Baghdad Burning

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

Thursday, January 27, 2005
Water Anxiety...
I have to make this fast. We have about two hours of electricity- hopefully. The water came back yesterday evening. It's just a little drizzle but it's certainly better than nothing.

E. was the first to hear it. We were sitting in the living room and he suddenly jumped up, alert, "Do you hear that?" He asked. I strained my ears for either the sound of a plane or helicopter or gun shots. Nothing... except, wait... something... like a small stream of... water? Could it be? Was it back? We both ran into the bathroom where we had the faucets turned on for the last eight days in anticipation of water. Sure enough, there it was- a little stream of water that kept coming and going as if undecided. E. and I did a little victory dance in front of the sink with some celebratory hoots and clapping.

This was followed by a lot of work. We spent the rest of the evening filling anything that was fillable- pots, pans, cups, bottles and buckets. The formerly empty area under the staircase is now filled with big pots of water covered with trays and mismatching pot covers to keep out stray bugs and dust.

I almost didn't sleep last night. I kept worrying the water would be cut off again. I actually crept downstairs at 4 a.m. to see if it was still there and found E. standing in the bathroom doorway doing the same. My mother is calling the syndrome "water anxiety". We were hoping the flow would grow stronger at night but apparently the water pressure is really low. E. and I rose early this morning because we decided last night that should the water continue to flow, we'd attempt to fill up the big water tank on the roof. The water from this tank goes directly to the electric water heater but since we haven't been using that for a while now, we decided to close up the tank and use it as a sort of secondary storage. We cannot get caught off-guard again. Drinking water rose to almost 1,000 Dinars a liter this last week.

E. and I spent the day carrying up buckets of water. The water flow is so weak, it takes about 17 minutes to fill up a 10 liter plastic pail (I was timing it). We've carried up about 10 buckets until now. The water still doesn't reach the kitchen faucets so we've managed to move the dirty dishes to the bathroom and are washing them there.

Unfortunately, the electricity situation has deteriorated. We're getting about four hours for every twenty hours in our area- I'm not quite sure what's going on in the other areas. It feels like we're almost cut off from each other.

Baghdad has been unstable these last few days. We had several explosions this last week and although the number of explosions wasn't surprising, the force of a couple of them had us wincing. There's a real fear of the coming elections and what they might bring. I don't like the idea that they've selected schools as election sites. School is out right now, but the security threat is obvious- elections sites are most likely going to be bombed. Schools are having a difficult time as it is getting things fixed and replaced, they don't need the added trauma of an explosion. It's just a bad idea.

The curfew begins at six from now on and there's also a "driving curfew" in addition to the ordinary one. I don't have the exact hours but I know that during several hours of the day, it's ok to be on foot but not ok to be in a car. I don't have the slightest idea how they're going to enforce that one.

Ghazi Al Yawir, our alleged current president, was giving an interview on LBC yesterday. Apparently, he and Allawi aren't on the same election list anymore because they had a falling out as to who should head the list. Ghazi proposed the president should be the head of the list and Allawi claimed somebody Shia (Allawi himself) should head the list. Now, Allawi's group is 285 on the election ballot and Yawir's group is 288, I think.

My favorite question during the interview was when the reporter asked him what he thought of Chalabi possibly being arrested. Ghazi looked flustered and a little bit unsure (apparently he hasn't been watching CNN while abroad). He actually told her that the person who claimed Chalabi was wanted was probably speaking his own "personal" opinion and that it wasn't representative of the 'government'- never mind the person in question was the Minister of Defense. To be perfectly fair, he didn't mention which government he was referring to- I couldn't tell if he was talking about the US, the UK or the current group of Puppets. He claimed that for Chalabi to be arrested there needed to be 'proof' he had actually done something wrong... the Interpol wanting him really wasn't enough.

It's a bit discouraging to watch the current government so uncoordinated. It's like they don't even communicate with each other. It's also somewhat disturbing to know that they can't seem to decide who is a criminal and who isn't. Isn't there some "idiots guide to being a good Vichy government"?

They say communications are going to be cut off very soon. Telephones are often cut off and the mobile network is sometimes inaccessible for days at a time but we heard there also might not be web access. Students have a mid-year vacation right now but no one is going anywhere. Almost everyone is trapped at home because the security situation is quite bad and no one wants to be caught in an area where an explosion might occur. If the bomb doesn't kill you, the Iraqi security forces or the Americans might and if no one kills you then you risk getting a bag over the head and a trip to Abu Ghraib.

There's an almost palpable anxiety in the air these last couple of weeks and it's beginning to wear on people- fuel shortages, water shortages and a lack of electricity. It's like the first days of the war all over again.

Juan Cole has a "The Speech Bush SHOULD have Given" and it's quite good. In my opinion, during this year's inaugral Bush could have summed it up with the following: "Ha! I can't believe you people actually re-elected me! Unbelievable! Some people just loooove the abuse!!!"

Saturday, January 22, 2005
Bleak Eid...
It's the third day of Eid. Eid is the Islamic holiday and usually it’s a time for families to get together, eat, drink and celebrate. Not this Eid. This Eid is unbearable. We managed a feeble gathering on the first day and no one was in a celebratory mood. There have been several explosions- some far and some near but even those aren't as worrisome as the tension that seems to be growing on a daily basis.

There hasn’t been a drop of water in the faucets for six days. six days. Even at the beginning of the occupation, when the water would disappear in the summer, there was always a trickle that would come from one of the pipes in the garden. Now, even that is gone. We’ve been purchasing bottles of water (the price has gone up) to use for cooking and drinking. Forget about cleaning. It’s really frustrating because everyone cleans house during Eid. It’s like a part of the tradition. The days leading up to Eid are a frenzy of mops, brooms, dusting rags and disinfectant. The cleaning makes one feel like there's room for a fresh start. It's almost as if the house and its inhabitants are being reborn. Not this year. We’re managing just enough water to rinse dishes with. To bathe, we have to try to make-do with a few liters of water heated in pots on kerosene heaters.

Water is like peace- you never really know just how valuable it is until someone takes it away. It’s maddening to walk up to the sink, turn one of the faucets and hear the pipes groan with nothing. The toilets don’t function… the dishes sit piled up until two of us can manage to do them- one scrubbing and rinsing and the other pouring the water.

Why is this happening? Is it because of the electricity? If it is, we should at least be getting water a couple of hours a day- like before. Is it some sort of collective punishment leading up to the elections? It’s unbelievable. At first, I thought it was just our area but I’ve been asking around and apparently, almost all of the areas (if not all) are suffering this drought.

I’m sure people outside of the country are shaking their heads at the words ‘collective punishment’. “No, Riverbend,” they are saying, “That’s impossible.” But anything is possible these days. People in many areas are being told that if they don’t vote- Sunnis and Shia alike- the food and supply rations we are supposed to get monthly will be cut off. We’ve been getting these rations since the beginning of the nineties and for many families, it’s their main source of sustenance. What sort of democracy is it when you FORCE people to go vote for someone or another they don’t want?

Allawi’s people were passing out pamphlets a few days ago. I went out to the garden to check the low faucet, hoping to find a trickle of water and instead, I found some paper crushed under the garden gate. Upon studying it, it turned out to be some sort of “Elect Allawi” pamphlet promising security and prosperity, amongst other things, for occupied Iraq. I'd say it was a completely useless pamphlet but that isn't completely true. It fit nicely on the bottom of the cage of E.'s newly acquired pet parakeet.

They say the borders are closed with Jordan and possibly Syria. I also heard yesterday that people aren't being let into Baghdad. They have American check-points on the main roads leading into the city and they say that the cars are being turned back to wherever they came from. It's a bad situation and things are looking very bleak at this point.

It's amazing how as things get worse, you begin to require less and less. We have a saying for that in Iraq, "Ili yishoof il mawt, yirdha bil iskhooneh." Which means, "If you see death, you settle for a fever." We've given up on democracy, security and even electricity. Just bring back the water.

Saturday, January 15, 2005
Imad Khadduri's Blog...
Remember Imad Khadduri? He's the Iraqi nuclear scientist who wrote the book "Iraq's Nuclear Mirage" which is a must-read. He's finally blogging. Check out his site, "Free Iraq"- 'Free Iraq' being more of a command and not a description of the current state of the country...

He links a lot of interesting articles and always has commentary in English (plus some of the stuff he writes in Arabic).

The Phantom Weapons...
The phone hasn't been working for almost a week now. We just got the line back today. For the last six days, I'd pick up the phone and hear... silence. Nothing. This vast nothingness would be followed by a few futile 'hellos' and a forceful punching of some random numbers with my index finger. It isn't always like this, of course. On some days, you can pick up the telephone and hear a bunch of other people screaming "allooo? Allooo?" E. once struck up a conversation with a complete stranger over the phone because they were both waiting for a line. E. wanted to call our uncle and the woman was trying to call her grandson.

The dial-tone came about an hour ago (I've been checking since morning) and I'm taking advantage of it.

The electricity situation isn't very much better. We're getting two hours of electricity (almost continuous) and then eight hours of no electricity (continuous). We still can't get the generators going for very long because of the fuel shortage. Kerosene is really becoming a problem now. I guess we weren't taking it very seriously at first because, it really is probably the first time Iraq has seen a kerosene shortage and it is still difficult to believe. They say in 1991 when there was a gasoline shortage which lasted for the duration of the war and some time after, kerosene was always plentiful. This isn't the situation now. We're buying it for obscene prices and it's really only useful for the lamps and the heaters.

It feels like just about everyone who can is going to leave the country before the elections. They say the borders between Syria and Jordan might be closed a week before elections so people are rushing to get packed and get out. Many families are simply waiting for their school-age children to finish mid-year finals or college exams so they can leave.

This was an interesting piece of news a couple of days ago:

The United States has ended its physical search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, which was cited by the first administration of President George W Bush as the main reason for invading the country, the White House has said.

Why does this not surprise me? Does it surprise anyone? I always had the feeling that the only people who actually believed this war was about weapons of mass destruction were either paranoid Americans or deluded expatriate Iraqis- or a combination of both. I wonder now, after hundreds and hundreds of Americans actually died on Iraqi soil and over a hundred-thousand Iraqis are dead, how Americans view the current situation. I have another question- the article mentions a "Duelfer Report" stating the weapons never existed and all the intelligence was wrong. This report was supposedly published in October 2004. The question is this: was this report made public before the elections? Did Americans actually vote for Bush with this knowledge?

Over here, it's not really "news" in the sense that it's not new. We've been expecting a statement like this for the last two years. While we were aware the whole WMD farce was just a badly produced black comedy, it's still upsetting to hear Bush's declaration that he was wrong. It's upsetting because it just confirms the worst: right-wing Americans don't care about justifying this war. They don't care about right or wrong or innocents dead and more to die. They were somewhat ahead of the game. When they saw their idiotic president wasn't going to find weapons anywhere in Iraq, they decided it would be about mass graves. It wasn't long before the very people who came to 'liberate' a sovereign country soon began burying more Iraqis in mass graves. The smart weapons began to stupidly kill 'possibly innocent' civilians (they are only 'definitely innocent' if they are working with the current Iraqi security forces or American troops). It went once more from protecting poor Iraqis from themselves to protecting Americans from 'terrorists'. Zarqawi very conveniently entered the picture.

Zarqawi is so much better than WMD. He's small, compact and mobile. He can travel from Falloojeh to Baghdad to Najaf to Mosul… whichever province or city really needs to be oppressed. Also, conveniently, he looks like the typical Iraqi male- dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, medium build. I wonder how long it will take the average American to figure out that he's about as substantial as our previously alleged WMD.

Now we're being 'officially' told that the weapons never existed. After Iraq has been devastated, we're told it's a mistake. You look around Baghdad and it is heart-breaking. The streets are ravaged, the sky is a bizarre grayish-bluish color- a combination of smoke from fires and weapons and smog from cars and generators. There is an endless wall that seems to suddenly emerge in certain areas to protect the Green Zoners... There is common look to the people on the streets- under the masks of fear, anger and suspicion, there's also a haunting look of uncertainty and indecision. Where is the country going? How long will it take for things to even have some vague semblance of normality? When will we ever feel safe?

A question poses it self at this point- why don't they let the scientists go if the weapons don't exist? Why do they have Iraqi scientists like Huda Ammash, Rihab Taha and Amir Al Saadi still in prison? Perhaps they are waiting for those scientists to conveniently die in prison? That way- they won't be able to talk about the various torture techniques and interrogation tactics...

I hope Americans feel good about taking their war on terror to foreign soil. For bringing the terrorists to Iraq- Chalabi, Allawi, Zarqawi, the Hakeems… How is our current situation going to secure America? How is a complete generation that is growing up in fear and chaos going to view Americans ten years from now? Does anyone ask that? After September 11, because of what a few fanatics did, Americans decided to become infected with a collective case of xenophobia… Yet after all Iraqis have been through under the occupation, we're expected to be tolerant and grateful. Why? Because we get more wheat in our diets?

Terror isn't just worrying about a plane hitting a skyscraper…terrorism is being caught in traffic and hearing the crack of an AK-47 a few meters away because the National Guard want to let an American humvee or Iraqi official through. Terror is watching your house being raided and knowing that the silliest thing might get you dragged away to Abu Ghraib where soldiers can torture, beat and kill. Terror is that first moment after a series of machine-gun shots, when you lift your head frantically to make sure your loved ones are still in one piece. Terror is trying to pick the shards of glass resulting from a nearby explosion out of the living-room couch and trying not to imagine what would have happened if a person had been sitting there.

The weapons never existed. It's like having a loved one sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit- having your country burned and bombed beyond recognition, almost. Then, after two years of grieving for the lost people, and mourning the lost sovereignty, we're told we were innocent of harboring those weapons. We were never a threat to America...

Congratulations Bush- we are a threat now.

Sunday, January 02, 2005
New Year and Elections...
We spent New Year at home (like last year). It was a very small family gathering and E. and I tried to make it as festive as possible, under the circumstances. We agreed, amongst ourselves in the area, to have the generator turned on from 10 pm until 2 am so we could ride out 2004 on a wave of electricity.

The good part of the evening consisted of food. Food is such a central issue for an Iraqi occasion- be it happy or sad. We end up discussing the food before anything else. For us, it was just some traditional Iraqi food and some junk food like pop-corn, corn chips, and lots of candy.

We sat watching celebrations from different parts of the world. Seeing the fireworks, lights, droves of laughing and singing people really emphasizes our current situation. It feels like we are kind of standing still while the world is passing us by. It really is difficult to believe that come April, two years will have passed on the war and occupation. On most days, an hour feels like ten and yet, at the same time, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a good sense of passing time. I guess that is because we measure time with development and since things seem to be deteriorating in many ways, it feels almost as if we're going backwards, not forwards.

On the other hand, the whole tsunami/earthquake crisis also had a dampening affect on celebrations this year. It is a tragedy that will haunt the area for decades. To lose so many people so swiftly and violently is horrific. Watching all that chaos and death kind of makes you feel that maybe Baghdad isn't the absolute worse place to be.

We had our own fireworks as we began the New Year countdown. At around 10 minutes to 2005, the house shook with three colossal explosions not too far away. It came as something of a surprise at that particular moment and my cousin's two young daughters, after the initial fright, started giggling uncontrollably. E. clapped his hands and began to yell, "Yeah- FIREWORKS!! Goodbye 2004!!", which was followed by a sort of impromptu dance by the kids.

The elections are set for the 29th. It's an interesting situation. The different sects and factions just can't seem to agree. Sunni Arabs are going to boycott elections. It's not about religion or fatwas or any of that so much as the principle of holding elections while you are under occupation. People don't really sense that this is the first stepping stone to democracy as western media is implying. Many people sense that this is just the final act of a really bad play. It's the tying of the ribbon on the "democracy parcel" we've been handed. It's being stuck with an occupation government that has been labeled 'legitimate' through elections.

We're being bombarded with cute Iraqi commercials of happy Iraqi families preparing to vote. Signs and billboards remind us that the elections are getting closer...

Can you just imagine what our history books are going to look like 20 years from now?

"The first democratic elections were held in Iraq on January 29, 2005 under the ever-watchful collective eye of the occupation forces, headed by the United States of America. Troops in tanks watched as swarms of warm, fuzzy Iraqis headed for the ballot boxes to select one of the American-approved candidates..."

It won't look good.

There are several problems. The first is the fact that, technically, we don't know the candidates. We know the principal heads of the lists but we don't know who exactly will be running. It really is confusing. They aren't making the lists public because they are afraid the candidates will be assassinated.

Another problem is the selling of ballots. We're getting our ballots through the people who give out the food rations in the varying areas. The whole family is registered with this person(s) and the ages of the varying family members are known. Many, many, many people are not going to vote. Some of those people are selling their voting cards for up to $400. The word on the street is that these ballots are being bought by people coming in from Iran. They will purchase the ballots, make false IDs (which is ridiculously easy these days) and vote for SCIRI or Daawa candidates. Sunnis are receiving their ballots although they don't intend to vote, just so that they won't be sold.

Yet another issue is the fact that on all the voting cards, the gender of the voter, regardless of sex, is labeled "male". Now, call me insane, but I found this slightly disturbing. Why was that done? Was it some sort of a mistake? Why is the sex on the card anyway? What difference does it make? There are some theories about this. Some are saying that many of the more religiously inclined families won't want their womenfolk voting so it might be permissible for the head of the family to take the women's ID and her ballot and do the voting for her. Another theory is that this 'mistake' will make things easier for people making fake IDs to vote in place of females.

All of this has given the coming elections a sort of sinister cloak. There is too much mystery involved and too little transparency. It is more than a little bit worrisome.

American politicians seem to be very confident that Iraq is going to come out of these elections with a secular government. How is that going to happen when many Shia Iraqis are being driven to vote with various fatwas from Sistani and gang? Sistani and some others of Iranian inclination came out with fatwas claiming that non-voters will burn in the hottest fires of the underworld for an eternity if they don't vote (I'm wondering- was this a fatwa borrowed from right-wing Bushies during the American elections?). So someone fuelled with a scorching fatwa like that one- how will they vote? Secular? Yeah, right.

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