27 Jun 2014

Fear and loathing in Baghdad

Things I love about Baghdad: seeing old friends from before the war, catching a glimpse of the turquoise-tiled egg-shaped dome of my favourite mosque, realising that the Palestine Hotel now has a permanent sign on top saying “Merry Christmas Happy New Year”.

Things I don’t love about Baghdad: sitting in the choking traffic, dealing with bureaucracy in the Ministry of Communications (commonly known as the Ministry of Complications), and sensing the fear that pervades this city.

Nostalgia is a suspect emotion – I don’t really wish to be back in March 2003, on our balcony in the Palestine, filming the “shock and awe” bombing of government buildings just across the Tigris. And yet that was a time of hope in Baghdad. The Iraqis I knew were desperate for change, an escape from the stultifying terror of life under Saddam Hussein.

A lot of water has flowed under the Jamhuriya Bridge since then. Some friends – Mohammed Fatnan, Margaret Hassan, Gailan Ramiz – were killed in the violence that followed the US invasion. Others fled to Syria for a while, but returned a few years back, hopeful that at last there might be some stability, hope of a life.

Iraq’s democracy consists of power-hungry men dividing the spoils between them, from ministerial positions to lucrative business contracts. But the sectarian war that forced Shia and Sunni to erect concrete blast walls between their neighbourhoods had ebbed away, and when the last US soldier left Iraq at the end of 2011 there was some hope if not for peace, at least for an absence of war.

Once again, Iraqis’ hopes have been dashed. Eager to monopolise power, paranoid that the Sunnis would never be loyal, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki alienated those who would have tolerated his rule. They rose against him and many joined up with Isis, the extremist Sunnis fighting over the border in Syria. That’s why the rebels have been able to seize and hold so much territory – not because Iraqi Sunnis love Isis, but because they hate the government.

In Iraq whoever holds power wields violence in silence – people disappear, they’re tortured in secret prisons, their bodies turn up with a bullet in the head in a ditch. Saddam did it and the Shia-dominated government did it during the sectarian war of 2006/7. The aim is to intimidate and instil fear so no-one dares challenge the power of the state. Those who oppose the regime resort to terrorism – suicide bombs, car bombs, maybe a shooting spree. It’s a noisy way of showing that the state is not in complete control.

Isis are not marching on Baghdad – they know they would be repelled by Shia volunteer fighters. The Iraqi capital is an increasingly Shia city. So yesterday saw a suicide bomb near the Shia shrine of Khadimiya. At least 12 people were killed. It was, I assume, a message from the jihadis that they might not be able to take Baghdad as they have taken Tikrit and Mosul but they’re here, ready to sow chaos and terror.

Yesterday the bodies of 12 Sunni men turned in a ditch south of Baghdad, each with a bullet hole in the head. Who did it? A Shia militia? Some rogue element in the security forces?  We will never know. But again the message is clear: Sunnis in Baghdad will be punished for the actions of Sunnis further north who are fighting the government.

Outside a Sunni mosque in central Baghdad after Friday prayers today I met an old woman, dressed tip to toe in traditional black.

“I’m afraid for my sons, but before that I’m afraid for my country,” she said. “Iraq was destroyed by invaders. This land contains the graves of many prophets. All Iraqi families are suffering because of this situation now.”

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