Baghdad: Halls of Mirrors

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

"There is no culture of democracy here. We need to be directed," he says. "During the last regime, we tried to teach them how to say no. Most of the middle class went to the tribal heads and the clerics for leadership. Changing this will be about socialization, shifting new ideas into the minds of people." But at the right rate, he cautions. Rumors that Kanan Makiya, the U.S.-based academic asked to draw up a new constitution, will be including language guaranteeing equal rights for homosexuals alarms Mohammed, though not personally. He says, "I think that will be very unacceptable to Iraqis, at least right now."

But the debates at the university, and across the country, might suggest that there are here already plenty of potential leaders of the new Iraq. When asked why Hareth and another student don't consider themselves leadership material, they demur.

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.

The keenest fights break out at the scenes of some great calamity, like on the unstable ground around the crater in Baghdad's Al-Mansour area, dug deep in the early days of the war by a multi-ton U.S. bomb gone astray. The spectators mill about today, marveling at the size of the hole, and discussing its lessons. To one man, the crater condemns the American justifications of invasion, even at this high price—in this case, three families pulverized in their homes. A taller man disagrees, revealing that three of his kin were taken by Hussein; Iraq, in his view, has been delivered. They stop yelling as a woman approaches with flowers; she's a relative of those killed in the blast.

Anger is also rife on the fourth floor of the sprawling Saddam Medical City hospital complex, where four families have moved in—cooking eating and sleeping for three weeks in a dirty ward. They have sons here who were injured by various munitions during the war. Ahmed Hassan, 12, sits in bed, his leg broken badly by a bomb. A pin has been inserted into the middle of his right calf, and string tied to the ends of the pin is connected to a number of small weights hanging off the end of the bed. Though meant to straighten the break, it resembles torture. "I gave birth to him when Bush the first was bombing us," says his mother. Louay Aboud's brother Saadik is in a bed across the room. His left leg was injured, he says, in an American missile attack, and had to be amputated. "He had eight operations," says Louay.

"Why didn't the Americans bring artificial limbs with them? There is no modern equipment here," he complains. "Why don't they have a hospital here?" Aboud wonders why the banks and the oil were more important than the people. Leaving aside theories about the oil, this is a recurring complaint: that the U.S. focused firmly on the money, ignoring the rights to which Iraqis believe they are entitled.

Wamidh Nadhmi is a towering figure in the Iraqi academy, the president of the Arab Association of Political Scientists, and currently a Baghdad University professor. Awoken at his home, he apologizes for the darkened sitting room, pointing out that there is no electricity. On one wall, there is a picture of Nadhmi with Saddam Hussein, above a bronze plaque depicting Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser in youthful profile. The rest of the first floor appears stuffed with books. Still shaking off sleep, he launches into a minor tirade.

"The army of occupation that was supposed to fix things is failing. Whether this is simply a lack of experience, or is intentional, I cannot judge. We were told this was an army of liberation, and then the public libraries, the museum, all the cultural institutions of this country were allowed to be looted. There are suspicions that the Americans are trying not just to occupy the country, but to humiliate it."

Nadhmi has been asked to broker the dispute at the political science department. "I was considered a moderate oppositionist of the regime, and I was asked to calm down the situation," he says. Nonetheless, he seems annoyed with the task, given the state of the country. "That should be secondary," he says.

Nadhmi says the department's crisis has its roots in the first Gulf War. Before then, he says, "even under the totalitarian regime we had a margin—a low margin, mind you—of academic freedom. But this lost its legs after Kuwait, a defeat most people held the regime responsible for. If the regime had made necessary reforms, it might have had a chance. But it did not change one inch." Up till 1990, he says, the dean had simply been required to be "friendly" to the Baath Party; afterward, he had to be a member.

"I appreciate certain parts of the students' protest," he says, sighing. "But people should not be opportunistic, and try to grab power until there is a new authority who can meet the conflicting demands of the population." It is unclear whether Nadhmi is talking about the school or the country, and he may be talking about both. What is clear is that he believes the Americans are the wrong people to oversee the political process that awaits; and echoing the sentiments voiced by the domestic political parties that have opened their offices in Baghdad, he believes the United Nations needs to be involved.

"We are not blind to the bright side of America," he says. "But if you insist on treating us to a person like Rumsfeld, you will start a dialogue of the deaf."

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