Summer In Baghdad, And The Living Is Uneasy

Blast walls in Baghdad i i

Blast walls in the Bab a-Sharji neighborhood of Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to remove Baghdad's concrete maze over the next 40 days, which means the city would be transformed by the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Susannah George/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Susannah George/NPR
Blast walls in Baghdad

Blast walls in the Bab a-Sharji neighborhood of Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to remove Baghdad's concrete maze over the next 40 days, which means the city would be transformed by the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Susannah George/NPR

On my many trips to Baghdad I had a routine that would calm my nerves before boarding the plane for the short flight from Amman, Jordan.

Wrapping myself in an abbayah, the long black enveloping cloak and a black head scarf, made me feel invisible, safer somehow; a talisman against the death that stalked the city.

This is my first trip back in four years and I braved the flight bareheaded and visible to a very different Iraq. I noticed changes even before I landed. The passengers are still mostly contractors, a fraternity of beefy Western males, mostly Americans and Brits, with short hair and elaborate tattoos. These days, Iraqi families are among those flying, with children clutching backpacks, women in jeans, some bare-headed, too.

The baggage hall had the normal signs of any Middle East arrival, commercial posters for oil companies and American soft drink ads. American influence was more recognizable in the slick billboards touting an Iraqi flag with a man signing on to a patriotic nation-building project.

But the real success is the security project which has dramatically changed the airport exit routine. On my last visit in 2005, the airport road was the most dangerous stretch of highway in the world. This time, the driver navigated at normal speeds, as I marveled at the open shops and restaurants along the route in a capital shabbier and far safer.

However, there was not an American military uniform in sight.

A City Of Concrete

The blast walls — tall, gray barriers that surround most neighborhoods — make the city unrecognizable. I had read about these ugly concrete ravines, but it is still shocking to see the magnitude of the divisions in Baghdad. How long will it take to dismantle walls that saved lives but divided the population? Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pledged to remove Baghdad's concrete maze over the next 40 days, which means the city would be transformed by the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Can he move that much concrete in 40 days? Is this a reckless campaign pledge when civilians are still a target for random bombs?

Over the past few days, a string of suicide car bombs and rigged explosions seems designed to open Iraq's Sunni-Shiite divide again. Iraq's sectarian war has largely ended, but it is not forgotten. Sunnis whisper their concerns about safety, especially when the majority of the recent attacks have been against Shiite civilians. "Maybe there will be revenge against us," one old friend says in a lowered voice.

They say Sunni death counts get less play on state-run television. Baghdad has a distinctly Shiite spirit now, on display during the religious holidays when Shiite religious banners are hoisted over the city. The Shiites won, the Sunnis lost, but many of the issues that fueled the violence remain unresolved. The unanswered question here is what will happen when the American troops leave in 2011.

'There Isn't Any'

The word makku unites Sunnis and Shiite alike. It means "there isn't any." This was the first Iraqi Arabic word I learned back in 2003 and is still uttered in almost every discussion. Makku jobs, makku water, makku electricity. These complaints have only gotten stronger in my four-year absence.

But now the blame is directed at the Iraqi government rather than the Americans. Iraqis say corruption is to blame for the shortages at a time when oil exports are rising to pre-war levels. Some neighborhoods still get only three hours of electricity a day and depend on expensive private generators to run the air conditioners, television satellite dishes and home computers that have pushed up demand for power.

Every Iraqi tells me corruption is rampant in everyday life. Iraqi politicians complain about it, too. According to Transparency International, a watchdog group, Iraq is now the most corrupt country in the Middle East.

Bribery A Way Of Life

"Are you interested in buying 18 kilos of pork," a fellow journalist asks. He was approached by a local butcher, who had the frozen beast in a backroom meat locker. Pork is forbidden in Islam, so this contraband has likely come to the local market from an American base or a U.S. contractor's compound.

In government ministries, posters warn Iraqis not to pay bribes, but passing money to officials to speed up transactions is a way of life here.

For example, renewing a passport requires a $300 bribe. An Iraqi tells me the story of her mother who refused to pay, and was told she would wait until judgment day to get her passport.

Another Iraqi friend tells me her sister works at a local hospital. When the hospital administration ordered new computers, the machines arrived — then disappeared within a day. She was sure the theft was an inside job.

The Emerald City

"Passport!," the soldier demanded, sticking his head into the car as he looked us over from behind mirrored sunglasses at the entrance to the Green Zone. He was in full battle gear, dusty and unsmiling in the 120-degree Baghdad summer heat. I didn't notice at first that he was an Iraqi. This was the Green Zone, after all, the headquarters of the U.S. occupation, where Americans had the run of the place when I left in 2005.

Emerald City, as it was called, has been reclaimed; the Burger Kings and the Pizza Huts are mostly closed. Iraqis are in charge now. It is their country again.

Iraqis are happy that the Americans are out of sight, but worry about the next fight, the one they are convinced will begin after American soldiers finally depart.

Most Iraqis acknowledge that the U.S. has restrained a Shiite-led government that remains suspicious of the Sunni population. There is a looming battle for land and oil in the north and a defining election campaign in the fall. In the meantime, the prime minister has turned his attention to a smoking ban to improve the health of the country and to convince Iraqis and outside investors that Iraq is a "normal" country now.

These dog days of summer could be the best days for a while.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. She recently returned to Iraq on assignment for the first time in four years.

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