I heard the sound of freedom in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, the famous plaza where the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled one year ago. It sounds like machine gun fire.
On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers, trained and controlled by Coalition forces, opened fire on demonstrators here, forcing the emergency evacuation of the nearby Sheraton and Palestine hotels. As demonstrators returned to their homes in the poor neighbourhood of Sadr City, the U.S. army followed with tanks, helicopters, and planes, firing on at random on homes, stores, streets, even ambulances. According to local hospitals, forty seven people were killed and many more injured. In Najaf, the day was also bloody: 20 demonstrators dead, more than 150 injured.
"Do you have any rooms?" we ask the hotelier.
She looks us over, dwelling on my travel partner's bald, white head.
"No," she replies.
We try not to notice that there are sixty room keys in pigeonholes behind her desk-the place is empty.
"Will you have a room soon? Maybe next week?"
She hesitates. "Ahh… No."
We return to our current hotel — the one we want to leave because there are bets on when it is going to get hit — and flick on the TV: the BBC is showing footage of Richard Clarke's testimony before the September 11 Commission, and a couple of pundits are arguing about whether invading Iraq has made America safer.
In London, they unfurled a protest sign on Big Ben, in Rome a million demonstrators filled the streets. But here in Iraq, there were no such spectacular markings of the one year anniversary of the invasion a sign, the BBC speculated, that Iraqis are generally “pleased” with the progress of their liberation.
Yet driving around Baghdad on March 20, the eerie quiet felt like a sign of something else: that symbolic anniversaries are an unaffordable luxury when the war they are supposed to be marking is still being waged. Several demonstrations were planned for the 20th in Baghdad but were cancelled at the last minute a response to three days of rapid fire attacks on Iraqi and foreign civilians.
Thomas Friedman hasn't been this worked up about free trade since the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Back then, he told New York Times readers that the work environment in a Sri Lankan Victoria's Secret factory was so terrific "that, in terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work" there.
He never did update readers on how the girls enjoyed their stint stitching undergarments, but Friedman has since moved on-now to the joys of call-center work in Bangalore. These jobs, he wrote on February 29, are giving young people ‘self-confidence, dignity and optimism” -- and that's not just good for Indians, but for Americans as well. Why? Because happy workers paid to help US tourists locate the luggage they’d lost on Delta flights are less inclined to strap on dynamite and blow up those same planes.
It was Mary Vargas, a 44-year-old engineer in Renton, Washington, who carried U.S. therapy culture to its new zenith. Explaining why the war in Iraq was no longer her top election issue, she told Salon that, “when they didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction, I felt I could also focus on other things. I got validated.”
Yes, that’s right: war opposition as self-help. The end goal is not to seek justice for the victims, or punishment for the aggressors, but rather “validation” for the war’s critics. Once validated, it is of course time to reach for the talisman of self-help: “closure.” In this mindscape, Howard Dean’s wild scream was not so much a gaff as the second of the five stages of grieving: anger. The scream was a moment of uncontrolled release, a catharsis, allowing American liberals to externalize their rage and then move on, transferring their affections to more appropriate candidates.
If you believe the White House, Iraq's future government is being designed in Iraq. If you believe the Iraqi people, it is being designed at the White House. Technically, neither is true: Iraq's future government is being engineered in an anonymous research park in suburban North Carolina.
On March 4, 2003, with the invasion just 15 days away, the United States Agency for International Development asked three US firms to bid for a unique job: after Iraq was invaded and occupied, one company would be charged with setting up 180 local and provincial town councils in the rubble. This was newly imperial territory for firms accustomed to the friendly NGO-speak of “public-private-partnerships,” and two of the three firms decided not to apply. The “local governance” contract, worth $167.9 million in the first year and up to $466 million total, went to the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a private non-profit best known for its drug research. None of its employees had been to Iraq in years.
“The people of Iraq are free,” declared U.S. President George W. Bush in Tuesday’s State of the Union. The day before, 100,000 Iraqis begged to differ. They took to the streets of Baghdad shouting “Yes, yes to elections. No, no to selection.”
According to Iraq occupation chief Paul Bremer, there really is no difference between the White House’s version of freedom and the one being demanded on the street. Asked Friday whether his plan to form an Iraqi government through appointed caucuses was headed towards a clash with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call for direct elections, Bremer said he had no “fundamental disagreement with him.”
It was, he said, a mere quibble over details. “I don't want to go into the technical details of refinements… There are — if you talk to experts in these matters — all kinds of ways to organize partial elections and caucuses. And I'm not an election expert, so I don't want to go into the details. But we've always said we're willing to consider refinements.”
Don't think and drive.
That was the message sent out by the FBI to roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies on Christmas Eve. The alert urged police pulling over drivers for traffic violations, and conducting other routine investigations, to keep their eyes open for people carrying almanacs. Why almanacs? Because they are filled with facts — population figures, weather predictions, diagrams of buildings and landmarks. And according to the FBI Intelligence Bulletin, facts are dangerous weapons in the hands of terrorists, who can use them to "to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning."
But in a world filled with potentially lethal facts and figures, it seems unfair to single out almanac-readers for police harassment. As the editor of The World Almanac and Book of Facts rightly points out, "The government is our biggest single supplier of information." Not to mention the local library: A cache of potentially dangerous information weaponry is housed at the center of almost every American town. The FBI, of course, is all over the library threat, seizing library records at will under the Patriot Act.
Contrary to all predictions, the heavy doors of “Old Europe” weren’t slammed in James Baker’s face as he asked forgiveness for Iraq’s foreign debt. France and Germany appear to have signed on, and Russian is softening its line.
Just last week, there was virtual consensus that Baker’s Drop the Debt Tour had been maliciously sabotaged by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, whose move to shut out non- “coalition partners” from $18.6-billion in Iraq reconstruction contracts seemed designed to make Baker look like a hypocrite.
Only now it turns out that Wolfowitz may not have been undermining Baker at all, but rather acting as his enforcer. He showed up with a big stick — the threat of economic exclusion from Iraq’s potential $500-billion reconstruction — just when Baker was about to speak softly.
It's 8:40 am and the Sheraton Hotel ballroom thunders with the sound of plastic explosives pounding against metal. No, this is not the Sheraton in Baghdad, it's the one in Arlington, Virginia. And it's not a real terrorist attack, it's a hypothetical one. The screen at the front of the room is playing an advertisement for "bomb resistant waste receptacles": This trash can is so strong, we're told, it can contain a C4 blast. And its manufacturer is convinced that given half a chance, these babies would sell like hotcakes in Baghdad — at bus stations, Army barracks and, yes, upscale hotels. Available in Hunter Green, Fortuneberry Purple and Windswept Copper.