. You were deceived repetitively and duped into two wars. Your sons and daughters are dying, and killing, in foreign lands. Your embassies are in danger all over the world. ‘America’ has become synonymous with ‘empire’, ‘hegemony’, and ‘warfare’. And why? All because you needed to be diverted away from the fact that your current president is a failure.

Some people associate the decision to go to war as a ‘strength’. How strong do you need to be to commit thousands of your countrymen and women to death on foreign soil? Especially while you and your loved ones sit safely watching at home. How strong do you need to be to give orders to bomb cities to rubble and use the most advanced military technology available against a country with a weak army and crumbling infrastructure? You don’t need to be strong- you need to be mad.

Americans- can things be worse for you? Can things be worse for us in Iraq? Of course they can… only imagine- four more years of Bush.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Apparently, some topic that came up during a recent Oprah show has caught a lot of attention. Before I continue, let me first say- yes- we do know who Oprah is. MBC Channel 2 has been showing Oprah for the last few months- but the shows are a few weeks old. It's a popular show in Iraq because Iraqis find it amusing to watch some of the more absurd problems being discussed on the show- like how to find a good plastic surgeon, or what to purchase on a shopping spree on Fifth Avenue, etc. I'm not a huge fan of Oprah, but I used to watch the show when there was an intersting topic being discussed. I more or less stopped watching after she brought on Condi Rice and tried to make a compassionate hero out of her- that was disgusting, to be quite frank.

Anyway, I got an email from 'Will' (and I answered it Will, but it bounced right back at me). Will was asking me whether it was true or not that people in Iraq were becoming addicted to valium and whether valium was easily available over the counter.

Valium has always been available over the counter. Iraq is one of those countries where you can get almost any medication 'over the counter'. It actually depends on the pharmacy, but generally speaking, everything from sedatives to antibiotics are sold over the counter. Medication is also really cheap here. I mean *really* cheap. We had, prior to the blockade, one of the best pharmaceutical companies in the region- "Samarra Drugs" which made everything from amoxicillin to flu medicine.

Will asked if valium had become addictive after the war. Of course it has. Valium is a staple during wars. I remember when we were preparing for the war, we would make list after list of 'necessities'. One list was for pharmaceutical necessities. It included such basics as cotton, band-aids, alcohol, gauze and an ordinary painkiller. It also included medicines such as ampicloxine, codeine and valium. No one in the family takes valium, but it was one of those 'just in case' medications- the kind you buy and hope you never have to use.

We had to use it during the first week of April, as the tanks started rolling into Baghdad. We had an older aunt staying at our house (she had been evacuated from her area) and along with my cousin, his wife, his two daughters, and an uncle, the house was crowded and- at bizarre moments- almost festive.

The bombing had gotten very heavy and our eating, and sleeping schedules were thrown off balance. Everything seemed to revolve around the attack on Baghdad- we'd hastily cook and eat during the lulls in bombing and we'd get snatches of sleep in between the 'shock and awe'. There were a few nights where we didn't sleep at all- we'd just stay up and sit around, staring at each other in the dark, listening to the explosions and feeling the earth tremble beneath.

So imagine this. It's a chilly night in Baghdad and the black of the sky suddenly lights up with flashes of white- as if the stars were exploding in the distance. The bombing was so heavy, we could hear the windows rattling, the ground shaking and the whiz of missiles ominously close. We were all gathered in the windowless hallway- adults and children. My cousin's daughters were wrapped in blankets and they sat huddled up close to their mother. They were so silent, they might have been asleep- but I knew they weren't because I could vaguely see the whites of their eyes, open wide, across the lamp-lit hallway.

Now, during the more lively hours of a shock and awe bombing storm, there's no way you can have a normal conversation. You might be able to blurt out a few hasty sentences, but eventually, there's bound to be an explosion that makes you stop, duck your head and wonder how the house didn't fall down around you.

Throughout this, we sit around, mumbling silent prayers, reviewing our lives and making vague promises about what we'd do if we got out of this one alive. Sometimes, one of us would turn to the kids and crack some lame joke or ask how they were doing. Often, the answer would be in the form of a wane smile or silence.

So where does the valium fit in? Imagine through all of this commotion, an elderly aunt who is terrified of bombing. She was so afraid, she couldn't, and wouldn't, sit still. She stood pacing the hallway, cursing Bush, Blair and anyone involved with the war- and that was during her calmer moments. When she was feeling especially terrified, the curses and rampage would turn into a storm of weeping and desolation (during which she imagines she can't breathe)- we were all going to die. They would have to remove us from the rubble of our home. We'd burn alive. And so on. And so forth.

During those fits of hysteria, my cousin would quietly, but firmly, hand her a valium and a glass of water. The aunt would accept both and in a matter of minutes, she'd grow calmer and a little bit more sane. This aunt wasn't addicted to valium, but it certainly came in handy during the more hectic moments of the war.

I guess it's happening a lot now after the war too. When the load gets too heavy, people turn to something to comfort them. Abroad, under normal circumstances, if you have a burden- you don't have to bear it alone. You can talk to a friend or relative or psychiatrist or SOMEONE. Here, everyone has their own set of problems- a death in the family, a detainee, a robbery, a kidnapping, an explosion, etc. So you have two choices- take a valium, or start a blog.

The other 'drug' problem we're having is much more serious. Before the war and occupation, drugs (you know- cocaine, marijuana, etc.) weren't that big a problem in Iraq. Sure, we all heard of a certain person or certain area where you could get hashish or marijuana or something… but it wasn't that common. A big reason was because selling drugs was punishable by death. Now, you can find drugs in several areas in Baghdad and all sorts of pills have become quite common in the south. People living in Basrah and Najaf and other areas in the south complain that Iranians are smuggling them into the country and selling them. Iran has a large drug trade and now, we're getting some of their exports in Iraq.

There are certain areas in Baghdad that are well-known for their criminals and various crimes, ranging from rape to kidnapping to killing. Often the culprits are junkies who do what they do because they're high on something or another, or because they need the money.

One friend of E.'s was actually detained on one occasion by some Iraqi police because he had forgotten his car's registration papers. He was hauled off to the station along with his cousin and they were both locked up in a crowded cell. Half an hour into the detention, a police officer came along with some sort of pill and offered it to the prisoners for 250 Iraqi dinars a piece.

During my more thoughtful moments, I do think about the growing drug problem. I know that it is going to get bigger and there's nothing immediate that we can do to stop it. There seem to be such bigger problems out there, that drugs seem to be the least of our worries. Schools have started again and parents worry that their kids will be abducted or blown to pieces. I think our growing drug problem hasn't gotten that much attention with the media because, while it's going to wreak havoc in the long run, drugs don't suddenly blow off an arm or a leg, and they don't explode inside of your car and they don’t come falling out of a plane to burn homes and families… in other words, people don't perceive them as a very immediate threat.

It's like discovering you have cancer while you're fighting off a hungry alligator- you'll worry about the disease later.

Sunday, October 03, 2004
Samarra Burning...
The last few days have been tense and stressful. Watching the military attacks on Samarra and hearing the stories from displaced families or people from around the area is like reliving the frustration and anger of the war. It's like a nightmare within a nightmare, seeing the corpses pile up and watching people drag their loved ones from under the bricks and steel of what was once a home.

To top it off, we have to watch American military spokespersons and our new Iraqi politicians justify the attacks and talk about 'insurgents' and 'terrorists' like they actually believe what they are saying... like hundreds of civilians aren't being massacred on a daily basis by the worlds most advanced military technology.

As if Allawi's gloating and Bush's inane debates aren't enough, we have to listen to people like Powell and Rumsfeld talk about "precision attacks". What exactly are precision attacks?! How can you be precise in a city like Samarra or in the slums of Sadir City on the outskirts of Baghdad? Many of the areas under attack are small, heavily populated, with shabby homes several decades old. In Sadir City, many of the houses are close together and the streets are narrow. Just how precise can you be with missiles and tanks? We got a first-hand view of America's "smart weapons". They were smart enough to kill over 10,000 Iraqis in the first few months of the occupation.

The explosions in Baghdad aren't any better. A few days ago, some 40 children were blown to pieces while they were gathering candy from American soldiers at the opening of a sewage treatment plant. (Side note: That's how bad things have gotten- we have to celebrate the reconstruction of our sewage treatment plants). I don't know who to be more angry with- the idiots and PR people who thought it would be a good idea to have children running around during a celebration involving troops or the parents for letting their children attend. I the people who arranged the explosions burn within the far-reaches of hell.

One wonders who is behind the explosions and the car bombs. Bin Laden? Zarqawi? Possibly... but it's just too easy. It's too perfect. Bin Laden hit the WTC and Afghanistan was attacked. Iraq was occupied. At first, any explosion or attack on troops was quickly blamed on "loyalists" and "Baathists" and EVERYTHING was being coordinated by Saddam. As soon as he was caught, it became the work of "Islamic extremists" and Al-Qaida and Zarqawi suddenly made his debut. One wonders who it will be after it is discovered that Zarqawi has been dead for several months or that he never even existed. Whoever it is, you can bet his name will three syllables or less because that is Bush's limit.

A week ago, four men were caught by Iraqi security in the area of A'adhamiya in Baghdad. No one covered this on television or on the internet, as far as I know- we heard it from a friend involved in the whole thing. The four men were caught trying to set up some explosives in a residential area by some of the residents themselves. One of the four men got away, one of them was killed on the spot and two were detained and interrogated. They turned out to be a part of Badir's Brigade (Faylaq Badir), the militia belonging to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Should the culprits never have been caught, and should the explosives have gone off, would Zarqawi have been blamed? Of course.

I'm very relieved the Italian hostages have been set free... and I hope the other innocent people are also freed. Thousands of Iraqis are being abducted and some are killed, while others are returned... but it is distressing to see so many foreigners being abducted. It's like having a guest attacked in your own home by the neighbor's pit bull- you feel a sense of responsibility even though you know there was no way you could have prevented it.

I wasn't very sympathetic though, when that Islamic group came down from London to negotiate releasing Kenneth Bigley. I do hope he is returned alive, but where are all these Islamic groups while Falluja, Samarra, Sadir City and other places are being bombed? Why are they so concerned with a single British citizen when hundreds of Iraqis are dying by the month? Why is it 'terrorism' when foreigners set off bombs in London or Washington or New York and it's a 'liberation' or 'operation' when foreigners bomb whole cities in Iraq? Are we that much less important?

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