Baghdad Burning

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

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Elections have been all we hear about for the last ten days at least.

The posters are everywhere in Baghdad. There are dozens of parties running for elections, but there are about four or five ‘lists’ which stand out from the rest:

- National Iraqi (731): Ayad Allawi’s list, which now includes some other prominent puppets including Adnan Al-Pachachi, Ghazi Al-Yawir, Safiya Al-Suhail, etc. Ayad Allawi is a secular Shia, CIA-affiliated, ex-Ba’athist.
- Unified Iraqi Coalition List (555): Hakim, Ja’affari and various other pro-Iran fundamentalists, in addition to Sadrists.
- Kurdistani Gathering (730): Barazani, Talbani and a few other parties.
- Iraqi Front for National Dialogue (667): Mainly Sunni, secular list – includes the Iraqi Christian Democratic Party and is headed by Salih Al-Mutlag.
- Iraqi Alliance Front (618): Mainly Sunni Islamic parties.

We’ve been flooded with election propaganda this last week. Every Iraqi channel you turn to is showing one candidate or another. Allawi, Hakim and a handful of others dominate the rest though. No one is bothering much with the other lists because quite frankly, no one hears of them that often. Allawi’s face is everywhere, as is Hakim’s turbaned head. It’s disconcerting to scan a seemingly innocent wall and have a row of identical Hakims smiling tightly down on you.

The last press conference I watched of Hakim was a few days ago. He was warning his followers of electoral fraud, which is slightly ironic considering his group has been accused of all sorts of fraud this last year. The audience was what caught my interest. The women were sitting on one side of the audience and the men were sitting on the other side, the sexes separated by a narrow aisle. The women all wore black abbayas and headscarves. It could have been a scene out of Teheran.

Some of Allawi’s campaign posters show himself and Safiya Al-Suhail. I can only guess Safiya being used in his campaign posters is meant as a gesture to Iraqi women who have felt more oppressed this year than ever. The problem is that if there’s one woman Iraqi females can’t relate to- it’s Safiya Suhail. She’s the daughter of some tribal leader who was assassinated abroad in the eighties or seventies- I’m not sure. She was raised in Lebanon and when she’s on TV she comes across as arrogant, huffy and awkward with her Iraqi accent tainted with the Lebanese dialect.

It’s a poster war. One day, you see the posters of Allawi, featuring Safiya Suhail, the next day, Allawi’s big face is covered with pictures of Hakim and Sistani. Allawi’s supporters have been complaining that Hakim’s supporters were sabotaging campaign posters.

Even SMS messages are all about voting lately. (Several rather vulgar jokes about list 555- I can't go into it on the blog, but Iraqis know what I'm talking about).

Secular nationalists are leaning towards Salih Al-Mutlag (of list 667) who is seen as less of a puppet than the rest. After all, he is the only heading one of the more popular electoral lists who wasn’t blessed by the American army and Bremer when Iraq was invaded in 2003. He supports armed resistance (but not terrorism) and he has a group of prominent anti-occupation nationalists backing him. There's talk that after elections, his list will support Allawi to strengthen the secular movement.

The incident of the day yesterday was news of a tanker or truck that had been caught in the town of Wassit full of fake voting ballots from Iran. There is also news that voting centers haven’t been properly equipped in several Sunni provinces. There was a skirmish between Iraqi National Guard and the electoral committee to preside over elections in Salah Al-Din.

More people are going to elect this time around- not because Iraqis suddenly believe in American-imposed democracy under occupation, but because the situation this last year has been intolerable. Hakim and Ja’affari and their minions have managed to botch things up so badly, Allawi is actually looking acceptable in the eyes of many. I still can't stand him.

Allawi is still an American puppet. His campaign posters, and the horrors of the last year, haven’t changed that. People haven’t forgotten his culpability in the whole Fallujah debacle. For some Iraqis, however, he’s preferable to Hakim and Ja’affari after a year of detentions, abductions, assassinations and secret torture prisons.

There’s a saying in Iraq which people are using right and left lately, and that I've used before in the blog, “Ili ishuf il mout, yirdha bil iskhuna.” He who sees death, is content with a fever. Allawi et al. seem to be the fever these days…

Monday, December 05, 2005
Mother of All Trials...
I didn't get to see the beginning of the trial today. We were gathered in the kitchen after a brief rodent scare, trying to determine where the mouse had come from when I was attracted by the sound of yelling coming from the living room.

The cousin was standing in front of the television adjusting the volume and there was a lot of bellowing coming from the court. That was nearly the beginning- the defense lawyers were pulling out of the trial because apparently, Ramsey Clark wasn't allowed to speak in English- something to do with the sovereignty of the court or trial and the impropriety of speaking in a foreign language (slightly ironic considering the whole country is under foreign occupation). The lawyers were back later- although I didn't see that either.

I really began watching when they brought on the first witness, who was also the first plaintiff. He talked about the whole Dujail situation and his account was emotional and detailed. The details were intriguing considering he was only 15 years old at the time. The problem with his whole account is that so much of it is hearsay. He heard from someone that something happened to someone else, etc. Now, I'm not a lawyer but I'm a fan of The Practice and if watching Dylan McDermott has taught me anything, it's that hearsay is not acceptable evidence.

The second witness was more to the point but he was 10 when everything happened and that didn't help his case. In the end, when the judge asked him who he was making a complaint against, he said he wasn't making a complaint against anyone. Then he changed his mind and said he was complaining against one of the accused… Then he added his complaint was against anyone convicted of the crime... And finally it was a complaint against "All Ba'athists at the time".

Couldn't they find more credible witnesses? They were fifteen and ten at the time... it just doesn't make sense.

At one point, the defense lawyers wanted to leave the trial yet again because apparently some security guard or police officer was threatening them from afar- making threatening gestures, etc. The judge requested that he be pulled out of the court (the security person), but not before hell broke loose in the court. Saddam began yelling something, the defense lawyers were making accusations and Barazan got up and began shouting at the person we couldn't see.

The court was a mess. There was a lot of yelling, screaming, sermonising, ranting, accusing, etc. I felt bad for the judge. He really seemed to be trying hard to control the situation, but everyone kept interrupting him, and giving him orders. He's polite and patient, he'd make a good divorce judge- but I don't think he's strong enough for the court. He just doesn't have the power to keep the court in its place.

It wasn't really like a trial. It reminded me of what we call a 'fassil' which is what tribal sheikhs arrange when two tribes are out of sorts with one another. The heads of the tribes are brought together along with the principal family members involved in the rift and after some yelling, accusations, and angry words they try to sort things out. That's what it felt like today. They kept interrupting each other and there was even some spitting at one point… It was both frustrating and embarrassing- and very unprofessional.

One thing that struck me about what the witnesses were saying- after the assassination attempt in Dujail, so much of what later unfolded is exactly what is happening now in parts of Iraq. They talked about how a complete orchard was demolished because the Mukhabarat thought people were hiding there and because they thought someone had tried to shoot Saddam from that area. That was like last year when the Americans razed orchards in Diyala because they believed insurgents were hiding there. Then they talked about the mass detentions- men, women and children- and its almost as if they are describing present-day Ramadi or Falloojah. The descriptions of cramped detention spaces, and torture are almost exactly the testimonies of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, etc.

It makes one wonder when Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the rest will have their day, as the accused, in court.

Thursday, December 01, 2005
Baghdad Burning Links...
Earlier this year, Baghdad Burning the blog was turned into "Baghdad Burning" - the book. Feminist Press published the whole first year of blogs in book form and it was a huge honor. The book is available at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The British version was published by Marion Boyars Publishers .

As if having the blog published as a book wasn't enough- the book itself won the third prize of the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in October... An amazing honor.

Also- Baghdad Burning in Japanese... and Baghdad Burning in Spanish. Many, many thanks to the people taking so much time to translate the blog!

No Voice...

I’ve lost my voice. That’s not a metaphor for anything, by the way. I’ve managed to literally lose my voice. It’s a bug that has been going around with the change of weather. It began three days ago- my voice was hoarse and I kept having to clear my throat. The next day it had completely disappeared! I didn’t know it was gone until I had wandered downstairs and attempted a “Good morning,” which came out sounding like something from a psychological thriller.

Four things you should know about illnesses in Iraq. When you describe your malady to any Iraqi, there are some general guidelines you can take for granted:-

  1. Short of cancer and terminal illness, any Iraqi has had your malady before you,
  2. Even in cases of cancer or other serious conditions- SOMEONE the abovementioned Iraqi knows *almost* personally has had the condition before you (the neighbor’s sister’s cousin’s nephew)…
  3. Every Iraqi you talk to knows the cure for whatever you’re suffering from, and
  4. Refusing to attempt abovementioned cure is both a personal insult to the well-intentioned curer and further affirmation of your foolhardiness which got you sick in the first place.

I’ve been no exception- everyone has had a cure for me to try.

My mother attempted various soup recipes. My father suggested gargling with a mixture of salt and water (which had me gagging). The cousin swore he cured his own voiceless state last week with a tablespoonful of olive oil three times daily and supervised my dosage (which made the salt and water mixture actually seem quite good). Umm Ala’a, from three houses down, claimed that my voice wouldn’t return unless my whole neck was wrapped snugly in a wool scarf. Finally, the aunt concocted an interesting mixture of baybun (chamomile, which all Iraqis swear by), crushed dry mint leaves and lemon. This was all boiled together, strained and I was ordered to “INHALE” the steam rising from the greenish-yellow liquid and then drink the horrid stuff.

The only person who didn’t have a cure for me was E. “Why would I want you to get your voice back?!” He asked incredulously.

So I’ve spent the last two days communicating with nods, elaborate hand gestures and hoarse whispers. It’s interesting how friends and family react when they realise I’m voiceless- they either lower their own voices to just above a whisper, or they begin to speak unnaturally loud like I might have lost my hearing also.

And that’s why blogging is a wonderful thing right now- it gives a voice to the temporarily voiceless.

I didn’t get to see the Saddam trial- our electricity was out and the neighborhood generator was down. All I’ve been seeing these last two days are bits and pieces of it on various channels (they keep repeating the part where he scolds the judge).

The electricity schedule in what appears to be most areas in Baghdad is currently FIVE hours of no electricity for every one hour of electricity. It’s very frustrating considering the fact that it’s not really cool enough yet for excess electrical heater use- where is it all going? If the electrical situation is this bad now, what happens later when the populace starts needing more electricity?

I intend to spend the rest of the night reading about Bush’s ‘strategy’ for Iraq. I haven’t seen it yet, but I expect it’ll be a repetition of the nonsense he’s been spewing for two and a half years now. Don’t Americans get tired of hearing the same thing?

It’s unbelievable that he’s refused to set a timetable for withdrawal (is he having another "Bring it on..." moment?). It’s almost as if someone is paying him to intentionally sabotage American foreign policy. With every speech he seems to sink himself deeper into the mire. A timetable for complete withdrawal of American forces would be a positive step- it would give Iraqis hope that, eventually, sovereignty will return to Iraq.

As it is, people fear the Americans will be here for the next twenty years- unless they are bombed and attacked out of the country. Although many Iraqis support armed resistance in theory, I think that the average Iraqi simply wants to see them go back home in one piece- we feel sorry for them and especially sorry for their families at times. There are moments when you forget the personal affronts- the raids, the checkpoints, the fear of bombing, the detentions, etc. and you can see through it all to the actual person behind the weapons and body armor... On the other hand, you never forget that it's a foreign occupation and will meet with resistance like all foreign occupations.

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice can all swear that American troops will not pull out of the country no matter how many casualties they sustain, but history has proven otherwise…

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