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Sunday, March 20, 2005

Two Years After Invasion, Few Are Celebrating

SCREAMING oaths and waving Kalashnikovs, the masked gunmen force their pick-up truck through the downtown Baghdad traffic jam, firing warning shots at anyone who fails to clear their path.

"These bastards shot a cousin of mine a few weeks ago for not getting out their way," snarls one driver over the grind of frantically reversing gearboxes. "Who the f*** do they think they are?"

The official answer is that they are the new Iraqi army, part of the US-trained security forces to which coalition armies hope to hand responsibility as soon as possible. To most Iraqis, however, they are just another group of unwelcome gunmen - and are less well-trained than the US forces or indeed the Saddam Hussein-era security goons they replaced.

Two years on from the first salvoes of coalition cruise missiles that heralded Saddam’s demise, the rookie militias charging nervously through the streets are the clearest sign of how fragile the new order is.

Their masks and aggressive manner make the capital feel as if it is run by terrorists - which, in many residents’ eyes, it is.

"Security is the constant worry," says Ruaa Jamal, a middle-class 23-year-old, whose demure appearance in traditional Muslim headscarf belies a hidden readiness for trouble.

In her handbag is a four-inch switchblade, ready at the flick of a button against robbers, rapists and kidnappers.

"I carry the knife whenever my father cannot take me to work, and I am thinking of buying a small ladies’ .22 calibre pistol, too. Many other girls I know already carry them."

What depresses Ms Jamal and many other Iraqis is that compared with this time last year, things seem to be getting worse, not better. Then, western diplomats in Baghdad were able to mark the anniversary by trumpeting achievements: the country’s creaking power network was back to pre-war levels, oil production had made a similar recovery, a mobile phone network was up and running and the security forces at last appeared to be taking shape.

Iraqi politicians were even dispatched abroad to talk about how the "reality" of the country was nothing like the scenes of car bombs and chaos shown on TV.

This time round, after a year of escalated insurgency, car bombs and kidnappings, even the most upbeat coalition spin doctors seem largely silent.

No glossy brochures have been churned out showing gleaming new power stations or waterworks - mainly because security problems have all but stopped reconstruction. Most parts of the country exist on no more than two hours of power in every six, and in nearly every city, residents of the world’s second biggest oil-producing nation spend days queuing for petrol.

Likewise, no foreign business leaders have been invited into town to talk up Iraq’s massive investment potential - the endless kidnappings have frightened off even the most hardy entrepreneurs.

Instead, virtually the only achievement of note in the past year has been January’s elections, which saw a newly elected parliament finally convene last week.

The fact that it had to convene in Baghdad’s super-secure Green Zone, however, was proof to many Iraqis that it will be a long time before any government can run without American help.

"The elections were good, yes, but they only did it by shutting down the whole country with a huge security operation for three days," said Hassan Jabar, 29, a shopkeeper. "Cars were not allowed to travel, the borders were shut. That is fine for elections, but it’s no use for running our country in the normal way."

Like Mr Jabar, many of those who risked car bombs and insurgents’ death threats to vote are now beginning to wonder if it will make any difference.

For the past seven weeks, the country’s politicians have become bogged down in horse-trading over who will be the new prime minister and president.

A deal is expected "within a week or two", but already, the new assembly’s glowing democratic mandate is sporting the tarnish of smoke-filled rooms.

Ms Jamal, who did not welcome the United States-led invasion, expected little different when she saw the first cruise missiles slam into her home city two years ago.

"I always thought the US occupation was about taking our oil, our black gold," she said. "It has been everything I expected - chaos, disorder and so on - although I did think it would actually be even worse."

The only upside, she says, is that she is now free to criticise, but the novelty of that is wearing thin after two years - particularly when nothing seems to change in response.

For all the pervading pessimism of the average Iraqi, US commanders maintain a pervading optimism. Last week, Richard B Myers, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, insisted the insurgency was showing signs of losing momentum as Iraqi forces grew in strength.

The number of attacks on US forces was about 40 to 50 a day, he said, about the same as a year ago and far fewer than in the weeks before the 30 January elections.

"I think we’re getting some momentum built up against the insurgency," he said.

But statistics from other sources continue to paint a grim picture. Although US officials keep no records or estimates of violent Iraqi deaths under occupation, the website Iraqi Body Count, which tallies violent fatalities based on press accounts, says the reported death toll actually went up after the elections, with 606 deaths in February compared with 447 in January.

While the true trend behind the figures is hard to tell, there is no doubt that nearly every Iraqi can recount a tale of loss, often involving a loved one and often still fresh. A week ago, a friend of Ms Jamal’s was shot dead in his grocery shop. His only crime was being the brother of a former Baath Party member.

Nowadays, there are precious few opportunities to let off steam. As a young, single girl in Saddam’s time, Ms Jamal could wander the streets and meet her friends freely without worry.

Today, life is an endless round of nights in at home, chaperoned trips out and the occasional stay-over at friends’ houses. "In the old days, we could meet in clubs and in parks and other public places, but now the only place for that is at work or at the college - and there most people just finish work and go home early."

One might expect a more upbeat assessment from Baker Mughtadh, one of a group of young modern artists who work in studios in the Baghdad suburb of Karada. Hardship and strife, after all, are supposed to be the lifeblood of creativity.

Mr Mughtadh’s response is blunt: people who say that, he argues, have never seen the aftermath of a car bomb.

The Scotsman.com


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