Published on Friday, January 14, 2005 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Fear and Voting in Baghdad
by Robert Fisk
Journalism yields a world of clichés but here, for once, the first cliché that comes to mind is true. Baghdad is a city of fear. Fearful Iraqis, fearful militiamen, fearful American soldiers, fearful journalists.
Jan. 30, that day upon which the blessings of democracy will shower upon us, is approaching with all the certainty and speed of doomsday. The latest Zarqawi video shows the execution of six Iraqi policemen. Each shot in the back of the head, one by one. A survivor plays dead. Then a gunman walks confidently up behind him and blows his head apart with bullets.
These images haunt everyone. At the al-Hurriya intersection Tuesday morning, four truckloads of Iraqi national guardsmen -- the future saviors of Iraq, according to President Bush -- are passing my car. Their rifles are porcupine quills, pointing at every motorist, every Iraqi on the pavement, the Iraqi army pointing their weapons at their own people. And they are all wearing masks -- black hoods or ski masks or kuffiyas that leave only slits for frightened eyes.
Just before it collapsed finally into the hands of the insurgents last summer, I saw exactly the same scene in the streets of Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. Now I am watching them in the capital.
At Kamal Jumblatt Square beside the Tigris, two American Humvees approach the roundabout. Their machine-gunners are shouting at drivers to keep away from them. A big sign in Arabic on the rear of each vehicle says: "Forbidden. Do not overtake this convoy. Stay 50 meters away from it." The drivers behind obey; they know the meaning of the "deadly force" that Americans have written onto their checkpoint signs.
But the two Humvees drive into a massive traffic jam, the gunners now screaming at us to move back. When a taxi that does not notice the U.S. troops blocks their path, the American in the lead vehicle hurls a full plastic bottle of water onto its roof and the driver mounts the grass traffic circle. A truck receives the same treatment from the lead Humvee. "Go back," shouts the rear gunner, staring at us through shades. We try desperately to turn into the jam.
Yes, the Russians probably would have chucked hand grenades in Kabul. But here were the terrified "liberators" of Baghdad throwing bottles of water at the Iraqis who are supposed to enjoy a U.S.-imposed democracy on Jan. 30.
Lest anyone doubt this extraordinary scene, the rear Humvee has "Specialist Carrol" written on the windscreen. Specialist Carrol, I am sure, regards every one of us as a potential suicide bomber -- a killer on wheels -- and I can't blame him. One such bomber had just driven up to the police station in Tikrit north of Baghdad and destroyed himself and the lives of at least six policemen.
Round the corner, I discover the reason for the jam: Iraqi cops are fighting off hundreds of motorists desperate for petrol, the drivers refusing to queue any longer for the one thing that Iraq possesses in Croeses-like amounts -- petrol.
I drop by the Ramaya restaurant for lunch. Closed. They are building a 20-floor security wall around the premises. So I drive to the Rif for a pizza, occasionally tinkling the restaurant's piano while I watch the entrance for people I don't want to see. The waiters are nervous. They are happy to bring my pizza in 10 minutes. There is no one else in the restaurant, you see, and they watch the road outside like friendly rabbits. They are waiting for The Car.
I call on an old Iraqi friend who used to publish a literary magazine during Saddam Hussein's reign. "They want me to vote, but they can't protect me," he says. "Maybe there will be no suicide bomber at the polling station. But I will be watched. And what if I get a hand grenade in my home three days later? The Americans will say they did their best, Allawi's people will say I am a 'martyr for democracy.' So do you think I'm going to vote?"
At Moustansariya University, one of Iraq's best, students of English literature are to face their end-of-term exam. January marks the end of Iraqi semesters.
But one of the students tells me that his fellow students had told their teacher that -- so fraught are the times -- that they were not yet prepared for the examination. Rather than giving them all zeros, the teacher meekly postpones the exam.
I drive back through the Al-Hurriya intersection beside the Green Zone and suddenly there is a big black 4-by-4, filled with ski-masked gunmen. "Get back!" they scream at every motorist as they try to cut across the median. I roll the window down. The rear door of the 4-by-4 whacks open. A ski-masked westerner -- blond hair, blue eyes -- is pointing a Kalashnikov at my car. "Get back!" he shrieks in ghastly Arabic. Then he clears the median, followed by three armored pick-ups, windows blacked, tires skidding on the road surface, carrying the sacred westerners inside to the dubious safety of the Green Zone, the hermetically sealed compound from which Iraq is supposedly governed.
I glance at the Iraqi press. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is again warning of "civil war" in Iraq. Why do we westerners keep threatening civil war in a country whose society is tribal rather than sectarian? Of all papers, it is the Kurdish Al Takhri, loyal to Mustafa Barzani, which asks the same question. "There has never been a civil war in Iraq," the editorial thunders. And it is right. So "full ahead both" for the dreaded Jan. 30 elections and democracy.
The American generals -- with a unique mixture of mendacity and hope amid the insurgency -- are now saying that only four of Iraq's 18 provinces may not be able to "fully" participate in the elections. Good news. Until you sit down with the population statistics and realize -- as the generals, of course, all know -- that those four provinces contain more than half the population of Iraq.
Robert Fisk writes for The Independent in Britain.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer