School dropouts can join the Marines

Seven years i was gone now I'm back here in Baghdad. The wave of violence following the invasion of Iraq has cost the lives of one million people since 2003.1) Ethnic-religious civil wars tore the country apart, foreign troops have set up huge military bases, and politicians who vowed to take down the militia entertain today own private armies. Extremism has transformed the once secular nation beyond recognition, with dire consequences for women, homosexuals and religious minorities. The government apparatus continues to be a feeding trough for nepotism and is dominated by ethnic-religious clientelism; national reconciliation is only a phantom.

US $ 53 billion in "aid" has apparently disappeared in bloated projects that only served to fill the pockets of foreign contractors and local officials, as 70 percent of the Iraqi population has no drinking water connection and unemployment is around 50 percent - officially, unofficially it is far higher.2,3) Today, Iraq is classified by Transparency International as the fifth most corrupt country in the world, and even if the security situation has improved somewhat in recent years, it is at an enormously high price. Ethnic-religious “cleansing” has changed the character of neighborhoods, which are now criss-crossed by the ubiquitous concrete barriers known as “T-walls”, and disfigured the face of the country. More than two million Iraqis are refugees, almost three million internally displaced persons - around a fifth of the population. Many are simply too afraid to return or too discouraged by what they have been through to believe the posters that are now everywhere promising “Security, Electricity, Jobs” and even “National Unity”.

The elections are imminent. By the time you read this, there will have been cow-deals between the minority government and other leading parties. Various alliances will have come about; Agreements between those who profess a secular US-backed "unity" and the others who can rely on powerful Shiite militias (for those interested in the outcome of the wars of religion: the majority Shiites have " won ”, and many Sunnis have fled). Murderers will negotiate with murderers, and the violence will almost certainly continue. It remains to be seen what changes in the situation of Iraqi citizens plagued by fate.

When I asked Ali Allawi, ex-minister in two governments after the invasion and author of the book The Occupation of Iraq4), how the country could be saved, he said to me: “The Sunnis have to say goodbye to the illusion that the old one Iraq would have been a state in which religion and ethnicity did not play an important role. The Shiites must stop worshiping their sacrifice like a fetish. And the Kurds have to decide whether they are Iraqis or not. In reality, the Americans can only be held responsible for the current situation until around 2006. After that, the blame lies with the Iraqis. "

Later I will ask women in a Baghdad beauty salon how Iraq could be saved, including Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Muslims, and they will answer me: “Enough, we are fed up with this uncertainty. We used to be able to go out on the streets alone, now we are locked in our apartments. We need another Saddam to get that under control. "

Such questions concern me through my head as I fly from Amman in neighboring Jordan to Baghdad. Maybe I should ask them to sit next to me. To my left is a handsome Iraqi man who appears modest but somehow posh; on the right a tall, fair-haired American with tattoos, in civilian clothes but with combat shoes. I try to get an idea of ​​them first before I start a conversation.

“When I was here before,” I say to the American, “I never asked people whether they were Sunnis or Shiites.” In fact, it was considered somehow strange and rather impolite, before the US started to change its opponents from Shiite ones Shoot down death squads (set up by the Ministry of the Interior), including the infamous Wolf Brigade, and support extremist Sunni militias (5,6)

Such procedures, often whitewashed as a means of building a "counterweight", paved the way for civil war. Iraq had survived the aftermath of the Cold War and power poker between Russia and the US only to fall victim to the dangerous divide-and-rule policies of the US and Iran. Extremist religious leaders, who gained influence in the post-invasion chaos and the power vacuum after the overthrow of the police state, had no problem recruiting willing infantry from among a generation of disenfranchised young men who had grown up on nothing but war, sanctions and Saddam .

It turns out that my American seatmate converted to Islam after a few years as an occupation soldier in Iraq. Now he works as a liaison officer for the US State Department. But he's against the occupation. “It's still a puppet regime. Our presence doesn't really help, "he tells me," but if we leave it could get worse. We have a responsibility to rebuild this country ... we helped destroy it. "

During the coming weeks I will hear many Iraqis say something similar. Everyone is worried about the time after the elections. Civil war broke out in 2005, when most of the Sunnis boycotted the elections. Today, with the withdrawal of half of the remaining 100,000 US soldiers planned for August, even more is at stake.

I turn to my Iraqi neighbor, who has been listening to my conversation with the American. He is Director General of the Date Palms Department in the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. Before the eight-year Iran-Iraq war destroyed a whole generation of young men on both sides and, by the way, hundreds of farms, there were 30 million date palms in Iraq. They're practically a national symbol, and Iraqi dates are among the most sought-after in the world. But years of war and more than a decade of sanctions that ruined the economy and made imports of agrochemicals impossible have decimated the date palm population, not to mention the ongoing drought. The ministry is now planning to attract foreign investment with lucrative contract offers for potential plantation operators. New plantings would, in turn, help stop the desertification that has plagued this formerly fertile land.

What has happened to this country? I remember my first trip to Iraq in 1997, during the dire period of the UN embargo punishing the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam. I should report on the deplorable state of health care. In a country that was once the envy of the Arab world for its state health system, child mortality in the early years of the sanctions had reached levels only seen in sub-Saharan Africa.

At that time the no-fly zone was still in effect, and I came to the border checkpoint by land, in an unreal lunar landscape in the middle of the desert. I drove in a shared taxi through the so-called “Sunni Triangle” - at that time nothing more than a series of very poor cities northwest of Baghdad. The Americanized "map" of Iraq after the invasion, with which the multicultural country should apparently be divided into three neatly separated parts - the Kurdish north, the Sunni center and the Shiite south - would have seemed just as foreign to me at the time as most Iraqis. Apart from the fact that the innermost circle around Saddam and the leadership of the Baath Party consisted of Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites and Christians and mixed marriages were common, the fight against the double terror through sanctions and Saddam left a kind of siege mentality in most of the people here emerge that welded them together and thus concealed the growing ethnic-religious tensions.

While the embargo destroyed what was left of the economy and middle class left by the eight-year war with Iran, it enabled Saddam to further tighten his iron grip on the country. With a ruined private economy and the ruling siege mentality, the ration cards handed out by the state ensured to drive away any remaining appetite for contradiction: it is not easy to bite the hand that feeds you.

After several trips to Iraq I came to occupied Iraq for the first time in August 2003 during the Saddam era. When I arrived at the former Saddam International Airport, completely renovated, including a makeshift prison and Burger King, a young US marine stamped my passport, but not with the old Iraqi eagle, but with an inconspicuous symbol of the "Coalition Provisional Authority". I did research for my book Dancing in the No-Fly Zone7), and I got there in time before the security situation would have made it impossible for me to report in my style - from markets, churches, mosques and theaters, from private apartments and neighborhoods. It was really dangerous now and then, but I enjoyed a certain freedom of movement and managed to meet many of my old friends and contacts.

After I left the country, I followed his misfortunes from afar, documenting the ongoing brain drain caused by the killings of professors, artists and doctors by death squads, as well as the new terror of the extremist militias. “Before we had a Saddam,” a playwright friend told me, “and we knew who to fear. Now we have dozens. "

But I never thought that I would come back again. In fact, it almost never happened, on the one hand because of concerns about the bombings of the last few months, on the other hand because of the restrictive issuing of journalist visas under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In the bad old days of Baathist apparatchiks, it was easier to get one. But almost at the last minute, an Iraqi NGO called the Journalistic Freedom Observatory became a savior and miraculously managed to get me a visa.

Well, after landing, I am waiting with a group of Tamil workers and a few French oil managers for my passport to be stamped, this time by Iraqis. Minutes later, I step out under the blazing sun of a “Brave New Iraq” where dozens of potential Saddam's stare down at me from election posters.

Copyright New Internationalist

4) The Occupation of Iraq - Winning the War, Losing the Peace; Yale University Press, April 2007
7) Dancing in the No-fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq, Olive Branch Press, September 2005.