The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Iraq
Iraq 10 years on

Loved this article about Iraq by Peter Harling, The new normal in Baghdad:

While Iraqis wait for a genuine normalisation that is too long in coming, they cobble together an everyday existence, and manage surprisingly well to navigate their way through a convoluted political system, a shattered society, a dislocated city and an economy complicated by numerous forms of predation. For example, most homes use three different sources of electricity: the government network for up to a few hours a day, then the local private generator, and their own small back-up motor to cope with the many breakdowns. It is an absurd system that works perfectly well. Corruption at checkpoints — some of which have no other purpose — has become part of life. New expressions are entering everyday language to label and handle these incongruous phenomena. For instance, the untranslatable term hawasim, stemming from Saddam’s propaganda of 2003, in which the war was to be “decisive” and “definite”: it has since been used to refer to the wide variety of unlawful behaviour made possible by disorder. Humour is not in short supply either. But all this creativity does not detract from the resilience of the old landmarks to which Iraqis seem more attached than ever — the good bakeries and classic cafés remain unchanged, and masguf-style grilled fish has become more than a tradition, almost an obsession. 
Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

Influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria Widens War’s Scope

Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, in the NYT, write that Iraqis are continuing their sectarian fight in Syria:

BAGHDAD — Militant Sunnis from Iraq have been going to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad for months. Now Iraqi Shiites are joining the battle in increasing numbers, but on the government’s side, transplanting Iraq’s explosive sectarian conflict to a civil war that is increasingly fueled by religious rivalry.

Some Iraqi Shiites are traveling to Tehran first, where the Iranian government, Syria’s chief regional ally, is flying them to Damascus, Syria’s capital. Others take tour buses from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, on the pretext of making a pilgrimage to an important Shiite shrine in Damascus that for months has been protected by armed Iraqis. While the buses do carry pilgrims, Iraqi Shiite leaders say, they are also ferrying weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Syrian government.

“Dozens of Iraqis are joining us, and our brigade is growing day by day,” Ahmad al-Hassani, a 25-year-old Iraqi fighter, said by telephone from Damascus. He said that he arrived there two months ago, taking a flight from Tehran.

The Iraqi Shiites are joining forces with Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iran, driving Syria ever closer to becoming a regional sectarian battlefield.

Mission accomplished for big oil in Iraq?

Mission accomplished for big oil?

Greg Muttit in Le Monde Diplomatique:

Here, as a start, is a little scorecard of what’s gone on in Iraq since Big Oil arrived two and a half years ago: corruption’s skyrocketed; two Western oil companies are being investigated for either giving or receiving bribes; the Iraqi government is paying oil companies a per-barrel fee according to wildly unrealistic production targets they’ve set, whether or not they deliver that number of barrels; contractors are heavily over-charging for drilling wells, which the companies don’t mind since the Iraqi government picks up the tab.

Meanwhile, to protect the oil giants from dissent and protest, trade union offices have been raided, computers seized and equipment smashed, leaders arrested and prosecuted. And that’s just in the oil-rich southern part of the country.

In Kurdistan in the north, the regional government awards contracts on land outside its jurisdiction, contracts which permit the government to transfer its stake in the oil projects — up to 25% — to private companies of its choice. Fuel is smuggled across the border to the tune of hundreds of tankers a day.

Universities in Iraq

I was traveling last week so I didn't get around to posting this when it came out, but I recently wrote an article about Iraqi universities and the challenges they face for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is behind the subscription wall, but here's the beginning:

Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a few months after the withdrawal of the military forces from the country, Iraq's universities, devastated by years of dictatorship, sanctions, and war, are still struggling to recover. The security situation has improved since the deadly, dark days of 2006 and 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of sectarian war, hundreds of professors were assassinated, and thousands more fled the country.

Today some of those refugee scholars have returned. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has a bigger budget and new, ambitious plans. Iraqi universities are looking to the outside world, hoping that international partnerships will help them reform their curricula and retrain their staffs. The government is investing more in public scholarship programs to send thousands of graduate students to study abroad and make up the country's new teaching cadres.

On the other hand, Iraqi universities remain highly centralized, politicized, and in need of systemic reform. The country is ruled by parties representing Iraq's Shiite majority, which was discriminated against under Saddam Hussein. But today, Sunnis and secular Shiites worry that academic standards and freedoms are still threatened by sectarianism and religious and political ideology—just in reverse. They complain of discrimination and say that university appointments are being made on the basis of religious affiliation and political connections rather than academic qualifications.

"Before, the Baath Party was controlling all universities, and you had to be a high party official to be university president or dean," says Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, who has worked on several efforts to connect Iraqi academics with their counterparts in the region. "Now each political party controls a university—the only pluralism is the plurality of dictatorial parties that are using the same methods to exert control."

The four major universities in Baghdad, for example, are each headed by a president that represents a particular political party or faction. I don't know Iraq well, but if the universities are anything to go on, the new, "democratic" country touted by US officials is a deeply dysfunctional one where sectarianism and the threat of violence shadows everything in a very oppressive way. I found it telling that not a single Iraqi academic who is currently inside the country would speak to me on the record. 

"Curveball" confesses to lying about WMDs

Man whose WMD lies led to 100,000 deaths confesses all - The Independent

A man whose lies helped to make the case for invading Iraq – starting a nine-year war costing more than 100,000 lives and hundreds of billions of pounds – will come clean in his first British television interview tomorrow.

But Mr Janabi, speaking in a two-part series, Modern Spies, starting tomorrow on BBC2, says none of it was true. When it is put to him "we went to war in Iraq on a lie. And that lie was your lie", he simply replies: "Yes."

 

"Curveball", the Iraqi defector who fabricated claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, smiles as he confirms how he made the whole thing up. It was a confidence trick that changed the course of history, with Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi's lies used to justify the Iraq war.

He tries to defend his actions: "My main purpose was to topple the tyrant in Iraq because the longer this dictator remains in power, the more the Iraqi people will suffer from this regime's oppression."

The chemical engineer claimed to have overseen the building of a mobile biological laboratory when he sought political asylum in Germany in 1999. His lies were presented as "facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence" by Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, when making the case for war at the UN Security Council in February 2003.

Of course the real crime is not an Iraqi trying to manipulate foreign powers — it's the US and UK officials who decided to believe him because they wanted the war anyway. And none of these have yet been prosecuted.

 

Iraq's oil

Occasional contributor Paul Mutter has a piece up at FPIF looking at the situation of oil major in Iraq, where the US still trails behind China in presence and can't get the kind of legislation for oil. Does that prove that the US was not after oil in Iraq, among other grand geostrategic objectives? No, it just shows there's hardly a silver lining for Americans after all the blood and treasure that was sunk into that adventure.

Dahr Jamail's report on energy majors in Iraq reminds us of one of the other, other, other reasons for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the one nearest and dearest to neoconservatives' political action committees: oil.

Ostensibly, "oil" was part of the discussion on Saddam Hussein because of U.S. sanctions, the threat that Saddam would use oil money to bankroll terrorist organizations, and the idea that new oil revenues would help jumpstart the post-Saddam Iraqi economy.

Those were the reasons paraded around in public. Then there were the ones being discussed -- well before Condi and Dick made the Sunday morning talk show rounds -- in the arcane, interconnected world of multinational corporations, federal departments and think tanks:

Like it or not, Iraqi reserves represent a major asset that can quickly add capacity to world oil markets and inject a more competitive tenor to oil trade. However, such a policy will be quite costly as this trade-off will encourage Saddam Hussein to boast of his "victory" against the United States, fuel his ambitions, and potentially strengthen his regime.

The U.S. invasion rather nicely took care of that dilemma, and, of course, the U.S. government and U.S. oil majors moved to secure pieces of the pie before other countries could come in. Alongside other Western governments and oil majors, Washington is pushing for an Iraq Oil Law that would allow privatization and Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs), which, Jamail reports, are only used in 12% of the world's oil market. Why only 12%? Because more nationalistic individuals don't like signing off on them: in Russia, for instance, Vladimir Putin made rescinding PSAs Boris Yeltsin's government had signed with U.S. and UK firms a top priority. The law has stalled in the Iraqi Parliament. 

Read the rest here.

Why is any US money being spent in Iraq anymore?

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Lessons from Lost Wars in 2012 | TomDispatch:

After all, having seemingly moved much of the U.S. to Iraq, leaving was no small thing.  When the U.S. military began stripping the 505 bases it had built there at the cost of unknown multibillions of taxpayer dollars, it sloughed off $580 million worth of no-longer-wanted equipment on the Iraqis.  And yet it still managed to ship to Kuwait, other Persian Gulf garrisons, Afghanistan, and even small towns in the U.S. more than two million items ranging from Kevlar armored vests to port-a-potties.  We’re talking about the equivalent of 20,000 truckloads of materiel.

Not surprisingly, given the society it comes from, the U.S. military fights a consumer-intensive style of war and so, in purely commercial terms, the leaving of Iraq was a withdrawal for the ages.  Nor should we overlook the trophies the military took home with it, including a vast Pentagon database of thumbprints and retinal scans from approximately 10% of the Iraqi population.  (A similar program is still underway in Afghanistan.) 

When it came to “success,” Washington had a good deal more than that going for it.  After all, it plans to maintain a Baghdad embassy so gigantic it puts the Saigon embassy of 1973 to shame.  With a contingent of 16,000 to 18,000 people, including a force of perhaps 5,000 armed mercenaries (provided by private security contractors like Triple Canopy with its $1.5 billion State Department contract), the “mission” leaves any normal definition of “embassy” or “diplomacy” in the dust.

In 2012 alone, it is slated to spend $3.8 billion, a billion of that on a much criticized police-training program, only 12% of whose funds actually go to the Iraqi police.  To be left behind in the “postwar era,” in other words, will be something new under the sun.

Surely Iran can pay the police they might very well end up controlling, no?

Making a mess of Iraq

Hugh Pope, author of "Dining with al-Qaeda", reviews Peter van Buren's "We Meant Well", the memoir of a State Dept. provincial governor in Iraq, on his blog. I had the pleasure of having dinner at Hugh's beautiful Istanbul home last week (fantastic fish!) and he was raving about this book:

Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.

The mind boggles at the $63 billion US effort Van Buren describes as he and other Americans of good will and otherwise “helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Arabic translations of American classics are dumped behind schools, bureaucratic programs live and die in fashion cycles of a few months, and short-term photo-opportunities usually beat the occasional focus on long-term problems. And in 2009-2010, Van Buren happened to be there with the cool and independence of mind to note the nonsense down, even as his desert outposts were mortared by insurgents who scorned the “so-called Awakening, a program through which we paid money to Sunni insurgents to stop killing us.”

Sounds like a good read, even as Iraq is starting to seem like history.

 

An odd cable from Iraq

I liked this passage in a US Embassy Baghdad cable about a meeting with Emad Klanter, an Iraqi Shia close to Sistani:

Son of a respected Najafi Ayatollah, nephew to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, related by marriage to Muqtada al-Sadr, and bearing a faint resemblance to the actor Robert De Niro, Klanter is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad but was not wearing the traditional Shia Sayyid's garb of black turban and cloak during our meeting at the IZ villa of Saad Jabr, a Saddam-era exile opposition financier and son of Iraq's first Shia Prime Minister.

The guy goes on to trash all Iraqi politicians for referring to the Americans as "occupiers," calls Sadrists "backwards" and tries to peddle influence over Sistani. I'm sure he won't like this cable coming out. Another passage is also interesting:

When we informed him that USG patience is wearing thin with the pace of Iraqi political process, Klanter appeared incredulous that the U.S. would even consider scaling-down in Iraq "because you destroyed a regime and now you bear the responsibility to build up a replacement. If you leave there is a 100 percent certainty of civil war, which might happen anyway even if you don't leave." Swinging his arms into an abbreviated "Gator Chomp" type of gesture, he said that if the U.S, leaves "Iran will swallow us whole."

Incidentally, one of the things I'm enjoying about these cables is that the people who write them often write quite well and can be pretty funny. Kudos to American diplomats!

PostsIssandr El AmraniIraq, shia
How US foreign policy works, part CLXIII

It's from 2008, but if you haven't read it before, I highly recommend former UNSCOM weapon inspector Scott Ritter's account of his dinner with Ahmad Chalabi and a bunch of neocon operatives back in 1998. It's illuminating about Chalabi, about Washington, and about how the neocon network's view of Iraq long predates the Bush administration.

There was a knock at the door, and Chalabi's butler answered. In walked Rademaker's wife, Danielle Pletka, accompanied by none other than James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA. They found seats around the table, and it became clear that this was where we would be eating. The discussion moved from the flawed military planning evident in Gen. Downing's paper and onto the issue of Chalabi's political future. Jim Woolsey was an unabashed supporter of Chalabi, something I found strange since Chalabi and the CIA were at odds over many aspects of the INC's past operations. "This [criticism] is all bunk," Woolsey said. "Chalabi is an Iraqi patriot and visionary who intimidates many lesser thinkers in Langley [CIA headquarters]. My friend Ahmed is a risk taker who understands the reality of Iraq, unlike the desk-bound analysts and risk-averse operators at the CIA. Chalabi scares these people, so they have created false accusations in order to denigrate him and ultimately destroy him." Danielle Pletka chimed in. "We cannot allow this to happen. Ahmed Chalabi has many friends in Congress, and it is our goal to make sure Ahmed Chalabi gets the support he needs to not only survive as a viable opposition figure to Saddam Hussein but more importantly to prevail in Iraq."

These people should really pay for what they did.

Twisted logic

Rather funny self-contradiction by the editor of the Saudi rag Sharq al-Awsat, who wants the Americans to force Malaki out in Iraq because he's undemocratic:

For all the American talk about the democratization of Iraq, and the necessity of the Iraqi people managing their own national issues, this is nothing more than beautiful talk that is a good excuse for the ugly reality, for what is the difference between Saddam and al-Maliki? 

But later, in the same editorial:

Post-Saddam Iraq was not in need of superficial democracy, but rather it was – and continues to be – in need of a strong ruler, from the army, in the ilk of a benevolent autocrat or an Iraqi Ataturk.

 

Remembering the sanctions on Iraq

I've made my opposition to sanctions — on Iran or anywhere else, and yes that includes Israel (divestment and boycotts is not the same thing) — clear in previous posts. By all means impose travel bans on senior officials, exclude countries from international sports (had much effect for rugby fans in South), boycott academics and public figures who are supportive of repressive regimes, and other inventive solutions. But don't carry out policies that cut off entire populations from the global economy, leave them isolated from the world, deny them educational opportunities and even possibly slowly starves them and denies them the tools of modern life.

This is a lesson I learned in the 1990s, when still at university and researching Iraq under the sanctions. The sanctions were one of the great war crimes of the 1990s, killing at least half a million Iraqi children and creating the situation that would contribute, a decade later, to the mess that was/is Iraq. It was the deliberate de-modernization of a country, and one of the great shames of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton's policies.

Andrew Cockburn has a great piece in the LRB reviewing a new book on the sanctions and their impact:

The first intimation that the blockade would continue even though Iraq had been evicted from Kuwait came in an offhand remark by Bush at a press briefing on 16 April 1991. There would be no normal relations with Iraq, he said, until ‘Saddam Hussein is out of there’: ‘We will continue the economic sanctions.’ Officially, the US was on record as pledging that sanctions would be lifted once Kuwait had been compensated for the damage wrought during six months of occupation and once it was confirmed that Iraq no longer possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the capacity to make them. A special UN inspection organisation, Unscom, was created, headed by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, a veteran of arms control negotiations. But in case anyone had missed the point of Bush’s statement, his deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates (now Obama’s secretary of defence), spelled it out a few weeks later: ‘Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community. Therefore,’ Gates continued, ‘Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone.’

Despite this explicit confirmation that the official justification for sanctions was irrelevant, Saddam’s supposed refusal to turn over his deadly arsenal would be brandished by the sanctioneers whenever the price being paid by Iraqis attracted attention from the outside world. And although Bush and Gates claimed that Saddam, not his weapons, was the real object of the sanctions, I was assured at the time by officials at CIA headquarters in Langley that an overthrow of the dictator by a population rendered desperate by sanctions was ‘the least likely alternative’. The impoverishment of Iraq – not to mention the exclusion of its oil from the global market to the benefit of oil prices – was not a means to an end: it was the end.

Visiting Iraq in that first summer of postwar sanctions I found a population stunned by the disaster that was reducing them to a Third World standard of living. Baghdad auction houses were filled with the heirlooms and furniture of the middle classes, hawked in a desperate effort to stay ahead of inflation. In the upper-middle-class enclave of Mansour, I watched as a frantic crowd of housewives rushed to collect food supplies distributed by the American charity Catholic Relief Services. Doctors, most of them trained in Britain, displayed their empty dispensaries. Everywhere, people asked when sanctions would be lifted, assuming that it could only be a matter of months at the most (a belief initially shared by Saddam). The notion that they would still be in force a decade later was unimaginable.

Do read the whole thing.

Dispatch: Checking points

Green Zone checkpoint. Photo by Iraq.ir.

One of my first days back in Baghdad, I tagged along with a 
photographer to go cover the handover of a small base from the 
Americans to the Iraqis up in northeast Baghdad.

I’d been in the neighborhood years ago on an embed and I was curious 
how it might have changed, and of course it was a chance to get out of 
the bureau and cruise a bit more around Baghdad.

We never made it.

Our two cars were stopped at a checkpoint outside Sadr City, the 
officer there claimed our weapons permits weren’t in order and we had 
to turn back, while meanwhile dozens of other cars sailed right through.

I later was told that the checkpoints can be a bit nasty to people 
escorted by security companies and riding in armored cars – like we 
were – which unfortunately have their own orange license plates.

It’s mostly a hangover from the bad old Blackwater days and some well 
justified animosity towards private security contractors. Apparently 
it helped not to ride in the armored cars, the “soft cars” tended to 
get pulled over less often.

I was little less tolerant of the whole checkpoint phenomenon after 
heading down to Najaf about a week later. The roads through the south 
are just rotten with checkpoints. Most of the time they just wave you 
through, but entering a major city can be a bit of problem.

We’d called ahead to Najaf and our names were supposed to be on a list 
at the checkpoint, butof course they weren’t. Once they figured we 
had weapons, we were pulled over and there was a great deal of paper 
checking, calls on cell phones and earnest discussions with the police.

Meanwhile, trucks piled high with suspicious boxes, taxis crammed with 
people and microbuses carrying coffins sailed right through unchecked.

“They always check the wrong people, who knows what that guy is 
carrying,” said one of the Iraqis with me. You always see lots of 
coffins on the way to Najaf, it’s where the big cemetery is.

We eventually made it through, and a few hours later found out that 
the checkpoints had missed something. Something huge.

The final toll for the day was 119 in 10 cities across the country, 
but most of the dead were in two southern cities: Basra, in the 
deepest south near Kuwait where bombs killed 30. And in Hillah, where 
a diabolically sequence of blasts killed 50.

Hillah. I’d been there last week to check out the nearby ruins of 
Babylon. Actually, I’d just been there two hours earlier, it was on 
the way to Najaf. It was also on the way home.

To get inside Hillah or drive the hundreds of kilometers down to 
Basra, the bombers would have had to pass through dozens and dozens of 
checkpoints. They must not have had orange license plates.

At nearly every checkpoint, there’s someone with a “bomb detector.” 
The New York Times and others have already done stories exposing this 
swindle, but they’re still being used and every time I see them it 
fills me with frustrated rage.

Basically, they look like a plastic pistol grip with a radio antenna 
sticking out and a coaxial cable running from the handle to a pouch on 
the belt. The officer must walk forward and wave it back and forth and 
it supposedly detects bombs and explosives.

Except it doesn’t, at all. It has no power source. It’s a fraud. They 
cost more than $10,000 each and have a big “made in UK” written on the 
side as though that’s a seal of quality. It’s basically a ruthless con 
on a struggling developing country seeking a silver bullet to their 
runaway bomb problem.

The British government is trying to get them banned from being 
exported. And they are everywhere.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t stop the blasts that day. We were coming 
back from the Najaf when we found out, sitting in a roadside 
restaurant, watching the images flash across the TV screens.

The bombs had gone off just 45 minutes away, the TV crew with us 
immediately headed off to go cover the aftermath, but my security team 
said, looks like we’re going to have to find a way to bypass Hillah. 
And my thought was, should I be bypassing the news? Shouldn’t we be 
heading to the bomb scene to report?

But I was actually ok with it.

So we decided to swing through Karbala and head up north from there, 
until we smacked into the Karbala checkpoint, where they promptly 
pulled us over because we were carrying weapons.

And they wouldn’t let us pass. We had the permits, we had the passes 
identifying us as journalists. They could see I was a foreigner, but 
it was nothing doing. Alert levels were high, we were not allowed into 
their city. Nevermind the fact that a bunch of journalists, a 
foreigner, and their registered security were not exactly the standard 
profile for a suicide bomb squad.

After an hour of negotiations, arguments and pleading later, we gave 
up, turned back to try to find another way home. Just then the phone 
rang and it was our stringer in Karbala, whom we’d call earlier for 
help.

He said it was ok, he knew someone in the city’s operations center, 
had made a phone call and we could go through. And sure enough we 
could. Some guy, sight unseen, had made a phone call, and now we were 
ok, after they had categorically refused as passage for an hour.

Fuming, we drove on, while one of Iraqi security guys just kept 
sputtering that the whole country was “fashel,” a failure. It didn’t 
help his mood much when we were stopped and pulled over at another 
checkpoint shortly afterwards in some tiny village.

We made it out 20 minutes later. Only to be stopped a few villages 
later, in this case the delay was because one of the police officers 
had a bet with another about how the ammo slide on a 9mm pistol worked 
and one of our guys was carrying one.

By this time, the guys were just beside themselves. It was almost more 
infuriating when the checkpoints no longer stopped us as we got closer 
to Baghdad. Why not? Why not now? Why were we so dangerous to the 
others but not anymore?

And always with the blasted, stupid bomb detector giving them a false 
sense of safety and achievement. At one checkpoint policemen at a 
checkpoint had made his own detector with an antenna and a piece of 
metal – a crude copy of a fraud.

Finally back in Baghdad, what a relief. A three hour journey had taken 
4.5 hours and it was dark and we just wanted to get home. Just 10 
minutes from the office, we sail through another checkpoint when the 
policeman knocks on the window to stop the car.

He wants to know who I am. “He doesn’t look Iraqi.” No I don’t. But 
that doesn’t mean you should stop the car. Especially if it’s just 
curiosity. The others sorted it out, I stayed quiet, too tired and 
angry to speak.

They were checking all the wrong points. They had built a system of 
checkpoints that couldn’t stop the bombs, but instead focused on all 
the wrong people.

That morning, unbeknownst to us, 10 policemen were shot dead at 
checkpoints around the city. Men disguised in janitors’ overalls 
pulled up and killed them with submachine guns fitted with silencers. 
Many were killed while they slept.

As we arrived home, one of my companions turned to me and said, what 
do you expect? Who would want to be a policeman in this country? Only 
the least educated and the most desperate.

DispatchesAbu RayIraq
Babel
A new dispatch from Iraq by our correspondent Abu Ray.
According to the ancient texts, the Tower of Babel was a seven level step pyramid 91.5 meters high with a temple to the god Marduk on the top. Now it is a square shaped grassy knoll bordered by a water-filled trench.
The mound is surrounded by lumpy, overgrown hills, date palm trees and some distant cows grazing in the fields hosting the ruins of Babylon, a city founded 4,000 years ago. We were cautioned against walking too far away from the site as there are still some trip flares planted in the undergrowth left over from the old military base.
It is hard to say which was more exciting, visiting the ruins of Babylon, something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid… or just driving there.
A friend of mine has been working down in Babylon as part of an effort to assess some of the problems at the site and come up with a plan to save the ruins, which are threatened by, well, all the usual things that are threatening in Iraq, as well as a rising water table.
It was a measure of just how much Iraq had changed when the bureau chief barely batted an eye when I asked if I could make the hour and a half drive south.
Back in my day, 2005-2007, driving south of Baghdad through the area charmingly called the triangle of death was laughable. Even before it got really bad, journalists would drive through and full speed, maybe even slouching down in the seat in the vague hope no one would take too much notice of the foreigners passing through.
The whole trip down my head was spinning around as I read street signs and repeated to myself the names of towns I knew so well from the car bombs, massacres and death tolls that had so marked my year here.
Mahmoudiya, Lutifiya, Iskandiriya, Yousifiya, Mussayib, Hilla… was that the town where insurgents overran the outpost and kidnapped the US soldiers, only to leave their mutilated, booby trapped bodies for the military to find?
Was the that the place where the whole family was murdered? Was that the one where the car bomb killed all those people in the market? I think this was where those French journalists were kidnapped.
Like Baghdad and Diyala province just to the north, this rural area south of Baghdad had the misfortune of being religiously mixed, Shiite towns surrounded by Sunni tribes and when the time came, they went at it.
Years later, it was an uneventful drive, through a countryside that was alternately verdant and desolate, populated by ramshackle roadside homes, stands selling fruit, heavy trucks fighting cars for space with the kind of disregard for traffic rules that characterizes driving in rural Egypt.
It was all quite normal, save that every 500 meters, it seemed, was another checkpoint. Every bridge underpass seemed to have an army unit briefly scanning cars as they slowed to a stop. Parked along the verge were the armored shapes of humvees and the occasional hulking, trucklike MRAP.
The other revelation was that they were all Iraqi army. The U.S. was gone from here, at least along the route we took. The Iraqis were now handling the show, for better or worse.
The U.S. is leaving Iraq. The Iraqi foreign minister recently complained that the political situation was deadlocked, potentially falling apart, and all the U.S. forces wanted to do was leave.
The US military has told journalists that it would not like current events referred to as a withdrawal, rather it is a “drawdown” or a “consolidation.” As in “we’re consolidating our forces the hell out of here,” I guess. Call it what you will, by August 31, U.S. forces will be down by half.
And two months on, the Iraqis can’t even agree on the results of their election.
Driving through the south, we’d hit towns suddenly festooned with Shiite flags, soulful images of the martyrs and portraits of the Hakim family, the Iranian trained leaders of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq that came in after the invasion and took over much of the south.
Interestingly, they were dealt an election setback in March and received just a fraction of the seats they had in the last parliament as Iraqis opted for more homegrown options.
Their influence is still felt though, two of their number run a “de-Baathification” committee charged with rooting out those with connections to the old regime. The commission seems to be engaged in a witch hunt against the winners of the last election, disqualifying candidates left and right, and leaving the Sunnis pretty convinced that the deck is stacked against them no matter what they do.
I actually got pretty close to Babylon back in 2006 when I was taken down to see the excavations of a mass grave of Shiites killed by Saddam in the 1991.There I talked to an archaeologist employed in painstakingly extracting murdered skeletons from the desert and he ruefully admitted that his lifelong dream had been to work the ancient sites of the Babylonians just a few dozen kilometers away.
It’s not the most impressive place, actually. The Babylonians built out of mud brick, not the most durable material, while the Greeks and Egyptians used stone. And aside from the periodic ancient invasions and wholesale destructions of the city, Babylon is in the middle of a highly populated, agricultural region, so there’s plenty of water to damage the ruins, as well as farmers to steal the bricks.
Saddam Hussein, apparently, was quite unimpressed and ordered a massive rebuilding project in the 1980s, so that most of the site’s buildings now are tall imposing structures built of modern, yellow bricks, many stamped with his name.
It’s sort of a central dilemma on ruins and tourism, do you preserve the sad mounds of rubble, or rebuild it into
something cool for tourists to come visit and pay money?
The same dilemma is going on right now with the local governor desperately wanting some renovation work done on the site (and restaurants and gift shops) to attract more tourists and income, while the state antiquities people are more looking into a careful approach to preserve the 2,500 year old brickwork that won’t deliver the quick results and the tourism the local governor wants.
The most interesting building on the site is a Saddam-era palace – built after the 1991 Gulf War – that looms over the site on an man-made hill (which probably caused untold damage to the ruins to build).
It’s done in this retro ancient style he favors for his palaces and is actually quite cool looking, though apparently gutted inside. Renovating that and turning it into museum would probably bring the visitors to Babylon, but getting international money to restore a 1990s-era building would probably be a bit difficult.
Very little actual excavation has been done at Babylon, aside from some work the Germans did a hundred years ago and a few brief projects in the last few decades that were interrupted by circumstances. Probably 95 percent of the site remains untouched and if an agreement could be reached between the warring factions – local officials, the antiquities people, the farmers encroaching on the site – a lot more of Babylon could come to light.
Much the way the factions in Baghdad keep squabbling over election results with a zero-sum game mentality that only considers their gains and not the future stability of the country. It’s almost as though they’re all speaking a different languages.