It was only after I had been in Baghdad for a month that I found what I was looking for. I had traveled to Iraq a year after the war began, at the height of what should have been a construction boom, but after weeks of searching I had not seen a single piece of heavy machinery apart from tanks and humvees. Then I saw it: a construction crane. It was big and yellow and impressive, and when I caught a glimpse of it around a corner in a busy shopping district I thought that I was finally about to witness some of the reconstruction I had heard so much about. But as I got closer I noticed that the crane was not actually rebuilding anything—not one of the bombed-out government buildings that still lay in rubble all over the city, nor one of the many power lines that remained in twisted heaps even as the heat of summer was starting to bear down. No, the crane was hoisting a giant billboard to the top of a three-story building. SUNBULAH: HONEY 100% NATURAL, made in Saudi Arabia.
I've been in New York a week now, watching the city prepare for the Republican National Convention and the accompanying protests. Much is predictable: tabloid hysteria about an anarchist siege; cops showing off their new crowd control toys; fierce debates about whether the demonstrations will hurt the Republicans or inadvertently help them.
What surprises me is what isn't here: Najaf. It's nowhere to be found. Every day, US bombs and tanks move closer to the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, reportedly damaging outer walls and sending shrapnel flying into the courtyard; every day, children are killed in their homes as US soldiers inflict collective punishment on the holy city; every day, more bodies are disturbed as US Marines stomp through the Valley of Peace cemetery, their boots slipping into graves as they use tombstones for cover.
Last month, I reluctantly joined the Anybody But Bush camp. It was “Bush in a Box” that finally got me, a gag gift my brother gave my father on his sixty-sixth birthday. Bush in a Box is a cardboard cutout of President 43 with a set of adhesive speech balloons featuring the usual tired Bushisms: “Is our children learning?” “They misunderestimated me”—standard-issue Bush-bashing schlock, on sale at Wal-Mart, made in Malaysia.
Yet Bush in a Box filled me with despair. It's not that the President is dumb, which I already knew, it's that he makes us dumb. Don't get me wrong: My brother is an exceptionally bright guy; he heads a think tank that publishes weighty policy papers on the failings of export-oriented resource extraction and the false savings of cuts to welfare. Whenever I have a question involving interest rates or currency boards, he's my first call. But Bush in a Box pretty much summarizes the level of analysis coming from the left these days. You know the line: The White House has been hijacked by a shady gang of zealots who are either insane or stupid or both. Vote Kerry and return the country to sanity.
There is a remarkable scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 when Lila Lipscomb talks with an anti-war activist outside the White House about the death of her 26-year-old son in Iraq. A pro-war passerby doesn't like what she overhears and announces, "This is all staged!"
Ms. Lipscomb turns to the woman, her voice shaking with rage, and says: "My son is not a stage. He was killed in Karbala, April 2. It is not a stage. My son is dead." Then she walks away and wails, "I need my son."
Watching Ms. Lipscomb doubled over in pain on the White House lawn, I was reminded of other mothers who have taken the loss of their children to the seat of power and changed the fate of wars. During Argentina's "dirty war," a group of women whose children had been disappeared by the military regime gathered every Thursday in front of the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires. At a time when all public protest was banned, they would walk silently in circles, wearing white headscarves and carrying photographs of their missing children.
Good news out of Baghdad: the Program Management Office, which oversees the $18.4 billion in US reconstruction funds, has finally set a goal it can meet. Sure, electricity is below prewar levels, the streets are rivers of sewage and more Iraqis have been fired than hired. But now the PMO has contracted with British mercenary firm Aegis to protect its employees from "assassination, kidnapping, injury and" — get this — "embarrassment." I don't know whether Aegis will succeed in protecting PMO employees from violent attack, but embarrassment? I'd say mission already accomplished. The people in charge of rebuilding Iraq can't be embarrassed, because, clearly, they have no shame.
In Baghdad, every encounter we had was a bit like going through customs.
"American?" was the inevitable first question.
"No, no, Canadian," our over-eager reply.
Sometimes our word wasn't good enough and our interrogators wanted proof.
We'd pull out our passports for inspection.
On their faces, you could often see a cloud of rage pass over. Women would sometimes let themselves smile. Kids would stop acting like mini-commandos and run off and play.
Don't get me wrong: Canadians aren't loved in Iraq; we just aren't, so far as I could tell, actively loathed.
In 1968, the legendary U.S. labour organizer Cesar Chavez went on a 25-day hunger strike. While depriving himself of food, he condemned abusive conditions suffered by farm workers. The slogan of his historic union drive was “Si se puede!” Yes, we can.
Last week, George Bush went on a four-day bus ride. While stopping for multiple pancake breakfasts, he praised tax cuts and condemned everyone who says American workers need protection in the global economy. His battle cry for laissez fair economics? “Yes, America Can.”
The echo was probably intentional. Bush is so desperate for the Hispanic vote that he has taken to shouting, “Vamos a ganar! We’re going to win!” during stump speeches in Ohio.
Can we please stop calling it a quagmire? The United States isn't mired in a bog or a marsh in Iraq (quagmire's literal meaning); it is free-falling off a cliff. The only question now is: Who will follow the Bush clan off this precipice, and who will refuse to jump?
More and more are, thankfully, choosing the second option. The last month of inflammatory US aggression in Iraq has inspired what can only be described as a mutiny: Waves of soldiers, workers and politicians under the command of the US occupation authority are suddenly refusing to follow orders and abandoning their posts. First Spain announced it would withdraw its troops, then Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Kazakhstan. South Korean and Bulgarian troops were pulled back to their bases, while New Zealand is withdrawing its engineers. El Salvador, Norway, The Netherlands and Thailand will likely be next.
April 9, 2003 was the day Baghdad fell to U.S. forces. One year later, it is rising up against them.
Donald Rumsfeld claims that the resistance is just a few "thugs, gangs and terrorists." This is dangerous, wishful thinking. The war against the occupation is now being fought out in the open, by regular people defending their homes and neighbourhoods — an Iraqi intifada.
"They stole our playground," an eight-year-old boy in Sadr City told me this week, pointing at six tanks parked in a soccer field, next to a rusty jungle gym. The field is a precious bit of green in an area of Baghdad that is otherwise a swamp of raw sewage and uncollected garbage.
Sadr City has seen little of Iraq's multi-billion-dollar "reconstruction," which is partly why Muqtader Sadr and his Mahadi army have so much support here. Before U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer provoked Sadr into an armed conflict by shutting down his newspaper and arresting and killing his deputies, the Mahadi army was not fighting coalition forces, it was doing their job for them.
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.