Three weeks after the fall of the Iraqi dictator, Iraq entered a new epoch, Adel Darwish reports on evelopments on the streets of Basra and Baghdad 
 
A NEW EPOCH IN IRAQ 
  

April 30, 2003

Less than three weeks after the shoes of  ordinary Iraqis  slapped the images of the face of the man who, for two decades, looked down on them from gigantic posters- the second best thing since Saddam and his family escaped the people's justice - some 300 Iraqi delegates, representing the widest possible spectrum of political shades anywhere in the region, gathered for the first truly free meeting in Baghdad.

On 28 April, American retired General Jay Garner who heads a team to govern Iraq, opened the meeting. It was attended by British  Foreign Office Minister Mike O'brien who, every time he went out of hall,  was lobbied endlessly by Iraqi leaders and individuals seeking more British intervention and help to form an administration acceptable to a wider base of Iraqis. Inside the city hall, it was a carnival of free speech and democracy. With Iraqis returning from exile displaying debate skills and other democratic tools they picked in the west. Nevertheless, many of Iraqis who endured Saddam's dictatorship - and some paid heavy prices including losses of whole families - were by no means less articulate as they were more forthcoming and direct with their views than the ' sophisticated' returnees.

Not just in Baghdad - which was still largely lawless as we went to print - but across the country, release from the iron grip of the Nazi like  Baath party has resulted in a political free for all. In the 28 April meeting observers counted the presence of more than 60 parties who were in exile throughout Saddam's reign of terror. Some backed by ragtag militias and others armed with sophisticated printing facilities. ( itl) Tariq el-Shaab, the newspaper of the Iraqi communist Party - banned and hunted by the Baath since the collapse of their joint ' National Front Government in mid 1970s - was the first newspapers to be sold openly on the Streets of Baghdad since the collapse of the regime on April 9.  Other groups armed with little more than spray cans of paint made their presence felt on the walls and saddamless monuments.

Less sophisticated in organisation or in dealing with Americans, dozens of new local parties have been formed - or were already underground but emerged openly.
Even Baathists have formed new parties under other lables.
Many groups, especially with tribal affiliation, are resentful of the returnees. 

One of the dilemmas for President George Bush's project to implement liberal democracy in Iraq is the fact that the Islamists, both Sunni and Shia, seem to be more organised than any one else.
The Shia have a history of  organisation and enjoy the backing and support of Iran, better than the Sunni. The later are reported to  receive finance and help from the rich Gulf Arab states fearing an Iranian backed Shia theology in Baghdad. 
Ahmad el-Kebeisey, a 68,  traditional Sunni clergyman who lived in exile in Dubai was behind the first Friday - April 18- demonstration. He delivered his first sermon in the Abi Hanifa mosque in al-A'azamia, a Sunni district of Baghdad, and called for Iraqis to unite and get rid of "American  occupiers".
His return was  to spearhead resistance against a Shia takeover, apparently with the backing of several Arab governments. According to Arab diplomats his sudden return was urged by the United Arab Emirates and "other regional interests" to rally the "Sunni street".
Intelligence sources said the Americans facilitated Dr el-Kebeisey's journey to Baghdad in an attempt to balance the growing Shia strength.

While seen in the region as Historically pro-America, the Sunni Islamists too reject any idea of separation between religion and State.

The Democratic display in Baghdad coincided with another conference - the first to be held by Iraqi exiles since the fall of Saddam - was hastily held in Madrid and opened by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar raising the profile of Spain and its role in liberating Iraq. Among the two dozen groups and many independent Iraqis, the Islamists succeeded in inserting an item to` preserve Iraq's Islamic character and heritage'. While preserving the rights of women, was left to a liberal minded Iraqi man - despite the presence of several women - as the only voice among 80 delegates. He was annoyed that womens' rights were mentioned in a paragraph granting the rights of ethnic minorities in the final Madrid Declaration. Women are not an ethnic minority, he protested, but half the nation   

Last December - three months before the war- the exiled opposition, after endless arguments, had formed a 65-man committee  to act the nucleus government. 

After liberation, the Americans and most Iraqis insist on expanding the forum to include Iraqis from inside Iraq. After the large meeting in Baghdad, they talk of widening the forum to 150 embracing full range of factions, sects, and ethnic groupings.

As we were going to print Gen garner told reporters in Basra there soon would be a Nine man council to run Iraq, made from local and exiled leaders. 

As this newspaper [ magazine Publication??? ] argued many times before, there is not much evidence that President Bush's administration gave enough thought to how to deal with confusion the chaotic scene after the war.

The highly centralised Iraqi state - you have to be ruthlessly efficient to succeed as a dictatorship- has disintegrated into a patchwork of fifes or smaller communities run by mosque Imams- vicars or tribal leaders. There is a big question on the so called ` Local leaders'. Few are genuinely democratic. Some are self appointed, others chosen by the Americans or the British. But they tread on a knife edge as claiming American support can also carry the ` shameful' lable of collaborating with ` the invaders.'
  
Predictably, the American's customary blunders are committed, almost daily.  From nervous trigger happy American troops patrolling cities without any clue of local custom or how to communicate with people, all the way to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - famed for letting his words bypass his brains in their rush to his lips- upsetting the Shia ( 60% of Iraqi population) by his unsubtle anti Shia remarks.

As President Bush declared an end to combat operations in Iraq, local leaders in In Al-Fallujah a town of 200,000 mainly Arab Sunni 20 miles west of Baghdad contradicted him.   Khalaf Abed Shebib, lamenting civilians killed by the Americans in the town  believes the war is only just beginning. 

``History would recall how the rebellion against Bush had begun here,''  he told the Sunday Times man last month. 

There were ugly scenes of American troops trying to quell a demonstration that ended with 16 dead and many wounded and scoring  bigger losses in the battle of hearts and minds.

Whatever prompted US troops to open fire on Fallujah's citizens on 29th April- the Americans said that they shot in self-defence and the Iraqis said that they were mown down without provocation - an ugly mood settled over the town which was seething with hatred for the `invaders.' 

Another bloodbath may have been averted three days later when a local Immam called off a demonstration after seeing protesters stuffing hand grenades into their pockets. Seven US soldiers had been injured the previous night when two grenades were lobbed into their compound - Baath party building where the American troops have made their Fallujah headquarters. A move that reminded the population of the Baathist oppression, and for the Baathist sympathisers, they saw it as twisting the knife in their wound. They were accused of inciting the violence and protest against the Americans.

One account, by a witness contacted by The Middle East, is that the Americans took over a school in town, believing they got Iraqi approval. The Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged openly for the first time started a protest urging yongesters in the crowds to throw stones. The protests marsh  swelled quickly into an Intifada style stone throwing demonstration, which, according to our witness, the Americans met with gun-fire. The latter made matters worse by firing later and killing some people protesting at the original killing. 

The massive gulf between  American and Iraqi accounts of the crisis  reflected a total lack in mutual understanding. 

The Iraqis alleged that technological advanced gadgetry around the necks of American soldiers - including binoculars were capable of seeing through the clothing of Iraqi women.

American officer Dean Lockhart ridiculed the accusation as he told reporters ` we are not here for the show ' - It wasn't clear as why, for example  , didn't he let a few Iraqis look through the binoculars to see for themselves as British soldiers do with youngsters in Basra and engage in friendly games with them.

Challenged by British reporters on the scene, American officers were unable to specify what steps had been taken to win the population or to bond with them?

The only contact seemed to be loudspeakers mounted on the back of a humvee ( American Armed Personal Carrier). It projected a call, in a  robotic voice, in Arabic `` People of Fallujah, American forces are here to maintain law and order. Please do not throw stones at the soldiers.'' 

Unlike the British soldiers who won the support of the locals in Basra with the same speed they entered the southern cities. the Americans seemed ill-prepared for building cultural and human bridges. 

The only human contact they established was with the Mayor of al-Fallujah, which also was also fell casualty to misunderstanding. He asked the Americans to withdraw to the edge of the city to avoid further mishaps. They said he was not asking them to leave. When reporters asked the tribal leader his response was: ``If they do not leave, we will make them.'' 

Unlike the American soldier - who only feels safe inside a massive Abram tank - British soldiers in Basra, Um Qasr and Safwan, treat population with respect, engage in conversation, eat and drink with them and hold weekly football matches. Families bringing cooked meals to their British friends is a familiar scene in Basra where men from the 7th parachute regiment drink coffee with their Iraqi friends on street coroners. 

Meanwhile the Americans were coming under a lot of criticism from international and regional charitable organisations. Oxfam's Barbara Stockings has complained on BBC Today Programme that American troops are not still making it safe enough on the ground for relief work and operation there to help Iraqi. Oxafm workers say even in the south they leave Kuwait at crack of dawn to do the work need in the southern cities, then return to Kuwait at night for their safety.
Ms Stocking called for the UN, not the coalition,  to take the lead  in overseeing the reconstruction and Charity work.

Efforts to restore order in Baghdad  is much more slower than the Americans wished. The capital's new police chief resigned on 3d May after just nine days in the job. An American army spokesman said Zuhir al-Naimi did not want to implement police procedures suggested by the U. S. 

Shortages of petrol and electricity, insecurity, looting and an absence of jobs have galvanised anti-American feelings. Gn Garner can do little without any effective administration as  workers, teachers and schoolchildren sat idly at home and the streets were piled with rotting rubbish. 

However some schools opened and primary school children returned as the first lesson was to tear up Saddam's pictures firmly attached to all text books in schools.

There is little resemblance of order in the Baghdad, where one of the main past times for frustrated unemployed men is playing with guns. 
 
When curfew goes into effect at 11pm, nervous, trigger-happy American soldiers come out blazing at  shadows, they mistake for attackers, and stray dogs howling in the night. 

The task of identifying friend or foe has not been helped by the unchecked growth of armed and uniformed militias such as the ``Men in Black '' a group of men in black suits, dark glasses and black, shiny shoes - serving rival political groups. 

The Americans ordered a ban on Iraqis from carrying firearms. It is not clear whether it applied to thousands of neighborhood watch groups protecting families, property, schools and hospitals against looters? 
Or to groups of Immams guarding many boxes contacting items from the Baghdad museum in their homes?
And the two Kurdish parties - who are America's faithful allies in the war - now fear the American anti firearms ` fatwa' might apply to them.  And how would you disarm 60,000 fighters, who captured a massive arsenal of heavy weapons left by Saddam's fleeing army  without fighting another war?

In Baghdad Americans searching for weapons, have mistakenly arrested members of Free Iraqi Forces, the militia commanded by Dr Ahmad Chalabi the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, which has been recruited, trained, armed and financed by non but the Americans themselves as the Pentagon's favourite force to police Iraq. The FIF men were released and their guns eventually returned; but it is still not clear whether Dr Chalabi's group is to be permitted a monopoly among Iraqi parties on the right to bear arms. It could raise suspicious of a secrete deal cut with the FIF, or if it disarmed, the Pentagon would have shot itself in the foot.

Whether or not Paul Bremer, the former career diplomat selected by Bush as an overall, civilian head of Garner's military-dominated transition team, can make any difference, efforts to find Iraqis to run ministries were backfiring. 

Iraqi artists and intellectuals like poets and playwrights, many of whom were carted off to jail and intimidated for turning out plays or books considered disrespectful of the famously intolerant dictator were horrified by the Americans offering the job of head of Theatre and Films in the new Iraqi administration to Saddam's  man who had held it before.

Louai Haki 42, who harnessed artistic output for the glorification of the dictator and was known as Saddam's favourite poet, said the Americans had been very `polite' in asking him to resume work as director-general of Iraqi cinema and theatre. He was not sure, however, if the new administrative ethos would be much to his liking as he told reporters that `Iraq is not suited to democracy,'  describing his countrymen as a `herd of sheep' whose totalitarian traditions made them incapable of obedience to more than a single shepherd. 

However the scenes from Al-Mutanbi street, tells a different story as traditional book stalls there are now rich with hundreds of books from every tradition. They include books that could have landed their sells or keeper in jail under Saddam. Books by  Iraqi exiled intellectual Kanan Makiya, who first exposed Saddam Hussein's tyranny in `Republic of Fear,' could be found on many stalls, just as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's works were secretly circulated more than a decade ago in Russia. In Iraq's dictatorship, however, the list of banned texts also included religious works, anything by communist writers and by real or supposed opponents of the regime. 

Hundreds of Satellite dishes are sold daily enabling Iraqis, for the first time, to watch broadcast other than Iraqi TV. However there is no Iraqi radio or Television yet which would leave the minds of the Iraqis - who still have Television sets that escaped the mass looting - exposed to friendly fire from many Arab Satellite channels. Channels who might appear to have the freedom the Iraqi broadcast lacked for three decades, but play a major role in confusing Arab masses and brainwash them into fighting un-real battles instead telling them the simple truth.


 The difficult task facing America  No smoking gun but America keeps pressure on * The Show Rolls on  * Hans Blix's text 14 Feb 2003  *  who will have the last laugh? Sorting out Saddam ?   The raid *.  Iraqi Official Statement   *. The View from Britain    * American policy on Iraq in disarray    * .Saddam, the popular dictator among Arabs.  . 


Further information:
Iraqi Mission in the UN.
British Ministry of Defence
The pentagon


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