Traveling around Baghdad talking to it’s future leaders makes me feel kind of sick.
I spent the day going around to the different political parties, trying to figure out what their plans are for the future of Iraq’s economy. I found it so interesting to see how much action is going on, so many different groups making big plans for the future. We started off at the INC, Ahmed Chalabi’s group. They have taken over this huge country club. There are tons of men walking around in suits carrying kalachnikovs and other automatic rifles. There is this feeling among all the people I spoke with there of such practiced slickness. Just like mid-level PR people in the US who have learned to be smooth and talk in full paragraphs about how great their company is. But they haven’t learned to soften their slickness with some actual earnest honesty. I’ve never seen so many Iraqis without mustaches and with hair gel. Chalabi, as you probably know, is the very controversial leader of the Iraqi National Congress. He stole a huge amount of money from a bank in Jordan and just all around seems like a scumbag. The Defense Department Hawks love him, the CIA and the State Department hate him. I saw a few Americans at his country club. They wore civilian clothes but seemed sort of military. They wouldn’t talk to me. One guy had a Cubs hat and I pretended I was a big Cubs fan and was desperate for news on how they’re doing, just so I could talk to him. He all but ran away from me, calling out that the Cubs were doing fine last he heard. There are also lots of tribal chiefs walking around. They wear the dish-dash robe covered with a dark gauzy robe covering, usually with gold fringe. They look desert regal. Some are powerful and rich and run big tribes, others are as broke as everyone and run small, poor tribes. I didn’t get much useful reporting done. The people were too slick to tell me anything. But all the hushed conversations I was seeing, and everything I’ve heard about Chalabi made me feel this is the place where big things are happening. There is a feeling of power and knowledge, like these guys know what is happening in Iraq and are setting things up for themselves. They also have their own army, the Free Iraqi Forces, which have their own uniform and work under the command of the US Army. I can’t back this up, but my sense is they’re going to be running the show here and that’s bad. They are sleazy.
I then went to the Iraqi Communist Party. It’s in a tiny storefront with crappy furniture. I spoke with a very smart guy who just moved back to Iraq a few days ago from London. He had to flee Iraq in 1992. He seemed so honest and so earnest, it was refreshing. Made me want to be a communist. He said the Americans are obviously setting up a capitalist state and it’ll be run along ethnic-religious lines. He said the big meetings the Americans keep holding with opposition figures are bullshit, since they only invite people who generally agree with American plans. The Americans keep saying they’re creating a broad coalition of different parties to rule Iraq: but they just mean they have representatives of different ethnic and religious groups. There is no breadth of political views. He thinks the country should be run along secular lines with a vibrant political culture. He said as much as he hates capitalism, he’s actually happy to have it come to Iraq if it will improve living conditions for Iraqis. Communism will never come out of poverty and desperation. People have to become comfortable, have good lives, and raised expectations to begin fighting for their rights as workers. He said communists in Iraq are not agitating for a communist state in Iraq. They realize that the US is in charge and it’ll be capitalist for a while. They are content, for now, to lobby for workers’ rights within the new US system and then slowly build towards the communist state they want. He said it’s just amazing to be able to sit and so openly talk about politics with his colleagues. Most of the one’s who stayed behind were imprisoned and constantly in trouble with the regime.
The Kurds are much harder to get access to. Barzani’s KDP has branches all over the city. We kept driving from one branch to another trying to find the headquarters. Most of the branches are so poor and miserable. Some dirty abandoned storefront with mattresses on the floor where everyone sleeps. But the headquarters are in two pretty nice hotels. It’s a total armed camp. Guys in KDP uniforms wielding big guns (as well as the de rigueur serious looking guys in suits with machine guns) and yelling at cars not to slow down or park anywhere near by. At Chalabi’s place or anywhere else I go, there’s a curiosity and friendliness to reporters. But these guys were so suspicious looking. They told me that there is no one who can talk to me. And they can’t tell me when there will be someone I can talk with, for security reasons. So, I don’t know their economic vision. They wouldn’t let my driver park within a block of the place. They are keeping the whole area free of non-KDP cars. My driver and translator were so flipped out by this. They were both yelling in the car that it’s just like Saddam. All these political parties are telling Iraqis what to do. They kept repeating, M’nua’. Forbidden. That’s what the KDP guys told them, “your car is M’nua’.” They were so angry. I joked that they should watch it, maybe these new parties would arrest them for speaking out, just like Saddam did. My translator said he will never be silent again. He’s had enough of a taste of freedom of speech this last month that he’ll never be silent. They both side they want Saddam to come back and kill all these political leaders. Then they want to kill Saddam.
We then went by the US Central Command headquarters to find some of the Americans involved in Iraq’s economy. I was told my one of the military press officers that now, finally, they are fully open for business. Any reporter can come to the headquarters at the former Republican Palace and ask at the front desk for a press officer and get whatever information or interviews he needs. The only way to reach them is to show up. The whole press operation of the US Army here has two sat phones. Jesus. I have two sat phones. I’m equal to the whole US Army in Iraq. I know individual reporters with four sat phones. Sat phones are on sale all over Baghdad. Can’t the US army somehow get enough sat phones. It doesn’t matter, because nobody remembers what the sat phone numbers are, so you can’t call anyone. I showed up at the private at the gate said nobody is allowed past without an escort and they have no way to reach the press office to get me an escort. They don’t even have radios. The US press operation is so shockingly shoddy, I keep asking myself, we all keep asking ourselves, is this deliberate obfuscation or benign incompetence. My guess is it’s both. Things aren’t going as well as they hoped and they just want to hide from the press. And, at the same time, they are incredibly incompetent. I mean, any big US corporation knows how to do obfuscation reasonably well, so that it doesn’t just piss reporters off and encourage them to report bad things. Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t matter that much. I can’t imagine too many Americans are following the minutia of Iraq reconstruction and political development. I’d be surprised if 3% of Americans have an opinion about it or could say if it’s going well or badly. Even I’m not completely sure. Everything I see tells me that it’s going really badly. But I’m not seeing anything. Maybe they’re doing brilliant work and it’ll all work out great. Of course, it could all blow up really badly. Seeing all these different parties, each with their own army, makes me think it’s not impossible to imagine serious civil war breaking out. The big danger is not Chalabi’s INC or the KDP. They seem to be in the American pocket. The big danger is the Shi’a leaders who are becoming incredibly well organized, have their own armed groups, and most want nothing to do with this American process. The Shi’a are, of course, 60% of Iraq. They’ve never had power here and are not happy about seeing the Americans side up with Chalabi and the Kurds. I don’t know how big the blow up has to be to get the attention of the Americans. I can’t imagine it would be a reason people would choose not to vote for Bush. They’d probably just blame the crazy Arabs for whatever happens. I don’t know, it feels really bad. It feels like America can kind of do whatever it wants and not pay a big domestic political price. They’ve already, obviously, paid a big international price but they don’t seem to care. The war is over, so the story is over for most Americans, I assume. We won. That’s it.
It is so miserably hot here. Shockingly hot. Today would be the hottest day of any New York summer. And it’s only going to get hotter and hotter. It’s now about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. My translator swears that it’s regularly 140 in August here and frequently gets up to 150. This doesn’t seem possible. But everyone says it’s true. And it’s so humid. It’s just miserable. The whole place shuts down at 2. Under Saddam, people would leave work from 2 until the evening and then come back to work. But it’s still so dangerous at night that people just leave at 2 and don’t come back. Not that there’s too much work to do. I’m planning to be here another few weeks, but I feel so bad for my friends who are staying through the summer. The last week of May, I’m hoping to drive north to Kurdish Iraq. It’s in the mountains and is much cooler. Also, it’s said to be incredibly beautiful: lakes, caves, streams, mountains.
My translator and driver were telling Saddam jokes. They said there were Saddam jokes during the regime, but you’d be very careful about who you tell them to. They are hearing more and more Saddam jokes. One is this: a man dreams at night that he, not Saddam, is President of Iraq and his neighbor, Abu Ali, is vice President. He tells some friends about the dream in the morning. A few hours later the Mukhabarat secret police come by and arrest him. In interrogation, they say ‘how dare you dream this dream.’ He says, ‘I can’t control what I dream. It just comes to me.’ ’No. You must control your dreams.’ Then they ask for details of his dream. When they learn that Abu Ali was Vice President in the dream, they go out and arrest Abu Ali (This is when Iraqis start laughing). Abu Ali says, ‘What can I do? It’s his dream.’ (Big laughs).