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01/07/2011 02:47 PM

Life after the Americans

Uncertainty Reigns as Baghdad Enters New Era

By Alexander Smoltczyk in Baghdad

Iraq finally has a new government after months of deadlock, but the cynical horsetrading has damaged the image of politics. Residents of Baghdad no longer trust their fellow citizens andhave withdrawn into private life. They pray that a civil war will not break out.

The situation in Iraq may have normalized somewhat, but it is still a little disconcerting when you check into a hotel and are asked for a personal password "in case we have to negotiate with your kidnappers." The man at the reception has the unlikely name Tex Dallas. He is a former member of the elite British SAS military unit. Today he runs a guesthouse for journalists in the center of Baghdad.

According to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism, 73 tourists visited Baghdad in 2009 -- not including pilgrims from Iran, of course. The number was even lower the year before: just seven, apparently. "By the way, it's better if you don't spend more than 30 minutes in one place," warns Tex Dallas. He says that all Westerners have a price on their head: "a six-figure price." That's the way people in the security industry talk. It will take some time for Baghdad to transition from terrorism to tourism.

General elections were held on March 7, 2010. But it took more than nine months for Iraq to get a new government led by the Shiite former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "US-led coalition forces" officially ended their combat operations four months ago. Since then, Iraqi anxiety has been growing on an almost daily basis about the consequences of being left all alone.

Months of Tortuous Deadlock

The long months of deadlock were tortuous, and even the goings-on in the weeks following the first meeting of parliament were anything other than an exemplary search for political balance. Ultimatums were given, politicians demonstratively stormed out of the room, there were both grotesque and realistic suspicions as well as pathetic suitcase-packing.

Al-Maliki has now cobbled together a majority with the help of the Kurds and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who returned to Iraq on Wednesday after three years of self-imposed exile in Iran. Al-Maliki's gargantuan cabinet comprises no fewer than 42 ministers, though only 29 have been sworn in so far. Even the government manifesto gives little hope of a new beginning. The 43-point program al-Maliki read out in parliament sounds remarkably similar to the speech he delivered in 2006.

The new government also includes members of Iraq's ethnic Sunni minority. Most Sunnis voted for the secular list of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Iraq now has a number of Sunni ministers and a new security council that is to be chaired by Allawi.

Parliament's long, self-imposed gridlock has completely destroyed the image of politics in the new Iraq. It was a 289-day dance by the power-hungry and the vain, the self-promoters and the puppets.

'Candid Camera' with Sticky Bombs

The al-Baghdadia television station on the outskirts of the capital is owned by an Iraqi businessman who lives in Greece. Its broadcasting is directed in Cairo while the studios in Baghdad are being expanded. It is here that the first post-withdrawal reality show was produced. Its title: "Put Him in Bucca."

Camp Bucca was one of the toughest US prisons in Iraq, and closed in 2009 following a variety of scandals. "Put Him in Bucca" is similar to "Candid Camera," except that the victims have fake bombs attached to their cars, causing them panic and fear when they are stopped at real roadblocks that are in on the joke.

"It's all genuine. That's comedy," says Najim al-Rubai, the show's producer. "We want viewers to laugh about al-Qaida." Al-Rubai wears an ostentatious and maybe real gold watch, and likes to crack his knuckles to emphasize the point he is making. "We made sure everyone was talking about 'sticky' bombs and checkpoints during Ramadan," he says. "Bucca" is currently one of the most popular shows on Iraqi television.

Al-Rubai hates Americans. He says occupying forces destroyed Baghdad and delivered Iraq to its enemy Iran, stole its cultural treasures, produced a million martyrs, and brought in incompetent politicians to run the country.

Listening to al-Rubai, you realize that the US forces at least fulfilled one important role: They were the scapegoat. Their withdrawal has therefore left a gap. Al-Rubai produces another show: "From the Heart of Baghdad." He takes an outside broadcast vehicle to squares around the city and interviews people. One man in tears says his son has been given a 15-year jail sentence for stealing a packet of chips because he doesn't have money to bribe the police. "It's dangerous making the show," al-Rubai says. "But if you don't want to listen to the people, you don't belong in this business. The city is dreaming of a normal life."

He cracks his knuckles. "People are fed up of all the factions. We are a nation. It's just teenagers and weak people who are infected." What are they infected by? "The virus spread by the politicians."

State of Emergency

Baghdad is still a city in a state of emergency. The first street-sweeping vehicle only recently came into service. The roads are still littered with the burned-out remains of wrecked cars, and every 50 meters (160 feet) or so there are heavily armed guards sitting on old office chairs, in tanks or under makeshift shelters. In the wealthy district of Mansur, the ruins of a car bomb are being cleared up. A few blocks further on, a man is polishing the windows of the new Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler showroom.

While the exodus from the Christian quarters continues unabated, sidewalks are piled high with cardboard boxes that once contained fridges, cooling fans, boilers and flatscreen TVs. And because there's not enough electricity to meet the growing demand, privately run diesel generators take up the slack. The operators of these deafening machines have grown rich selling electricity. Hundreds of wires snake out from fuse boxes to surrounding windows and are tied to palm trees and streetlamps, tangled up in one another and thus as hopelessly interwoven as Iraqi politics itself. And yet the system works -- better than the public network.

Nobody leaves their car unattended. The fear of so-called sticky bombs is too great. Al-Qaida has taken to fastening magnetic explosive devices to parked cars and later detonating them remotely when the vehicle stops at a checkpoint. It saves on suicide bombers.

The danger has become more discreet and thus even more treacherous than before. And people have once again taken to sending home text messages every hour saying, "Everything is OK. I'm having something to eat. I'll be right back."

The city is still encircled by a ring of bomb-proof walls up to 5 meters high. Every district is a fortress with checkpoints guarding the entrance and exit. The walls impose their own rules on the city. Anyone who approaches a ministry, an official building or a barracks is treated with utmost suspicion and kept at arm's length, as if they themselves were highly explosive. Mercenaries, often hired in Latin America or the Caucasus, direct visitors past 2-foot thick concrete walls, entry-control zones and metal detectors.

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.

'The US Left a Gap that Iraqis Can't Fill'

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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