Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Latest From Iraq. And It Ain't Pretty

A post from Christopher Allbritton's outstanding site Back To Iraq. For those of you who don't know him, he's a former AP reporter who is "the Web's first fully reader-funded journalist-blogger". He's been reporting from Iraq since March, 2003.

I don’t know if I can really put into words just how bad it is here some days. Yesterday was horrible — just horrible. While most reports show Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra as “no-go” areas, practically the entire Western part of the country is controlled by insurgents, with pockets of U.S. power formed by the garrisons outside the towns. Insurgents move freely throughout the country and the violence continues to grow.

I wish I could point to a solution, but I don’t see one. People continue to email me, telling me to report the “truth” of all the good things that are going on in Iraq. I’m not seeing a one. A buddy of mine is stationed here and they’re fixing up a park on a major street. Gen. Chiarelli was very proud of this accomplishment, and he stressed this to me when I interviewed him for the TIME story. But Baghdadis couldn’t care less. They don’t want city beautification projects; they want electricity, clean water and, most of all, an end to the violence.

And in the midst of all this violence, most of the Iraqi Interim Government is out of town. Security Advisors, heads of important ministries and the chief of the new Mukhabarat are all mysteriously absent. The Iraqi security forces are a joke, with the much talked about Fallujah Brigade disbanded for being feckless and — worse — riddled with insurgents who were being paid and trained by the U.S. Marines.

Thousands of Iraqis are desperate to get a new passport and flee the country. These are often the most educated Iraqis — the have the money to get new passports and travel — so the brain-drain will accelerate.

The poor and the disenfranchised are finding their leaders in the populist and fundamentalist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr or in the radical Islam of the jihadis, who are casting a long shadow on this formerly secular country. Iraq has its own home-grown Wahhabists now, something it didn’t have 18 months ago.

In the context of all this, reporting on a half-assed refurbished school or two seems a bit childish and naive, the equivalent of telling a happy story to comfort a scared child. Anyone who asks me to tell the “real” story of Iraq — implying all the bad things are just media hype — should refer to this post. I just told you the real story: What was once a hell wrought by Saddam is now one of America’s making.

[UPDATE Sep 14, 2004 1210 +0300 GMT: I got the below email from an MP who served in Baghdad. He’s been back home for some months in American and gave me permission to print his views provided I strip the identification from it.

I saw your comment about not seeing much good being done by the US. I don’t know what’s going on now, but that sounds about right.

From my perspective as a grunt who was on the ground, we wanted to do all sorts of things to help, but we couldn’t. No matter what we wanted to do, my squad was not going to restore electricity to Iraq. Every day for several months we had to drive past a blown up power tower with lines dangling about 20 feet off the ground. (You may be able to spot this one: it’s new now, on the western side of Tampa around bridge 18 or so). It was disgusting to see it sit there on its side for so long.

So, all we got to do were hand out crayons and soccer balls to school kids. What else could we do? We wanted to help, but we were in the middle of a war and stuck in a behemoth of a bureaucracy. Our little efforts were indeed puny on a national scale, but it’s what we could do.

I don’t disagree with what you said or how you said it. I had the same frustration. However, if all those particular people can do is open a park, well, that’s all they can do, and I can see how they would be proud of it within their own little sphere of possibility.

I should expand on some of my thoughts. I’m not blaming the soldiers or think of them as evil bastards. I feel sorry for them, being put in a horrible position, and my anonymous soldier is right: If all they can do is open a park, then I will not begrudge them that. It doesn’t hurt, and if it makes it easier for the soldiers to get through the day, more power to them. It’s better than waiting around for the next attack. And they desperately need to feel they’re doing something. Otherwise, I would think they’d go mad. At least I get to feel that I’m bearing witness or something. And I’m here voluntarily. I can’t begin to imagine how it would feel if you were sent here against your will and then told what you were doing was a big fat waste of time and lives. I feel for the soldiers as deeply as I feel for the Iraqi people. As I said once before, we are all prisoners here.]


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