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Friday, June 20, 2008

Life and Death in Baghdad

Baghdadi and sports car

Los Angeles. Miami, maybe. If you were to guess where that photo above was taken, Iraq would probably not be your first guess. In our minds, that country looks more like this:

bodies dumped in a lot

Both are accurate portrayals of a nation that struggles to maintain some semblance of normalcy, while dealing with death and madness on a daily basis. Journalist Robert Fisk brings these "snapshots of life in Baghdad" to our attention and it's no accident that the examples of life in Baghdad include death in Baghdad. But you wouldn't know that from US news reports.

"Signs are emerging that Iraq has reached a turning point," Associated Press reports. "Violence is down, armed extremists are in disarray, government confidence is rising and sectarian communities are gearing up for a battle at the polls rather than slaughter in the streets."

Violence is down, violence is down, violence is down. Republicans have taken that as proof that we're "winning" in Iraq -- whatever that means. I have yet to have someone explain what constitutes a "win." I don't think anyone knows. It isn't until farther in the piece that we learn why the violence is down.

"The wave of sectarian massacres that pushed the country to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006 has calmed," we're told. Violence is down because violence had spiked. Violence is down to pre-2006 levels. And that level of violence is unacceptably high.

The photos Fisk points us to come from photographer Geert van Kesteren's Baghdad Calling, a collection of photos taken by Iraqis with cellphones. The photos show the often confusing juxtaposition of horrific violence and ordinary people.

[T]here are also families; even a Muslim family celebrating Christmas, all dressed in Santa Claus hats, and a graduation party where the girls wear Bedouin black dresses with gold-fringed scarves and the boys wear Arab headdress and white abayas -- something quite foreign to the middle classes of what was once one of the most literate and educated cities of the Middle East.

But it is the cell phone that has captured this terrible, fearful, brave face of Baghdad. Western photographers can no longer roam the streets of the Iraqi capital -- and few other cities in Iraq -- and in south-west Afghanistan, the same phenomenon has occurred.

So much for this new period of safety and calm. It's so "safe" that western journalists can't even go there. Iraq is calm by no sane measure. Even Iraqis are subject to violence by extremists that seems almost random. Fisk relays an email van Kesteren recieved. "This summer," said the message, "a workman wanted to quench his thirst by putting ice in his tea. A car pulled up, the driver stepped out and began to beat and kick the man, cursing him as an unbeliever. 'What do you think you're doing? Did the Prophet Mohamed put ice in his water?'

"The man being attacked was furious and asked his assailant: 'Do you think the Prophet Mohamed drove a car?'"

If it didn't actually happen, you might think it was a joke. The madness of your average religious fanatic knows no limit. Nor does their resistance to reason or their hypocrisy. Someone this crazy isn't going to stop being this crazy. Until Iraq is able to put every one of these nuts behind bars, violence in Baghdad is always going to be high. I keep saying it because it's so damned true, but we've taken a place that was a hellhole under Saddam Hussein and have made it worse.

And, of course, there's nothing we can do about it. The story relayed in that email is clearly a case of assault and battery. It's a crime, not a battle. That guy being beaten by the religious nut needed a cop, not a lance corporal. But Iraqi police, trained by US mercenaries, are widely corrupt. Whether or not that man on the street would've gotten any help might depend on whether he had any money. And many of those police who aren't corrupt are religious nuts themselves. Law in Iraq is pretty much theoretical. Someone's bothered to write a bunch of them, but no one seems too interested in enforcing them.

Which, of course, goes a long way to explain all the violence and all the dead bodies dumped in alleys. Some of these are ordinary people attacked by insurgents or zealots, some are insurgents or zealots attacked by insurgents or zealots, and some are doubtless insurgents or zealots attacked by ordinary people acting where the police do not. It's a supreme irony that anarchy only exists as a struggle between groups seeking to impose their various ideas of order.

Bush and McCain can talk about laws all they want. They can claim progress. But one thing you never hear them talk about is anything at all that will help those ordinary Iraqis. The big news from Iraq recently is that oil companies are moving in. Iraq's oil used to be nationalized and belonged to the people. Now it belongs to anyone who manages to get it out of the ground. Ordinary Iraqis won't see a dime. Their oil really has been stolen from them. It was taken by a government just as corrupt as the police and sold for personal profit.

Of course, that the Iraqi government thinks it can afford to dick around with oil contracts while neighborhoods burn is an excellent example of just what's wrong. The people want nothing to do with a government that apparently wants nothing to do with them. So they make their own law and police their own streets and fight their own battles, because their government can't be bothered to -- they got important geopolitical stuff to do. Trade agreements and oil contracts. Iraq itself can go choke.

For the US -- especially the TV news audience -- Iraq is a map. We have no idea what the people there are like, because we never discuss them. An Iraqi without a gun is beneath our attention, not worthy of our time. We "freed" them and now we're done with them. Now it's all about the money. The police are corrupt, the Iraqi government is corrupt, and the occupying government is corrupt. When criminals build a nation, I guess this is what you should really expect; a nation of crime.

Those ordinary Iraqis are left to protect themselves and a big part of the problem is that they are. The Mahdi Army, for example, is so popular because they fight crime and bring order. When the government fails, people turn to secondary institutional structures -- in this case, militias.

When you look at those photos by everyday Iraqis. You see a confusing mixture of violence and celebration of life. Graduation photos and burning cars, family gatherings and corpses. That they haven't all gone completely insane is a testament to the strength and adaptability of the average human animal.

Looking through these photos, I realize I admire these people, but wish I didn't have to.


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