Baghdad: Halls of Mirrors

Fights Arise Everywhere Over Iraqis' Own Roles in the New Iraq

 BAGHDAD, IRAQ—A fight has erupted on the looted campus of Baghdad University on the first day back after an extended winter break, sending a rift through its venerable department of political science. The dean, Mohammed Muthafar Al-Adhami, is clinging to his job, and the luxurious office guarded by two secretaries and four doors. A group of students and faculty members, charging he was a Baath Party loyalist, want him gone. As the scorching midday sun bakes the college's concrete courtyard, people on both sides of this divide yell and point fingers at each other. On a bulletin board behind them, the dean's opponents have posted flyers that say things like "Adhami = Saddam."

"I was very disappointed to return today and see that Adhami is still here," says Hareth Muhammed, a 31-year-old graduate student in the department, where he studies the role of the Quakers in American intellectual life. He says administrators used to rifle through his mail, including books and journals from the U.S. and Europe. Al-Adhami made clear his displeasure with Muhammed's reading choices. "He's a former member of parliament. The college of political science must move to an era of freethinking. We have no personal problem with the dean, but he doesn't deserve his post."

Like people all over Baghdad, members of this department are trying to sort out what they want a new Iraq to be, and what will be their own roles in redefining Iraqi civil society. Self-determination requires treading a minefield of immediate needs, recriminations for past ties, and redress for past wrongs. Other parts of official Baghdad also opened for business today, including many of the ministries the Americans hope will clear the backlog of civil crises gripping the city. Four weeks after the end of the war, despite small improvements, electricity is sporadic and there is still little petrol at the gas stations. Crime and looting remain major problems, and the hospitals continue to receive victims of the large number of live bombs lying in parks, roads, and neighborhoods.

Ahmed Hassan, 12, of the village of Yusfiyya, was injured when the car he was in was hit by an American missile.
photo: Johan Rydeng Spanner
Ahmed Hassan, 12, of the village of Yusfiyya, was injured when the car he was in was hit by an American missile.

And, most disturbing to the residents of this city, there is still no good answer to the question of who will ultimately govern Iraq. The U.S.'s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) has applied a Band-Aid, reinstating a legion of former civil servants, men like Al-Adhami, a move being resisted by those looking for change.

And as the temperature has soared here, so have tempers, resulting in vigorous arguments, especially around the sites of perceived U.S. impotence. Last week's gas fire off Al Anis Street started when people celebrating the temporary return of electricity with gunfire ignited a large gas tank, killing four. American soldiers gripping guns sat atop their tanks, helpless in the face of the blaze, watching the late-arriving fire trucks and ambulances. This set off a spontaneous demonstration, with residents chanting "Down with Bush" till the soldiers dispersed the protesters, and rounded up a few would-be looters.

"They are very good at arranging things after accidents," says Hamam Jabar, a neighborhood resident, standing in front of the national museum, now protected by U.S. tanks. "But never before the accident." Another man challenges this view, and the argument evolves into a dispute over the civic responsibilities of ordinary Iraqis. It evolves loudly because an ambulance has just plowed into a car, and the two drivers also start to fight. "We are our own government," one man shouts, as a tank rumbles by. "Our neighbors are the government, and our houses are the ministries." He has articulated something everyone here is feeling, and the emotional temperature cools. If the deficiencies of the occupying army start discussions, the way they are ending would seem to give cause for cheer.

A half-hour after the argument around the flyers at Baghdad University, the faculty are gathered outside their lounge, also caught up in the talk about Al-Adhami, who has left after refusing to be interviewed. "I found a memo he was preparing to send to the ministry," says Dr. Al-Dulemi Hafid, a compact man given to bouts of squinting. "He was proposing that all staff members should be members of the Baath Party, that new students who were not members of the party should be refused admission, and also that master's degree students should exhibit a high level of loyalty to the party," he says. Hafid doesn't have the memo with him and doesn't say where he got it. He is one of the professors happily expecting change and planning to meet with retired general Jay Garner to discuss university problems. "It was the wrong system from the beginning," he says.

Her students say Dr. Balkis Ali belongs to the 40 percent of professors here not tainted by the regime. Still, she thinks the problems with the dean are secondary. "What is this situation the Americans have allowed here?" she asks. "This society still doesn't know what freedom means, and it's clear what will happen here. American ideals will be imposed at the expense of Arab and Islamic ideals."

Hareth Mohammed, though, couldn't be more excited about the circulating American ideals, or about the messengers he hopes will deliver them—Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi.

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