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Baghdad: Halls of Mirrors | Village Voice


Baghdad: Halls of Mirrors


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.

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.

“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.

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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