Life after the Americans: Uncertainty Reigns as Baghdad Enters New Era

By in Baghdad

Part 2: Running Out of Suicide Bombers

Police General Faisal Malik Muhsin sees the use of sticky bombs as a positive sign. "It means the insurgents are running out of suicide bombers," he says.

General Muhsin is responsible for the Rashid district of western Baghdad. He has just unearthed a car bomb-making factory. His handshake is firm, but his nails are chewed nearly all the way down to the quick. "We have everything under control," the general says.

Nevertheless, he looks tired, and makes no attempt to hide that fact. He says it has become virtually impossible to distinguish between insurgents and gangsters. Former Baath Party intelligence service officers are believed to have become leading members of the underworld. Al-Qaida raises most of its money through kidnappings. But its income has apparently fallen dramatically, to $300,000 -- per month.

The insurgents control the drugs trade. Last summer, a brutal attack was carried out on a bank in Baghdad. All the bank's customers were executed.

A Belief in Magic

General Muhsin says the Americans trained his people well. He says he no longer needs foreign security personnel. "We have enough weapons and people. Now all we need is information. That's where the Americans continue to help us." He offers to show us weapons seized in a raid, as well as a haul of stolen jewelry, but then he can't find them.

One of the most noticeable counterterrorism tools used in Baghdad is the ADE 651, which stands for "Advanced Detection Equipment." It looks like a pistol with a swiveling radio antenna fitted to the top of it. Every checkpoint guard is provided with one of these, and uses it to scan all suspicious cars as he walks by. According to the manufacturers, ADE 651 uses "electrostatic magnetic ion attraction" to sniff out explosives over considerable distances. In Baghdad the device is known as a "perfume detector" or "filling detector" because it also reacts to dental work, shampoo and the tree-shaped air fresheners people hang from their rearview mirrors.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry spent $85 million acquiring several thousand ADE 651s. However an investigation by the BBC found no evidence that the device worked. Allegedly substance-specific "programmed substance detection cards" inserted into the device contain no information whatsoever. As such, the ADE 651 is about as reliable as a divining rod. But in Baghdad it is central to bomb-detection. "The ADE 651 works", says General Muhsin. A belief in magic is always part of any security policy.

'You Can't Simply Leave the Cage Door Open and Walk Away'

Safe or not, the young people of Baghdad spend their time meeting either online, at the "Hunting Club," or on Fridays at the zoo. They try to look like Spanish footballers or wear tight black T-shirts adorned with a picture of Turkish television star Murat Alan, who defends his country against the forces of evil.

The American flag has disappeared from fashion, just as it has from the streets of Baghdad. Even the Dodge showroom refrains from flying the Stars & Stripes. It is almost as if the Americans had never been there. Their presence can only be felt at the checkpoints, where security personnel are omnipresent. They have new uniforms and drive powerful "super duty" Ford pickups. The Americans left their Humvees and helicopters, their maze of blast walls and the table-football tables in their barracks. The guards at the checkpoints imitate their trainers. They pose with the same nonchalance, chew gum and wear pirate headscarves and sunglasses.

"The guards look better than they used to, but I don't trust them," says Nabil al-Jiburi, a man who is no stranger to danger. "You mustn't show fear, otherwise they will attack." Al-Jiburi is responsible for the lion enclosure at Baghdad Zoo. He is 33 years old and spends most of his days trying to prevent people goading Bashar the lion. The animal used to belong to Udai, the sadistic son of Saddam Hussein. "People think he used to be fed on human flesh, but that isn't true."

Al-Jiburi is sad that the Americans have left, and he is not alone. He says, "You knew where you were with them. Nowadays everyone at every checkpoint does what he wants. We're not ready yet. You can't simply leave the cage door open and walk away." The lion keeper is convinced there will be a civil war. Anger at foreign occupiers has been replaced by a fear of the arbitrariness of fellow Iraqis.

It's like the feeling you get when your parents leave you at home by yourself. It is precisely what little boys wish for. But when the parents really do pull the door closed behind them, there are strange noises and who knows what ghosts or demons are lurking in the shadows -- even if they are your own.

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