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.
"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.