The plans are a state secret, so just where the Starbucks and
Krispy Kreme stores will be is a mystery. But as the concrete hulks
of a huge 21-building complex rise from the ashes of Saddam's
Baghdad, Washington is sending a clear message to Iraqis: "We're
here to stay."
It's being built in the Middle East, but George W's palace, as
the locals have dubbed the new US embassy, is designed as a suburb
An army of more than 3500 diplomatic and support staff will have
their own sports centre, beauty parlour and swimming pool. Each of
the six residential blocks will contain more than 600
The prime 25-hectare site was a steal it was a gift from
the Iraqi Government. And if the five-metre-thick perimeter walls
don't keep the locals at bay, then the built-in surface-to-air
missile station should.
Guarded by a dozen gangly cranes, the site in the heart of the
Green Zone is floodlit by night and is so removed from Iraqi
reality that its entire construction force is foreign.
After almost four years, the Americans still can't turn on the
lights for the Iraqis, but that won't be a problem for the embassy
staffers. The same with the toilets they will always flush
on command. All services for the biggest embassy in the world will
operate independently from the rattletrap utilities of the Iraqi
Scheduled for completion next June, this is the only US
reconstruction project in Iraq that is on track. Costing more than
$US600 million ($A787 million), the fortress is bigger than the
Vatican. It dwarfs the edifices of Saddam's wildest dreams and
irritates the hell out of ordinary Iraqis.
On a recent visit to the real Baghdad outside the Green
Zone a deepening sectarian separation was evident. Abu
Zaman, a Shiite trucker who often updates The Age on life in
the capital, had some personal news: "My daughter is upset because
I blocked her wedding plans," he said. "He was a nice boy
rich and a good job but he was a Sunni."
Making fake identity papers is a thriving business as Shiites
and Sunnis attempt to blur their allegiances in a city where a name
can be a death sentence. Men called Ali, Jaafar and Haider are
almost certainly Shiites. Omar, Marwan and Khalid are Sunni
Shiite taxi driver Salwan al-Robian was unlucky. Earlier this
month he used false papers to get through a Sunni checkpoint south
of Baghdad. His companions told The Age that he gave himself
away by invoking the name of Imam Ali, the Shiite saint, when he
exclaimed his good fortune in surviving the roadblock. The Sunni
gunman heard him and he was dragged off. His family recovered his
body from the Tigris River a few days later
Sunni graffiti artists daub city walls with slogans such as
"Shiite families out" and "Shiite dogs". Meanwhile, Shiite men roar
with laughter at DVDs of comics mocking Sunnis.
In Baghdad, all roads lead to the morgue. This building to the
north of the city comes from the pages of Dante.
It reveals the unvarnished truth about this deepening conflict.
The body count rises steadily: more than 1800 mutilated corpses
were trucked in from across the capital in July, a significant
increase on the June toll of almost 1600. Across the country,
almost 3200 Iraqis died violent deaths in June.
Coping with this flood of suicide-bombing and mass-murder
victims is an impossible task for morgue staff. In the stifling
summer, the police try to get out before sunrise to gather corpses
from the killers' favourite dumping spots before the broiling heat
of the day.
At the morgue, the bodies are divided along sectarian lines. The
viciousness of the killings is sickening. Sunni victims of Shiite
violence usually have holes drilled in their heads and joints and
are found near the Shiite slums of Sadr City. Shiite victims of
Sunni violence are often shot in the head or decapitated and
usually they are dragged from the tepid waters of the Tigris.
Up to 200 bodies are delivered to the morgue each day. Sometimes
there is the dignity of a body bag, but often body parts are
delivered in banana boxes discarded at city bazaars. The Iraqi
Government threatens the morgue staff with reprisals if they reveal
information to reporters because the statistics are such
devastating indicators of the Government's and the United
States' failure. But one of the doctors agreed to talk to
The Age as long as his name was not published. "It just gets
worse, especially in this heat," he said.
"The bodies have been in the sun for so long that they fall
apart in our hands, just like that. It's a nightmare. At home I
can't say anything about it to my family. And how can we believe
it'll get any better? We don't have enough doctors to do the
autopsies and we're getting more and more bodies every day."
After almost four years of trying to build Washington's
democracy beachhead in the Middle East, US defence officials now
concede that the violence in Iraq is at its worst in terms
of body count, public support and the ease with which Sunni
insurgents and Shiite militias exploit gaps in the American
At most critical points the Americans have misread the social,
tribal, political and military landscape and they have wrong-footed
themselves by denying evolving realities that were all too
Distrust of Washington in all of the Iraqi factions has robbed
the US of what it believed was an easily won regional trump card:
control of Baghdad. Iraq is a democracy in name only. The elected
Parliament doesn't function and, even though they mouth support for
the niceties of the democratic process, it is hard not to conclude
that Iraqi leaders have more faith in achieving their goals by
letting the violence run than by taking part in any US-managed
The dynamic has changed. Sunnis who campaigned for US forces to
leave Iraq now insist they remain here to protect the Sunnis
because the Shiite majority has a taste for blood.
Shiites who welcomed the Americans now declare the US to be an
enemy bent on robbing them of their long-held dream of controlling
It's remarkable that George Bush has reportedly waited until now
to vent his frustration at the failure of the Iraqis "to appreciate
the sacrifice the US has made in Iraq". Ironically, about the same
time as the August 14 White House meeting at which the President
wondered aloud about the ability of yet another Iraqi government to
turn the tide of violence, a Baghdad factory owner was mimicking
the American leader for the benefit of The Age: "We give
them Pepsi, the internet and mobile phones and they're still not
happy. What more do they want?"
The combined forces of the US and the Iraqi Government number
more than 400,000, but the country remains a lawless jungle. The
Americans say they kill or capture more than 500 insurgents a week
and they are defusing twice as many roadside bombs now as they were
in January. But Iraqi and other agencies estimate that the death
toll since the March 2003 invasion stands at 50,000 or more the proportional equivalent of about 570,000 Americans.
In a country trying to rebuild itself, there is another
disturbing development: more than 40 per cent of its professional
classes have fled since the invasion. That includes an estimated
The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants estimates that
close to 900,000 Iraqis have fled since 2003. Iraqi Airways has
more than doubled flights to Damascus, bus services on the
treacherous desert route to Jordan have gone from two to 50 a day,
and taxi fares to Amman have increased from $US200 to $US750.
As statistics cry failure on so many fronts, Washington's stated
plan for US forces in Iraq to "stand down as the new Iraqi forces
stand up" is being shredded daily, along with the lives of innocent
civilians. Much of the terror on the streets of Baghdad is
organised by private militias that have infiltrated the Iraqi
These militias are operated by the key parties in Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki's administration his government would fall
without the political support of one of the worst offenders, the
radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
In Basra, deep in the south, there is little Sunni insurgency
activity. But there is much violence as Shiite militias and local
warlords fight for turf and British and American officers accuse
neighbouring Iran (Shiite) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) of arming the
The country's second-biggest city becomes more Islamicised by
the day music and
liquor shops have been bombed out of business, women are made to
wear headscarves and board games are being outlawed.
Whatever the Americans have done in Iraq has usually been too
little too late.
The June death in a US bombing raid of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the
Sunni insurgency leader and al-Qaeda point man in Iraq, was a
victory but his absence from the battlefield has failed to
staunch the blood.
Zarqawi's stated objective was to foment unstoppable sectarian
In a sense, his work was done with the February bombing of a
Shiite shrine at Samarra, north of Baghdad.
Unlike Mr Bush, Zarqawi could go to his grave rightly claiming:
The two sides are dug in for the long haul. On one side, Sunni
insurgency cells that now show great unity and common purpose have
defeated a determined US counterinsurgency push to divide them.
On the other side, the Shiites use the resources of the
US-trained and funded Iraqi security forces. A senior figure in
Sadr's Mahdi Army told The Age: "We can get anything we
need. We are a professional force
and after the victory for
Hezbollah in Lebanon we feel stronger and more powerful because we
have seen what a Shiite force can achieve.
"We will fight the Sunni till they have a clean heart towards
Shiites. But we have to fight the American too, because they are
with the Sunni against us."
Copyright © 2006. The Age Company Ltd.