The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Not okay (14)

July 11, 2006

It was supposed to get better. That was my tacit, agreement with myself about coming here. The idea being that 2005 was a bad year, some kinks had to be worked out and then this year it would all get better.

There were to be elections, and then a new government and then Iraqis would take over the running of things, the insurgency would be defeated or re-absorbed, the Americans would leave and the streets would be safe again.

And most importantly I would be able walk through a marketplace – which as far as I'm concerned is the God-given right of anyone living in a Middle Eastern city and something I have yet to do here.

So I was there for the elections, I went to the half-destroyed town of Fallujah and watched people go out and actually vote. It's not like they'd forgiven the Americans for flattening their town a year before, but they were buying into the whole process, and that was important.

I watched the new government – one with Sunnis participating – being sworn in. I walked over the final resting place of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and picked up the shredded pages of a Arabic-language edition of Newsweek that might have been the last thing he read before two 500 bombs hit this homey little structure nestled in a palm grove.

Incidentally, the Newsweek article was about whether Judas really did betray Jesus, an interesting thing to be reading about shortly before one's associate informs the Americans about where you are.

All of these events should have meant that buy mid-2006, things should now be okay here.

Sunday was clearly going to be a bad day -- a massive explosion shook me out of bed at 2am. Then there was the steady staccato thump of a heavy machine gun as I rolled over and put the pillow over my head.

A second explosion woke me up at 3:45 am, and there was the machine gun again, with a lot of other shots mixed in. I walked groggily over to the balcony and peered blearily out at the darkened city trying to puzzle it all out, before going back to sleep.

The day started with the usual odd incident here or there, until suddenly came the awful news that a LOT of people had been killed in the unfortunately-named west Baghdad neighborhood of Jihad. Masked gunmen had gone on a rampage through the area, setting up checkpoints, shooting people on the basis of their names (Marwan, Omar, and Othman are typically Sunni names, so are tribal names like Dulaimi, Janabi and Juburi – Shiites tend to be called Ali and Hussein).

It was like the stories of Lebanon on all over again. I remembered an Iraqi I met working for ABC news who had an hour's drive to work through several neighborhoods and carried with him a variety of fake IDs, giving different names depending on what kind of checkpoint he was stopped at.

A few months ago, one of our tech guys was stopped in the Sunni stronghold of Adhamiyah by gunmen who thought he was Shiite, he managed to convince them he was Christian, which apparently baffled them and they let him go.

Our drivers used to have a rotation whereby one would sleep in the hotel every night in case we needed a driver – it was considered a bit of burden, but now two drivers just spend every night at the hotel because they are afraid to go home. One's a Turkmen Shiite from Sunni Adhamiyah, the others a Sunni from the mixed neighborhood of Dura, in southern Baghdad.

The mixed neighborhoods are sometimes the worst because the militants of one community are trying to push out the other community and nowhere is safe.

Jihad, though, should have been safe for the Sunnis, it was deep in Sunni west Baghdad and not far from Sunni insurgent strongholds, but somehow, Shiite militiamen could roll into the town, in broad daylight, and start killing.

We called the imam of the lone Shiite mosque in the area and he was quite frank – of course those were Shiites doing the killing, could you blame them? They've been killing Shiites in this neighborhood for months. In fact just the night before this man's mosque had been bombed, killing a half dozen people.

Of course that might have been a retaliation for the bomb left in front of the Sunni mosque not far away. In fact that Friday three Sunni mosques and two Shiite mosques were bombed during prayer time. You look at the patterns in retrospect and it becomes more of a case of wondering why it took so long to happen rather than being surprised at it taking place.

After all, only ten days earlier an enormous truck bomb killed 66 Shiites in the Sadr City slum... they don't appreciate that kind of thing.

So the aftermath was not much of a surprise. As we typed away on our stories and the air turned golden in the sunset, there was the muffled boom of a distant bomb and we saw the plume of smoke rise up down the river from our magnificent view over the Tigris.

The photographers went to the balcony to take pictures because no one was going out just before sunset to check it out, no one likes being stuck out after dark. And then five minutes later a second boom, and another pillar of smoke next to the first.

Twin car bombs, one after the other at a Shiite mosque on the edge of a Sunni neighborhood. Nineteen dead.

We like to think that that night everyone took a break. Maybe watched the World Cup final and held off going on a midnight rampage (rumor has it the Shiites supported the Italians and the Sunnis backed the French). Not too many corpses turned up in the morning, but the killing continued and we heard several more explosions from our perch on the Tigris.

The other day I visited a water treatment facility north of the city, it serves about a quarter of the city's population, including Shiite Sadr City and Sunni Adhamiyah. It had just been rebuilt and renovated by USAID.

I met the head of maintenance there, a spry, gray-haired gent, with flashing eyes and a white hard hat who was really excited to take about his plant. While we waited for the Americans to come and give us the tour he spokes excitedly about water treatment. I told him the technical parts were a bit beyond my Arabic – meaning really his Iraqi accent and enthusiasm were a bit much for me.

He was undeterred and outlined for me how simple the water treatment process (water from the river – add the alum – clarifying tank – add the chlorine – filtration bed – pump to the city) was really, in the firm conviction that everyone was interested in this kind of thing as he was.

The old engineer (who was actually only in his mid-40s but looked a lot older) had worked there since 1992 and described how when the old regime fell and the looting started, he and the other employees banded together, fought them off and protected the creaky old plant.

"If it hadn't been for us, the city would have had no water," he recalled with pride. And the plant kept on pumping water, to each neighborhood, regardless of who lived there.