By Alexander Smoltczyk in Baghdad
The high-rise Hotel Palestine and Hotel Mansur along Abu Nuwas Street on the banks of the River Tigris look as if they were recently destroyed by bombs. In reality they are simply undergoing renovation. The former government earmarked $300 million to transform Baghdad's hotels into luxury establishments. The Arab League wants to meet in the city in March 2011, the first such get-together in Baghdad since the summer before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait 20 years ago.
A few nightclubs have opened up. "To get rid of people's headaches," as Khalid al-Basri puts it. Al-Basri, the owner of the Al-Wafri, the largest such club, sits on the sidewalk bathed in red light. In the riverside restaurants opposite, young men crouch over hookahs and grilled carp.
He climbs the stairs to a low-ceilinged room where a handful of overweight men create an infernal din with keyboards and audio software. Three grinning dancers from Basra sway their hips. Now and again they are showered by dinar notes that two businessmen throw over them like petals.
"He has paid off the ministry, but any police officer could close his club down any time. Would we like some whisky?" the interpreter writes on a piece of paper. It's too loud to conduct a proper interview. The club owner signals for arak and plates of fruit, then has the interpreter write down that Americans shot his brother in the leg while he was fishing. He, too, spent 16 months in prison because someone testified against him. "But he says the US left a gap that Iraqis can't fill. That's NOT GOOD for the country," the note says.
When the US pulled out of Saigon, they left thousands of helpers, allies and collaborators behind. Years later, many of these Vietnamese came to the United States as boat people. The withdrawal from Baghdad may be far less chaotic and the political constellation is entirely different. Nonetheless, there are men in the Iraqi capital who risked their lives for the occupying forces. Their lives are still at risk, because they are now the target of reprisal attacks.
'We Cut Al-Qaida to Pieces'
US General David Petraeus owes much of his success in Iraq to a sheikh who lives in a villa-turned-fortress near the "Green Zone," the secure district that is home to the international presence in the city. Ali Hatim is the leader of the Sons of Iraq, a militia of just over 100,000 men that changed sides in 2006, choosing instead to fight al-Qaida alongside the Iraqi Army and the US forces -- with considerable success. "We cut al-Qaida to pieces," the sheikh says. "We are the only ones who execute all al-Qaida prisoners immediately. Nobody else does that."
Hatim, who is wearing a white, starched dishdasha robe, is athletic-looking and has a goatee and sideburns. Sitting there on an armchair drawing on one cigarette after another, he's unabashedly good-looking. "Al-Qaida promised our boys it would fight an honorable battle," he says. "But it was a battle against our traditions. They tried to divide the clans." It was this that ultimately prompted the Sunni sheikh to switch allegiances. "I spoke to Obama for an hour when he was in Baghdad shortly before he was elected," the sheikh explains. "I told him whom he should talk to: First the religious leaders, then the politicians. Stupidly I forgot to mention number three, the most important group: the clan chiefs."
In recent years, Hatim's motto has been "The Americans are a bus. I don't care how quickly it drives, as long as it keeps moving forward and I'm on board." But now the bus has left, leaving behind Sheikh Ali Hatim and the Sons of Iraq. Day after day, insurgents exact their revenge, shooting people dead using silenced pistols or kidnapping their children. Only a part of the Sons of Iraq -- about 40,000 of them -- have been integrated into the regular army. Only 9,000 got jobs manning checkpoints. Many were forced to hand in their weapons and give up their ranks. According to the New York Times, the US suspects several hundred Sons of Iraq have sold themselves to al-Qaida out of frustration with the new-old government, and now provide insurgents with information.
"I don't understand America's policies," the sheikh says. "The generals supported us, but the politicians in Washington sold us out." He fears Iraq will fall victim to what he calls "Iranian gangs." "We got rid of one gangster -- Saddam Hussein -- but got thousands more in return," he says. "The Americans left too quickly. They butchered our country, cut it into pieces and served it to Iran on a plate."
He doesn't see any future for the Sons of Iraq. "There will be no pensions, no jobs, no money," Hatim says. The sheikh also intends to stay out of politics. He has a job for life as a clan leader, he says. And in any case, "everyone who has power in Iraq will one day end up dangling from a street lantern."
Withdrawal into the Private Sphere
Everyone, not just the Americans, has withdrawn. Young people have withdrawn to their online chat rooms, businessmen are focusing on their companies, university professors are looking after their institutes. Everyone is concentrating on what's most important, expecting nothing from the government, and hoping there will not be a civil war.
The garden of Safia Talib al-Suhail lies in a compound surrounded by concrete blast walls. She looks after her property, in which she has constructed a divan, a meeting room made of reeds. Al-Suhail runs one of Baghdad's new literature salons, the first to which women are invited. She organizes exhibitions, poetry discussions and readings. She says participants are free to speak about anything that could bring the city together: "In other words, not about politics."
Al-Suhail is a politician herself. She is on the party list of Prime Minister al-Maliki. Safia Talib al-Suhail was the woman whom George W. Bush invited to Washington to hear his State of the Union address in 2005. She was seated in the gallery as an example of successful "regime change" in Iraq. The representatives in Congress applauded her. Today she says, "I can't explain to anyone anymore what's going on with our politicians. I think we've set a new record in governmentlessness, don't you think? It's a shame."
The previous evening, her cousin was shot dead in front of his own house with a pistol fitted with a silencer. "We don't know if it was criminals or intended as a political message -- that's how far we've come." Her family belongs to the Tamim clan from the Abu Ghraib region west of the capital. Al-Suhail's father was murdered in exile, presumably by Saddam's intelligence service.
'They Play Dirty'
She says the political spectacle in parliament has painted a false image of her country. "Perhaps they really believe in their agenda, but they play dirty." She says the formation of the new government was delayed for so long because of "persistent interference from outside," mainly from Iran, but also from Saudi Arabia and the US Embassy.
Al-Suhail says the population has developed far further than its representatives. She says the trick is to get by in spite of the politicians. "We're now home alone. That's true, even if we aren't small children. We must therefore sort out our problems ourselves."
She tells the story of her eight-year-old son Miro, who recently decided to sleep alone in his room with the door closed. "He painted a wooden 'Please knock before entering' sign, and hung it up by his room. He wants to be taken seriously -- even if things still go wrong every now and again."
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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