Checkpoint Baghdad


There is a signal in Baghdad’s latest noise, order emerging from the apocalyptic spectacle of looters, Kalashnikov-wielding gangs, and raging industrial fires. Tomorrow, limited phone service will be restored. Former policemen have been called back to their jobs, and today, their white-and-blue patrol cars were seen racing around the city. But residents do not yet call this order, and ask angrily why the Americans stood by while the city burned. Some go a step further, suggesting that the visiting army has orchestrated the maelstrom, maybe with the help of Kuwaitis looking for revenge. The motives for such a strategy by the Americans remain unarticulated. But away from the crushed, gutted remnants of the state and the emptied palatial homes of departed Iraqi officialdom, there are signs that Baghdadis, kicked violently into a void, will be helping themselves for the time being.

At the checkpoints scattered throughout the capital, makeshift neighborhood watch groups have emerged, warning would-be thieves from venturing into private homes. They are not really checkpoints, but lines of cinder blocks, branches, sandbags, or just aluminum cans laid across the entrances to local roads. At one, in Al Arasat, Imad Alouse and his friends guard their middle-class neighborhood from those who man the passing trucks full of stacked-up stolen goods, with enough room for a just a bit more.

“The thieves have come from the neighborhoods that have . . . ” Alouse searches for a way around the word poor. “From the neighborhoods that have lost their dignity and honor.” He works in the furniture business, and had big plans to start his own restaurant, which for the time being he has abandoned. One of the men gathered around him has fashioned his own patrol uniform, an over-sized blue jumpsuit held bunched around his frame by a leather belt, into which he has stuffed a pistol and a handful of bullets. They haven’t had to shoot anyone yet. The little pistol has been, so far, deterrent enough.

“The regime was a disaster for us,” says Alouse. “And when they went, it was a disaster. And now the Americans have come, and this is a disaster.” Alouse says he is especially heartbroken at the news that the Iraqi National Museum had been looted, which he also called a disaster.

And these checkpoints, which have appeared all over residential Baghdad, seem to be working, at least as long, residents say, as there are valuables in commercial centers, which today remain unguarded.

Shoala, a mostly Shiite neighborhood north of Baghdad’s center, is still full of Iraqi military equipment, including a large number of burned-out or abandoned tanks, and a gaggle of big artillery guns, one of which marks the corner post of a sandy soccer field. Two games are going at once, and these kids, like their counterparts worldwide, wear the colors of the superstars from Italy, Brazil, and Argentina.

Half a mile away, a Shiite demonstration winds its way down a now shuttered shopping street, against the thundering backdrop of exploding ammunition in a nearby park. This is the neighborhood of Sheikh Abdul Hadi Al Hadawi, and he is finding ways to bring life back to normal.

Three days ago, to prevent a stampede for badly needed gasoline, he started distributing petrol coupons at his mosque. Several large tanks of the stuff were found and placed in a fenced-off sandlot nearby. A man with an AK-47 takes the coupons, which bear the sheikh’s powder blue seal. They are for anyone who asks, he says, but everyone interviewed at the makeshift gas station today is a local. “Look what we have been reduced to,” says one man, holding a plastic five-gallon jerrican, which gas consumers now purchase at a new market stall just down the road. “Just what are the Americans doing?”

“For 35 years this anger built inside of people’s hearts,” says Al Hadawi, sitting in his mosque as members of the flock jostle for his attention. In the courtyard, there is an antique dresser and a lush white couch, along with sacks of flour and sugar. Someone reveals that the furniture was looted from Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz’s house.

“We have been waiting for the end of the regime for a very long time,” says the sheikh, who says he spent a year and a half in one of the state security prisons for political reasons. “But we are sorry that the U.S. has not used this opportunity well. I think they will stay here a long time.”

Al Hadawi, and a few who have joined him, stress their desire for a democratic government in Iraq, and one acquainted with the needs of its citizens. Pressed further, the sheikh says Iran provides a good example of what he means. “We hope that the new government will be religious.” He has met with other sheikhs to talk about ways to restore calm to the city, and there are reports that Shoala’s example is being copied. The petrol program will end today, because supplies are running short. And Sheikh Al Hadawi needs the remaining fuel for the generator, because he now intends to provide electricity to the area.

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.

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.

Outside, the Godfather box set is empty, and so is the album sleeve for Bob Marley’s Uprising.

“When they all said that Baghdad fell, I was crushed from the inside,” says Imad Alouse. “Fine, Saddam goes. The regime goes. But to say that the city fell? There are still people here in this city.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 15, 2003

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