This is their new Iraq
Bodies rotting in the sun, drill holes betraying unspeakable torture: this is what Bush calls democracy, writes Firas Al-Atraqchi
In a recent press conference with another world leader, US President George Bush said progress was being achieved in Iraq. This echoed the rudimentary pat-on-the-back sentimentality of senior US officials who continue to espouse the strategic gains of beefing up the Iraqi police force and national army as a way out of the fiasco the country has become.
In Iraq, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that US policies have "created opportunities and put Iraq on the right trajectory." For Iraqis, the right trajectory is either a mad dash for the border and exile in neighbouring and more stable countries or a tortuous ride in a Toyota pick-up truck to rank and overflowing morgues. In fact, Iraq is already so pitted into the throes of a low-tech civil war that Iraqis do not even bother to discuss it. It's death as usual.
A prominent writer let me know that he was leaving Iraq, likely for good. "Iraq is in a civil war," he wrote to me. "Anyone who says differently is either blind or behind it all."
Civil war or not, Iraqis are dying by the busload. The use of that metaphor is not inappropriate given that buses carrying ordinary Iraqis to and from their jobs are coming under routine attack. They are stopped, the occupants lined up, questioned, names checked. Then the occupants are separated into two groups, Sunnis on one side, Shias on the other. One day, it is the Shias who are executed, on other days the Sunnis.
In more troubling cases, dozens of government employees are kidnapped en masse. Those of particular sects are released while the corpses of those not are found later dotting Baghdad's streets and alleys with visible drill holes and other signs of torture. In addition to the usual spectre of decapitated corpses, Baghdad morgue officials are now reporting the loss of other body parts, such as ears and fingers.
The victims of the recent massacre of Sunnis in the Jihad district of Baghdad included many women and children. The corpse of one young girl, who appeared to be in her early teens, showed clear signs of eye gouging. One of her eyelids was sewn to her upper cheek, according to photographs provided by Sunni religious officials.
Despite the peculiarly named "Operation Forward Together" and the deployment of 50,000 Iraqi police forces supported by the US military, violence in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq has soared. In the past few weeks, tit- for-tat attacks have escalated. Shia mosques explode. A Sunni neighbourhood is targeted followed by Sunni mosques, which leads to car bombs exploding in mainly Shia areas of the capital. These attacks have pulled the country into a cycle of violence that current Iraqi authorities have proven ill equipped and perhaps unwilling to resolve.
The situation is so dire that Iraqis now carry fake ID cards that they can brandish if stopped by sectarian militants.
The Iraqi blogger Riverbend of "Baghdad Burning" framed it thus: "It's like Baghdad is no longer one city, it's a dozen different smaller cities each infected with its own form of violence. The television shows the images and the radio stations broadcast it. The newspapers show images of corpses and angry words jump out at you from their pages, 'civil war ... death ... killing ... bombing ... rape ...'"
Unfortunately, it is not only Baghdad that has seen such violence, although it is understandable that whatever force controls the capital will likely wield influence throughout the rest of Iraq's governorates. In Mosul, residents are fleeing to the Syrian and Turkish borders. Daylight street executions have become usual. Doctors and pharmacists are assassinated on a near daily basis while the few university professors and academics that remain have gone into hiding.
Tribal vendettas are now the new law, having replaced the incompetence of the newly trained police force. If a man or woman is killed, suspects are brought to justice by the entire tribal affiliation of the victim. Killings are swift and bodies fester in the summer heat throughout the suburbs of Mosul, Tal Afar, Bahzani and other outlying towns.
Towards the southeast, Kirkuk has also seen a rise in violence as members of the police force, Shia Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen are targeted. Kirkuk is a particular hotspot as it sits atop a hoard of oil fields and is considered the likely capital of a future independent Kurdish state.
Further south in the town of Miqdadiya, local police are battling a wave of kidnappings. To the west, Fallujah is witnessing renewed violence despite the obvious progress of citywide Internet access as boasted by the US administration.
As for Basra, it is a city on the verge of utter collapse and ruin. Reconstruction has all but halted as militia continue to battle it out for control of the vital oil-rich city. Members of the Christian community who can leave for Jordan or Syria have already done so. Those with less privileged financial status have escaped to the north of Iraq where they have been forced to live as refugees, usually encamped in the cemeteries of historic monasteries and churches.
This is the new Iraq and there is no respite. Even attempts at distraction or entertainment are now figments of the past. Music store owners are threatened, their shops forcibly closed or destroyed, and sports have all but been erased from the Iraqi psyche. A month ago, a tennis coach and his players were gunned down for wearing shorts. A national Taekwondo team was kidnapped in its entirety in late May and have not been heard of since.
Further, Iraq's national wrestling coach was killed last week in a botched kidnapping attempt. The head of Iraq's Olympic Committee and about 20 of his athletes were also kidnapped last week. This follows on the heels of a Muqtada Al-Sadr condemnation of sports and athletics as Zionist conspiracies designed to distract the Muslim world from technological development.
Iraq today can no longer be associated with the growing pains of a liberal society, nor is it even close to the vision of the future Iraqis want for themselves and their children. Regardless, policymakers in Washington continue to cite Iraq as a model of democracy in the Middle East.
Back at the news conference, Bush told Russia's President Vladimir Putin that American policy was geared to having the former Soviet nation develop a democracy like that in Iraq. After press corps laughter subsided (why are they laughing at our misery?), Putin turned to Bush and said matter-of-factly that his country did not want the kind of violence- plagued democracy Bush has fomented in Iraq.
Well said, Mr Putin. Neither do we.