Five years down 

New Haven Advocate freelancer Daniel Smith is in Iraq as an unembedded photojournalist, his seventh trip since the start of the war. He filed this dispatch from Baghdad last week.

Violence is down in Baghdad. It’s true.

It is much different than it was six months ago. Of course, the starting point was a city in humanitarian crisis, rife with suicide bombings and kidnappings, controlled by violent militias and fear. Now it’s a city in humanitarian crisis, with fewer suicide bombings and kidnappings, with the militias active, but quiet for the moment. Many I’ve met have regained some hope, but most I meet aren’t surprised by the most recent attacks. In the two weeks I’ve been here there have been several bombings.

Still, it feels less tense. Areas of the city that were impassable six months ago because of militias, al-Qaeda, kidnappers, snipers, etc., are more peaceful now. People go shopping more easily, and some of the fear has lifted. It’s been nice to see people smile, and to see them stroll sometimes instead of always hurrying from point A to point B.

In central Baghdad, a man who sells newspapers and books on a table is closing up shop in mid-afternoon, less than an hour after a suicide bomber killed 18 and wounded 60 about a half-mile away. He gestures with his palms up, alternately moving each hand up and down, signifying a scale. “Sometimes it will be better, sometimes it will be worse. I think it is now getting worse.”

Security

Iraq’s security plan of the past months has shown results. It came on the tail of receding sectarian violence, largely due to Sunni and Shia neighborhoods becoming almost completely segregated. Militias gained territory and set the makeup of the cities’ populations. When the security plan went into effect, it reinforced the segregation with walls and barbed wire. Neighborhoods were separated, with minimal ways in and out.

Shia militias are staying quiet, allowing Iraqi and American forces to concentrate on routing al-Qaeda, which is to the Shia militias’ benefit. Meanwhile, cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, though not often actively attacking troops, still numbers in the tens of thousands and retains control of parts of Baghdad and much of South Iraq. Al-Sadr has clout in the Iraqi Parliament and is currently studying to achieve the high religious title of Ayatollah, which can be expected to increase his following.

A female government worker in her 40s I met on the street told me, “The Americans are paying and arming the militias to stay quiet for now. Al-Sadr is not stupid. Jaish Al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army) is now getting weapons and training. They grow strong every day, and they do not give `up` their territory. What do you think will happen in the future?”

After years of al-Qaeda’s tactics bringing little but instability, the Sunni leaders, for their part, have changed their stance and allegiance. They now perceive their biggest threat to be the majority Shia, who control most of the government, along with the Kurds. It seems they’d rather have some say in the government than stand outside it. Unfair treatment and violence from some government forces with strong ties to Shia militias have caused Sunnis to side with an old foe, the American military. ‘Awakening’ councils, forces controlled by the Sunni tribal leaders, are now being funded and supported by the Iraqi government and the Americans. Many of these forces fought with al-Qaeda; now they fight against them.

The civilian spokesman for the new security plan is Dr. Tahseen Sheikhly. One day, I ride with him in the back of an armored vehicle (a gift from General Petraeus) into the Dora district of south Baghdad, “one of the hottest parts of the city.”

We are surrounded by a convoy of military vehicles. We stop at an infamous neighborhood called Mechanic, and dozens of Iraqi soldiers fan out into the streets and alleys, looking for IEDs and snipers. This is one of the parts of the city that truly looks like a war zone, with destroyed concrete structures and bullet holes in everything. Tahseen walks with 20 men crowded around him, guns drawn into the air.

“We have almost completely removed al-Qaeda from this area,” he says. “The important part of this is that we aren’t just bombing, we are winning the support of the population that supported them.”

I look at the desolation, and mention what is most disturbing to me: I don’t see a population. There are absolutely no people.

“Yes, they all moved away because of the danger before. We are trying to get them to come back, at least to check on their houses, but they do not.”

This seems an odd success story to have journalists cover, but one must realize how low the starting point was, and that a visit here without shots fired is a big deal. It actually is impressive.

We travel to one of Saddam’s old palaces (now an army base) for a military briefing, and then to several more Dora neighborhoods, where more people can be seen. We stop at schools, houses, and finally an estate with Awakening forces outside. Wearing orange vests, they look very much the part of a rag-tag regiment, but they are doing a better job driving out mujahadeen fighters than any foreign army. There are some American soldiers, but they are clearly not running the show. The commanding officer looks quizzically at me and says, “Who are you here with?” I tell him that I’m with Tahseen, and he says, “Wow. An unsupervised white guy.”

One soldier asks me for Tahseen’s name, and for the first time I get the impression Americans aren’t completely running the show. Maybe they’ve realized that, just as Awakening soldiers are better at combating al-Qaeda, Iraqis are better at securing Baghdad.

Health care

It is telling that in 2008 the International Red Cross/Red Crescent’s largest humanitarian operation worldwide will be in Iraq. Since security is still not sufficient to lead this operation from inside Iraq, its main offices are in neighboring Jordan. This is also the case with the UN, the World Health Program, and almost every other humanitarian agency still working in Iraq, which makes it that much harder to aid a population in a country where everything is a logistical nightmare anyway.

Hundreds of Iraqi doctors have fled the country in the past five years because they’ve become the target of organized killing and kidnapping. To say that the majority of hospitals and clinics cannot cope with the influx of patients is a gross understatement. Even the biggest, most highly equipped Baghdad hospitals are full of crumbling infrastructure, outdated and inoperative equipment, and a frightening lack of basic medical supplies. Current infectious disease outbreaks include typhoid, malaria, and cholera.

Electricity, water, and sewage

Improvements to the city’s power grid have not been carried to fruition, and government spokesmen had to make the announcement in February that there would not be more hours of electricity per day by this summer, as was promised. A spokesman for the Iraqi government recently reported that some days in February marked the lowest levels of sustained power to date.

In a city where temperatures can reach 120 degrees, lack of power for air-conditioning isn’t an inconvenience, it’s a health risk. Many businesses that survived the turmoil of the last five years, from factories to hotels, have closed down because they cannot afford the diesel needed to power generators, the only way to keep lights on and machinery running. Baghdad had power 16 to 24 hours a day before the war; now it has just seven.

Distribution of water has improved, but unevenly. Poor neighborhoods receive little or none. Although several multi-million-dollar sewage upgrades are underway, there are whole blocks, and even entire neighborhoods, in Baghdad that are ankle deep in untreated filth. The city currently has three major sewage treatment plants. Two are not working; one is working at half-capacity.

Displacement

More than 2.4 million Iraqis have been internally displaced, according to the UN. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center places the number even higher. Another 2.2 million people have fled Iraq entirely, mostly to Jordan and Syria. One man I met told me his brother was kicked out of his house by a militia. After a military raid, at the height of the sectarian bloodletting, he found out they were using his home to torture and kill people.

Human rights

It is difficult to measure human rights in a country where people are murdered for their religion and political affiliation every day, and local journalists are routinely threatened and killed. These aren’t institutional violations by the government, but are carried out by factions, many of which have power within the government. The government is culpable in that it isn’t sufficiently protecting its citizens against these violations.

Children’s rights are difficult to assess, as are figures on how many children attend school. More than 700 Iraqi schools were bombed in 2003, and almost none have been rebuilt. There are more than 50,000 orphans in Baghdad alone. In a school I visited in a south Baghdad district, the teacher asked which children had at least one parent killed in violence since 2003. Five out of 20 raised their hands. Two had lost both parents.

As for women’s rights, many of the country’s gender iniquities are institutional. Yanar Mohammed, founder and president of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, says things aren’t getting any better.

“In fact, in the south of the country, the rate of honor killings `the killing of women to redress a perceived cultural infraction` has risen sharply,” she says. “In Baghdad, women are singled out for violence and sexual slavery. Since 2003, many women in Baghdad are forced to not only cover their head for the first time in their lives, but must cover themselves in the specific dress of the militia that runs their neighborhood.”

Workers’ rights have suffered as well. Iraq actually has a rich history of labor unions, but according to Falah Alwan, president of the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq, “It is more difficult to organize for workers’ rights now than under Saddam.” To cite one example, he introduces me to four employees at an electric plant in Mussayeb, a city south of Baghdad.

“U.S. military forces have control of the security of the plant,” says Alwan. “There are about 1,000 workers, and they do not allow photographs of the horrible and unsafe working conditions. Even mobile phones are prohibited inside, under the pretext of security. The workers make demands for better wages, safety and housing, but there is no response from the government officials. Armed guards are in and outside the premises, and are in complete control.”

Employment and economy

Even though more than two million people have left the country, unemployment in Iraq is still estimated at 60-70 percent. Forty-three percent of Iraqis live in absolute poverty, according to the British relief organization Oxfam International. Prices are high, wages low. Even here in the land of oil, gas prices soar.

Transparency International ranked Iraq the third most corrupt nation in 2007, out of 180 surveyed. Everyone in Baghdad talks about corruption. On a plane flying into Baghdad I met Salama Al-Mahdi, an official at Iraq’s Ministry of Finance, and asked what she thought was the biggest problem with the economy.

“There is worse corruption than ever before,” she said. “Government workers with not a high salary buy big houses. It is not just Iraqis, also foreigners. Millions of dollars for `the` budget are stolen.”

The 2003 invasion broke the back of Iraqi industry, and it is still broken. The oft-lauded oil bill is expected to pass through Parliament soon, after years of pressure from America and England. It will give foreign oil companies — American and English oil companies — drilling rights and a majority of the profits from Iraq’s only real source of revenue for decades to come.

Yes, Iraq is much different than it was six months ago, but in the two weeks I’ve been here, the situation has noticeably changed again, and so have people’s faces. In just the time it has tak to write this article, a familiar fatalism in the way they speak has returned.

Today I heard the blast that killed 18 people down the street, another explosion and some gunfire, and I just now stepped out onto the balcony of my hotel room after hearing distant pounding. I don’t know what they were, but against the southward nighttime horizon, two orange flashes glowed over the Tigris. •

This story was commissioned by AAN member paper the New Haven Advocate, online at newhavenadvocate.com, and appeared this week in five AAN papers nationwide. You can find Daniel Smith online at danielwsmith.com.


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