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

By 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 Residents of Baghdad no longer trust their fellow citizens and have withdrawn into private life.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.

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