Not long after the statue of Saddam fell in Firdos Square, several CODEPINK women and I returned to Iraq. We'd first visited in February during the time Bush proclaimed, "The game is over" and announced his plans for "shock and awe." We'd learned then how much Iraqis loved Americans and did not want our disrupting their country; they asked us to let them deal with Saddam because the change had to come from within or it could be a disaster. We fell in love with Iraq and felt totally safe there, taking cabs in the wee hours of the morning, walking at 2 a.m. on the Tigress and driving to many parts of the country.
Returning a few months later, however, we found the country devastated. Bustling markets were empty, the streets were those of a ghost town. Electricity was rare if at all and gas lines were miles long. U.S. soldiers in Humvees sped down the streets with an embarrassing arrogance. Jerry Bremer had just arrived and had issued 100 edicts that infuriated every Iraqi. The story on the street was that it only took Saddam a month to get the country back in shape after the Gulf War, thus, impatience and anger toward the U.S. were growing. Over and over, we heard from Iraqis, "We had one Saddam and now we have hundreds."
We were in Iraq to see how to support women in the transition, going to meeting after meeting of how they were going to be included. Zainab Salbi from the non-profit peace group Women for Women International (W4WI) was in many of those meetings with us, including a reception that Bremer threw inside the Coalition Provisional Authority, now the Green Zone. Her father was Saddam's pilot and her mother had sent her to the U.S. to marry out of concern for her safety. I talked to Zainab a few days ago to learn about her most recent trip to Iraq.
"In six years they have destroyed Iraq," her eyes teared as she began to tell me what she found. She used the image of a pen trying to balance on the tip of her finger to describe Iraq now: balancing but very unstable. Since she was there last it is a bit safer. Women who had been in exile and hiding for four years were starting to reemerge. But more than 70 percent of the women are not sending their daughters to school. I asked her about the women from the Bremer reception, 20 women have been killed and most others are gone.
When I asked about Baghdad, she asked which one. "There are two distinct Baghdads, the red one and the green one," she said. "And they do not relate. On the red side, they call the Americans the 'friendly other side'.
The Embassy/Green Zone is another city within a city, now one-fourth of Baghdad, she explained. It was built for 5,000 employees and already people are having to double up, it has burst past 5,000. Most of those who live there are not Iraqi but Ugandan, Peruvian, Burmese, etc. They cannot leave the Green Zone, so they have no idea about what is outside the walls. She overheard a conversation about a car bomb while she was inside and learned three soldiers were killed. She wondered why do the United States sends people to Iraq to get double pay and hazardous benefits when they are not even going outside the walls.
U.S. soldiers were still a part of Baghdad while she was there. People are still living without electricity but it has gotten a bit better, something like two hours on and three hours off, she said, this change has helped to engender the window of calm she experienced. It was still spring and she felt like the flowers of Iraq was beginning to bloom again. There was more hope because less violence, but the country still is very fragile.
There is nothing made in Iraq for sale. Not even those fantastic cucumbers we loved so much on our drives through the country. Bremer had created a five-percent flat tax for imports in one of his edicts, so Iraqi can't produce anything. It will always be cheaper to bring in products from the from outside. No other country would ever allow such a thing. The Bremer policies were made to destroy Iraq from the inside out.
I asked Zainab about her grandfather's house, a beautiful home on the Tigres River where she had held her first classes for W4WI there six years ago. She has since closed W4WI because it became too dangerous, in the meantime it had become a torture den then a brothel. This turned the conversation to trafficking, which she said is horrendous. Most of the girls in prison are between the ages of 12 to 18. They were kidnapped, taken to Syria or surrounding countries, trafficked and when they got sick or too old were brought home to the authorities. Because they didn't have the right papers they were put in jail. Midwives also told her of a huge increase in abortions resulting from the prostitution.
Just six years ago, only the old and very religious were covered, women were employed everywhere and Baghdad University was bustling with young women. Now it is bleak. Zainab was able to go uncovered but it is still mandatory for the Iraqi women. Most businesses she visited had no women working, not to say they did not try, but they're just fired within days. Some older women were able to keep their jobs but young women have no way in. She said the university was very sad with much less women. Women, young women have been sent back to the dark ages.
She too can't find the way to affect the gridlock of people believing it is over. The U.S. has not taken responsibility to restore the country it destroyed. Iraqis need us to hold those responsible who have done this to them and to leave them to rebuild from the shambles. She left our conversation with this: "It basically looks like we do own it and have created our own kind of hell out of it."