"Occupation" is an
But it's the one that immediately
comes to mind when you've spent some time in the new Baghdad
By Borzou Daragahi
June 11, 2003
Long noisy columns of American tanks and armored vehicles rumble
through Baghdad's streets all day and all night. American sons
conduct body searches at checkpoints shrouded in razor wire. I
strain my neck up to see the sky whenever I hear the monotonous
chop-chop of the helicopters above.
I keep telling my driver never, ever pass the ubiquitous American
Humvees. They have names like "Hustler" or "Ghost
Rider" stenciled on them, like they're some American teens'
I tell the driver to keep a comfortable distance from
the Humvees, each equipped with a mounted machine gun and a
nervous 20-year-old from Kansas or Georgia holding onto it for
My driver doesn't understand why I'm so careful, he doesn't know
about 20-year-old kids from Kansas or Georgia. And besides,
to him, I'm as much a part of the invasion as the soldiers.
And he's right. Maybe I am.
"Occupation" is an ugly word, but it's the one that immediately
comes to mind when you've spent some time in the new Baghdad.
The American rulers here even recently changed the name of the
organization running the country from the Office of Reconstruction
and Humanitarian Affairs, or ORHA, to the office of the Coalition
Provisional Authority, or CPA. But I like to call it OCPA, as
in "We gonna oc'pa your goddamned country."
I wonder whether Mr. and Mrs. Minivan back in the states know
that American teenagers from Cicero, Illinois and Shaker Heights,
Ohio and Midland, Texas and Macon County, Georgia wearing flak
jackets and holding M-16s are now directing traffic in the streets
I wonder if they know that Paul Bremer, leader of
the occupation authority, is going around Baghdad playing soccer
with children for the television cameras, cutting ribbons like
I wonder if they think about what it means
that Americans soldiers are trying to enforce gun control in
land. Do they realize how radical a plunge the US has taken?
I wonder if they just can't be bothered, too concerned with the
kids' summer break or the NBA finals to give
about what this all means.
For Iraq's 5 million or so Sunni Arabs - who enjoyed economic
and political privileges under Saddam -- it's clear what
occupation means: humiliation, defeat and rage. Though
the Americans like
to make World War II analogies and think of themselves
as liberators freeing the country of a hated dictator,
Americans with burning resentment, something like how the
French must have viewed the occupying Nazis.
It's the Sunnis
are ambushing American soldiers. It's they who have holed
up in mosques,
daring Americans to enter and search for weapons. It's
their sons who will wind up joining violent groups like
dedicated to launching suicide bombs.
Iraq's 15 million or so Shiites - defeated, humiliated
and enraged by Saddam for over two decades - the occupation
the opportunity to take control of the country in which
they are the majority.
At first the Shiites were as vocal
getting the Americans out of Iraq as the Sunnis were.
Alas, the Shiite
moment of radicalism peaked 24 years ago in Tehran,
and when even the most anti-American, anti-Western Shiites
talented nephew getting promoted to dean of the school
of arts or a cousin
being hired to help out as a translator for the Americans,
they make temporary adjustments to their worldview.
Shiites never advanced far in the Baathist order, and now they're
reaping the benefits of their alienation from the previous regime.
most committed Islamists are keeping quiet.
instead focusing on grabbing control over schools,
starting health clinics
and taking over local seats of government, much like
the Christian right does in America.
For the dominant Kurds in the north of Iraq, occupation has meant
an opportunity for a little payback. The Kurds, once confined to
their Switzerland-sized autonomous enclave, have by some accounts
doubled their area of influence. They were once the most oppressed
and brutalized of Saddam's people. They placed all their chips
on America and they won. Predictably, they're not being very gracious
in victory, as they go about looting Arab villages and kicking
people off of "Kurdish" land.
Then there are the Americans. The sight and sound of people from
in east Arabia still startles me. My Midwestern consonants sometimes
give me access to the Sergeant or Private or Lieutenant's uncensored
thoughts. Most soldiers - stuck doing guard duty or conducting
foot patrols in the unbearable heat and violent sun-- hate it,
and troop morale is at a low: "Goddamnit I hate fuckin'
Eye-raq and fuckin' Eye-raqis. I just wanna go home!"
The other Americans here come with exotic titles: consultant,
attache, contractor, adviser, from Tony Blair's office, from
the Pentagon, from the White House, special liaison to deputy
blah-blah-blah. There are about a thousand of them.
the fresh-faced young, ambitious Republicans with degrees from
large state universities, who found their way here. There are
the State Department specialists who speak Arabic and Farsi fluently
and know more about the region than I'll ever know. There are
the jaded ex-Special Forces turned private spook for hire.
Get 'em by the beautiful pool in the hotel, wait for them to
finish a couple beers and they might speak candidly about the
American presence here. Some, they say, some of the good, smart
ones have packed up and left already, frustrated that they couldn't
do anything to help rebuild Iraq.
It's all slowed by the bureaucracy.
It's all in the hands of politicians handing out favors and contracts.
The Americans will leave here after 12 to 18 months, they hope.
The Americans won't leave for 100 years.
In contrast to the soldiers, they all seem to love being here
actually. They complain about the mosquitoes, the heat, the lack
of air-conditioning. They all stay in the Republican Palace grounds
- the massive sprawling complex used by Saddam -- separated from
the rest of the country by high physical walls and huge cultural
gaps. But they all seem to think they're performing a good deed
by being here.
Many bring up the World War II parable, how the US military went
in and liberated Europe and ocpa'ed Germany and brought freedom
and democracy and McDonald's. Those Krauts wound up loving Uncle
Sam! But I think the World War II analogy misses two crucial
Germans hated the US at first. They may have hated Hitler, too.
But they resented having foreigners on their soil. It was only
when the Cold War heated up that the Germans warmed to America:
as bad and uncivilized as these naïve Americans may be,
they're still not nearly as bad as the Red Russians who want
to conquer us.
Also, the US poured nearly $12 billion (that's in 1947 dollars;
right now that's probably $12 trillion) of reconstruction money
into rebuilding Europe as part of the Marshall Plan. In Iraq,
instead, it seems America is obsessed with trying to find ways
to make money, handing out reconstruction contracts to US firms,
and then proposing wacky self-financing schemes for rebuilding
Iraq. So I guess that means Iraqi oil will be sold to come up
with cash to pay American companies to rebuild Iraq.
There's this section of Baghdad where many of the towering, Stalinist
government offices are located. You drive through and it's like
a scene from a Godzilla movie or footage from Hiroshima: all
the government buildings -- the ministries of health, higher
education, defense, telecommunications, transportation -- have
been burnt, looted or bombed into oblivion. Only their steel
girder frames remain. Iraq's museums, theaters and universities
have also been torched and looted by vandals and criminals.
But amid these ruins, one building stands out as so pristine
it's surreal. Protected by phalanxes of US soldiers since the
very first days of the occupation, it actually seems to gleam
amid the apocalyptic landscape. It is, of course, the Ministry
this page to your friends