February 14, 2020
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Karradi Tales

The new slogans on the city's streets: no Saddam, no America

Karradi Tales
Karradi Tales
I’m in a barber shop in Baghdad’s Karradi district, a relatively affluent area located on the eastern side of the Tigris. I throw up my arms in exasperation at the cacophony of voices that underline the implausibility of conducting a one-to-one interview. They are quite beyond my control, each insistent on expressing his opinion. I decide to let the conversation flow.

"This, all of this, is the fault of Saddam Hussein, no other," says the well-groomed man efficiently snipping at a younger man’s hair. Under his hands, the man getting his haircut counters, "This is what the Americans wanted. The Americans aren’t going anywhere. They’re staying right here and they’re taking over our oil."

"We were led down the wrong path by Saddam," quips a gentleman waiting in the queue. "We were afraid of him before but we’re not anymore. We paid a heavy price and it’s all his fault." And then a new voice rises to add, "The Arabs have become weak. They will be taken over completely. Iraq is just the first step."

On the battered streets and in the lightless homes of Baghdad, people are savouring their freedom, expressing opinions in a way inconceivable under Saddam’s repressive regime. All conversations in Baghdad, as its citizens ponder over their country’s path to recovery from the US-led attack, invariably turn to the question: who’s to blame for the war?

There’s a lot to account for. Many Iraqis are convinced Saddam is partly to blame. A trigger-happy America is also clearly culpable. Saddam refused to comply with the demands to disarm or disappear, and the US stonewalled diplomatic efforts to resolve the impasse. Amidst the apportioning of blame, and extremely bitter about the devastation the war has wreaked on them, many Iraqis do reluctantly admit that their travails were worth it. "The horror we have seen in the last few weeks is no worse than what Saddam put us through before that," says a former teacher at the barber’s. "The UN sanctions were imposed because of his invasion of Kuwait. He has killed more of his own people than this whole war has."

But these are decidedly still early days. As the blame game gathers momentum, bringing into its sweep daily developments, many Iraqis have begun to fault the Americans for the method they adopted to depose Saddam. Couldn’t it have been achieved differently, without the loss of lives, without the mayhem in the aftermath of the war? "We always hated him," says one man who’s quietly sipping tea at the barber shop, watching the young hired hand sweep scattered locks of hair on the floor. "But this isn’t the way to solve the problem."

The debate in the barber shop takes another turn as soon as they begin to discuss the wounds of Baghdad, inflicted after the entry of US Marines. Facts are carefully weighed and notes compared. It’s true thousands of people—mainly from the ironically-named Saddam City, a predominately Shiite and anti-Saddam area of town—burnt and looted Baghdad at the first sign that the Baath regime had crumbled. Oppressed for decades, and living in abysmal poverty, their ransacking of mainly government warehouses and buildings are partially ascribed to their desire for vengeance.

But vengeance wasn’t the only motive. For, they point out, there appears to have been a deliberate targeting of important sites, such as the Iraqi National Museum or the libraries. And there are credible reasons to believe them. For one, the museum housing priceless Mesopotamian pieces was protected by a virtually impenetrable metal door. When I visited the museum, the staff pointed to the metal door that had remained intact, suggesting someone had used a key to gain entry into the vaults. It was an inside job.

There have also been reports of masked men carrying canisters of gas with a hose, moving from building to building to set them on fire. Many are convinced these people were paid to leave the city, now in the hands of the Americans, in flames and dust. Who, you’d ask, and the guessing game immediately begins. Some claim Saddam paid the anarchists (wouldn’t it have been easier for them to pocket the money and do nothing?). Many blame Israel, or what’s called the Jewish lobby, convinced it’s all part of a wider conspiracy to erase Arab culture and heritage.

Others, however, fault the Americans. At the Central Library in Baghdad, the damage to the thousands of one-of-a-kind manuscripts and books was heartbreaking. Haytham Aziz, a library science teacher, was there assessing the damage the time we dropped in. "The new Mongols—the Americans—did that," he insisted.

Much of Baghdad’s woes are being blamed on the Americans. The lack of water and electricity, for instance. It’s still not clear who turned out the lights on the night the Americans hit Baghdad’s outskirts. A fortnight later, though, the Iraqis hold the Americans responsible for the persistent darkness.

At Hotel Palestine on the eastern bank of the Tigris, where the US troops now are the most concentrated, a gradually growing group of protesters has been showing up daily to tell the Americans exactly how it feels. With banners and loud voices, they stand in Firdous Circle, just a few metres away from where a Saddam statue was famously brought down. They have a variety of complaints—some don’t want the Americans here at all—but electricity is high on everyone’s list. "The Americans are here with all their technology, why don’t we have electricity yet?" asks one.

And yet, despite the complete breakdown of civic amenities, Baghdad appears to be slowly waking up. For a few days now, in at least two areas of the city, roadside kiosks have started to open during the day, and tiny kebab stops are serving up skewers of meat grilled on coals on the sidewalk. Vegetables are being delivered to markets, eggs are easy to procure, stacked up in cartons outside little markets otherwise mostly bare. In Karradi district, children play near the handful of troops stationed at street corners. Women are out doing the shopping, and men stroll greeting each other and stopping at cafes for tea.

But Baghdad is far from normal. In areas like al-Mansur in the west of the city, people do not feel secure enough yet to leave their homes, even during the day. The stores are still shuttered, and most people stay off the streets. At night, with an American-imposed curfew, the city falls silent, but for the occasional sounds of gunfire from pockets of resistance still picking fights with the Americans. Shelling in the city outskirts can still be heard, even though the war is largely over, and no one is sure who’s shelling whom.

As life in Baghdad remains precarious, anti-US sentiment is on the rise here and elsewhere in the country. It’s expected to mount further as the Americans help craft a new plan for governing the country. Iraqis say that if America’s true aim was to liberate them, it should adhere to its promise and leave the rest to the Iraqis. Their biggest fear is the prospect of Americans staying here for good, a sentiment which prompted hundreds of Iraqis to protest in Nassiriya against those first tentative steps towards forming a government.

Back at the barber shop, the discussion about the future continues. One man, standing near the door, delivers an impassioned speech. His audience occasionally applauds. The man says America doesn’t understand Arabs or Muslims, then talks about how Iraqis have forgotten their religion, burning and looting in violation of the tenets of the majority religion here. He talks about 9/11 and Osama bin Laden. He says a lot can be done to restore peace and allow Iraqis the freedom to take their destiny in their own hands. The man just doesn’t come to a specific point.

His speech is cut off by the barber, the well-groomed one. "Life is slowly getting back to normal. We are rid of Saddam and that is good," he says. "But if the Americans stay, we will kill them."

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