My involvement with Iraq began in the early 1990s, when I served as a Crew Chief for KC-135R aerial refueling tanker in the U.S. Air Force. Initially deployed to support Operation Provide Comfort and the patrolling of the northern Iraq no-fly zone, I became sick with a mysterious illness that progressively worsened over the next decade, leaving me with physical disabilities that include using leg braces to walk. During the process of investigating what would eventually be termed "Gulf War Syndrome," I learned about the situation of the Iraqi people as they struggled through bombardment and U.N. sanctions. Now married with two children, I returned to Iraq last month as a part of a religious delegation to witness the aftermath of this war.
We had already been traveling for 12 hours when our white Suburban began crawling through the streets of Baghdad. Just getting there was an achievement: Armed bandits prowled the highways into the city, looking for vehicles carrying Westerners to force off the road and rob. Sometimes they shot the occupants. Occasionally, U.S. Army convoys of tanks and trucks could be seen on the desert horizon, but there was no protection of any kind on the highway. There would hardly be any within Baghdad itself.
The city was a scene of subdued anarchy. Vehicles traveled in both directions on either side of the street and inevitably ended in gridlock, with a cacophony of horns from all directions. Small crowds gathered at bombed or burned-out hulks of buildings, as looters searched for yet more salable items in the rubble. Lining Baghdad's once orderly boulevards were hardscrabble young men with jerry cans of black market gasoline - a convenient, if expensive, service offered alongside the petrol station lines (three cars deep and five kilometers long) that snaked through a labyrinth of roads.
At least 50 political parties were throwing their hats in the ring for power in whatever government would eventually arise, from radical Islamic parties to Liberal Democrats to Communists, and each had homemade banners draping the balconies of buildings on major thoroughfares. Some sections of the city hosted impromptu "Lootervilles," where thieves, in flea markets and in broad daylight, sell what they have stolen in the post-war rampage. Occasionally we passed a U.S. Army tank with a few soldiers who watched the activity around them while drinking Cokes and bottled water.
Our hotel was without electricity most of the time and -- along with the rest of the city -- used generators that frequently didn't work either. There was no air conditioning in a city where temperatures in May routinely climb above 100�F. Tempers grew even hotter. Arguments and fistfights were a common sight.
As I walked along the main boulevard of Baghdad's once thriving commercial district, I was greeted with the sight and stench of endless piles of rotting garbage, uncollected due to the lack of public services. The fall of Baghdad meant that thousands of government employees had lost their jobs. Along with the ousting of cabinet ministers and army personnel, everyone from petty bureaucrats to mail carriers to sanitation workers was unemployed. Even if they were not, there was practically nowhere for them to go to work any longer: Looters had pillaged every scrap of material from government buildings -- desks, telephones, computers, pens, light bulbs, even windows -- then put them to the torch. They quite literally took everything that was not bolted down, and as I continued to tour the city I saw them dig into walls and floors to steal the wiring. In the hotel lobby, foreigners watching U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld downplay the looting as incidental laughed incredulously. Looting was so rampant that the perpetrators had turned to carjacking. There was hardly anything left to steal.
The three government services in highest demand -- the police, firefighters and hospitals -- were unable to operate with any effectiveness, because their equipment and supplies had been swiped in the rampage as well. CNN dutifully reported that some of the police were returning to work, but this hardly meant a return to law and order, as those same policemen rarely left the police station. Most only had pistols to work with against countless thousands armed with automatic assault rifles. Indeed, had I been inclined, I could have purchased an AK-47 for a mere $5 at a looter's market. And if I had chosen to kill someone with it, there was no one to stop me, as long as I wasn't outgunned or within sight of U.S. troops. Since there were only 50,000 U.S. troops in a city of five million, evading them would not be difficult.
The people I met wanted security, drinkable water, food, electricity and money -- in that order -- and they wanted it now. Bilal Abdul Husain, a 24-year-old Shi'ite shoe merchant, also wanted justice. "I don't want the Americans to find Saddam. I want Iraqis to find him so we can administer our own justice. He murdered our people, so our people should be the ones to judge him," he declared adamantly.
Marwa Hamid, a 15-year-old high school student and burn victim, asked indignantly, "What's changing in Iraq? What's come of all this? Fifty-two days ago, President Bush promised things to Iraqis. Instead, only looting and violence have replaced Saddam. What good is freedom if you cannot live?"
Dr. Qais Mustafa is a British-educated physician in charge of Al Alwya Private Hospital. He also questioned the Bush administration's motives for the invasion. "How did the Americans not plan for the collapse of the government? According to the Geneva Conventions on Warfare, the occupying army is supposed to provide security for the population, yet there is no security here at all, and until there is, absolutely nothing can be accomplished," he said. "Bush says he wants our freedom but chooses a thief to rule our country. The Americans make up scenes like pulling down the statue in the square for television, but don't explain why the Ministry of Oil was the only building they protected from the looting."
The few Iraqis who have heard of Ahmad Chalabi, the choice of the Pentagon to head the new Iraqi government, believe he is a thief. He was sentenced to 22 years of hard labor for 31 charges of embezzlement and other financial crimes in Jordan. While in Jordan, I saw King Abdullah on television repeat in English that Chalabi is a wanted man. And I talked with both Iraqi and Western witnesses of the famous scene that took place on April 9, when the large statue of Saddam was toppled in front of a cheering crowd. I looked at their photographs. The "crowd" consisted of perhaps 75 people, and included members of Chalabi's entourage, who had arrived in the country just days earlier. The square was sealed off by American tanks and was virtually empty except for the group at the foot of the statue. The scene was conveniently in full view of the Palestine Hotel where most television reporters were staying. It was anything but the "spontaneous jubilation of the populace" it had been made to appear. And the only Iraqi government buildings in Baghdad initially protected by U.S. troops were the Ministry of Oil, Saddam's palaces and large banks. By the time soldiers were posted at hospitals and other public service institutions they had already been looted within an inch of their capacity.
During the fall of Baghdad, the city's social institutions were forced to release their inmates, and as a consequence criminals -- child molesters and murderers as well as political prisoners -- the mentally ill and orphans were thrown onto the streets to scrape together an existence that most with homes found impossible. I was told stories about girls as young as seven cutting each other's hair and dressing like boys so they wouldn't be raped in the streets, which happened anyway. Some propositioned Western men for enough money to buy water. Small children sniffed glue to get high and escape the ugliness surrounding them. The deranged and the retarded were alternately held in amusement and beaten by passersby, even by children. Mothers carrying listless infants in their arms approached Westerners pointing to their mouths, begging for money to buy food. These heartbreaking scenes could be found in every part of the city except for sections of the upscale Al Monsour district, where one could almost pretend things were going on as usual while sipping tea at an outdoor caf & eacute;.
Whatever the Bush administration's temporary governors of Iraq do, they had better do it quickly or they might well find themselves dealing with a violent uprising. The patience of the average Baghdadi is running thinner by the day, and Iraqis already view U.S. occupying forces as a necessary evil rather than as benevolent liberators. They've discovered that freedom doesn't fill their stomachs, and would prefer living over dying under any political system. They are largely responsible for their present predicament -- they've looted themselves into penury -- but would not have done so had U.S. commanders planned for the painfully obvious result of an authority vacuum in a place like Baghdad.
The U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, faces overwhelming obstacles just in bringing the basics back online. If he succeeds, there's hope for a democracy yet. If he fails, I don't want to imagine what will happen.
Jenifer Carter Johnson lives in Coeur d'Alene.
Publication date: 06/26/03