Checkpoint Baghdad

As the Looters Run Out of Loot, Layers of Disaster Remain

Travelers leaving Iraq for Jordan said that by Tuesday, after American forces entered Baghdad, a lone Iraqi soldier manned the Jordanian-Iraqi border post. By 6:30 the next morning, when this reporter crossed into Iraq, he had apparently gone, and friendly American Special Forces soldiers had taken his place, wishing visitors to the country a pleasant trip. Sometime during this transition, the offices at the border were ransacked, with portraits of Saddam Hussein slashed or ripped to shreds.

The long road east held only an occasional notice of war and its aftermath: a Syrian tourist bus that had interrupted a bomb's brisk trip to a bridge; a roadside town where only a teahouse, a gas station, and a mosque survived among the charred remains of the other buildings. From the road, all the satellite images took on their missing third dimension. By the time visitors reached the city of Ramadi, 170 kilometers from Baghdad, signs of the post-war ravaging started to appear, with random fire directed at passing cars, before the cars were held up at gunpoint.

Villagers in Shoala, a Shiite community northwest of Baghdad, take fuel from government stores located by residents.
photo: Kael Alford
Villagers in Shoala, a Shiite community northwest of Baghdad, take fuel from government stores located by residents.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Marines says the looting spree is directed mainly at symbols of the state. A tour of Baghdad reveals that this is at least partially true. Today, a group of Shiite residents drove a truck around town, dismantling most of the city's larger statues of Saddam Hussein, before urinating on them.

But this doesn't explain what happened to the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet, housed in two modest buildings off of a busy expressway. No one who works at the school can figure out why they were targeted, especially since the attacking mob took very little away other than a stove and maybe a sink. Majid Al Ghazali, who teaches violin at the school he attended for 12 years, swings a demolished door by its remaining hinge. "Why would they smash this?" he asks. "It wasn't even closed."

There were two wrecking sprees, actually, one on Saturday night, by a mob of about 200 people, and a smaller follow-up the next morning. Before the second attack, Al Ghazali walked down the street to where a group of Marines were stationed, and begged for protection for the school. He claims that before shooing him away they told him it was none of their business."I think they'll come back and set this place on fire," says Al Ghazali. "The looters told me it's none of your business—there is no ruler, no government. I told them I was a teacher here," he recalls. "They said, 'That's in the past. Now, it's everything for everyone.' "

To be sure, there are far more tragic scenes in the capital today. The emergency room at Saddam Medical City overflows with the conflict's victims: children scarred for life by previously unexploded bombs they've come across, others operated on without any anesthetic. Bank vaults have been emptied, terrible news for those who didn't buy gold or send their money abroad before the war. There is no public electricity, and food is becoming more scarce. Citizens walk around angry, lecturing visiting journalists on the "occupying" army's duty to restore order.

Perhaps it's the soundtrack, the Iraqi oud player Mounir Bachir's solemn "Baghdad," played on one of the school's remaining pianos by another former student. Or the children's crayon drawings, the only decoration on walls stripped of their Saddam portraits. The director of the school, Hisham Sharraf, sobs as he tours the ballet studios, and especially "the store," a once locked room where all the school's instruments were kept. There are hundreds of violins, a contrabass, accordions, and other instruments smashed under the shelves that held them. A harpsichord sits, stripped, on a broken piano. "There are only three like this in the world," Sharraf says.

The school, founded in 1968, is selective, and is similar to New York City's performing arts high school. Sharraf is inconsolable."My house is damaged, my car is damaged, and now my school is damaged," he says, as he leafs through a register of all the students who have attended this place. Another register was ripped apart, its black-and-white passport photos strewn all over a hallway.

"This is an attack on Iraqi culture," he says, before reciting a laundry list of people who might be responsible (including the Kuwaitis), but probably aren't.

"I don't have any energy left to rebuild this."

Al Arasat is the Beverly Hills of Baghdad, but as in the rest of the city, its shops are welded shut. "All the garbage lives here," says the taxi driver. Residents include Qusay Hussein, whose villa is guarded by a group of men in a Toyota pickup truck; the old American Embassy, on a street guarded by U.S. Marines; and also, the palatial home of Tariq Aziz. His road is guarded by neighbors, but they seem to have given up deterring visitors and looters. "Go on in," one says."Take what you want, it's fine."

Aziz's home looks out on the Tigris river, and includes a stone relief that says "Home of the Leader." The looters have taken all of the furniture, the light fixtures, and even some of the electrical wiring. But they appear not to have been readers or collectors of the former minister's paraphernalia. The things they've left behind include pictures of Aziz with Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and Hosni Mubarak; books by Henry Kissinger; and a number of Hitchcock films. The Art of War in Arabic. A prosthodontics how-to (Aziz trained as a dentist), and a Choice of Texts From the Ba'ath Party Founders' Thought, by party founder Michel Aflaq. In his kitchen, one of two in the 20-room house, there is nothing left but some old cauliflower on the floor.

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