—Bush Broke It. Why, Doesn't He Fix It?—
By Jerry Levin
(Baghdad, Iraq April 22, 2003) Heavy traffic and getting heavier is
back on Baghdad main streets. That is not really a sign that life is
getting back to normal here, but simply that the air and ground war
is over, as well as the looting and institutional rampaging, which
is what for weeks kept most people indoors afraid to venture out.
"It's the difference between night and day," my former
Peter Arnett chortled to Sis and me, when—after many years—we
stumbled into a reunion while walking through the lobby of the hotel
housing much of the International press. "Remember how it was
the last days of the regime and in the war?" Peter asked
rhetorically. "We couldn't go anywhere with out our
everyone—including us—can go anywhere we want."
However, for many of those Iraqis now able to go anywhere they want,
except for visiting friends and family, it's a case of being all
dressed up with no place really to go…and nothing to do. No sight
worth seeing is intact because of the air war and subsequent ground
war bombardments; and there are still very few jobs to travel to.
That's because, until today, when power was restored—but only
momentarily (not even long enough to boil water)—there had been
electricity with which to manipulate the electronic technology and
operate the simpler mechanical contrivances, which, along with oil,
produced much of the wealth and capital that made the nation, except
for the dictatorship, one of the most sophisticated, better
educated, as well as, hygienically and medically, one of the best
off societies in the Middle East.
In fact for several weeks there has been no electricity to simply
turn night into day in Iraqi dwelling places or to power the humbler
appliances, which, before the twelve long years of war waged against
them by the U. S. and Britain began, had enabled their relatively
convenient domestic way of life.
Of course, the very few Iraqis who can afford gas powered generators
do have light at night. They also can continue to preserve
perishables in their refrigerators, as well as cook, wash, and
operate the many other conveniences such as radios and TVs, which
during prewar days even the less well to do could take for granted.
However, relatively well off Iraqis, like everyone else still dare
not drink scarce tap water without boiling it.
Why has it taken so long to restore power to Baghdad—if only for
those few tantalizing minutes today? There has been no official
explanation from occupation officials, who apparently are content to
let restoration—slow as it is—speak for itself and as it
the inference Iraqis have been drawing is that "America has been
leaving it for us to do."
So restoring power is very much on Omar's mind these days. The
exasperated unemployed Iraqi electrical engineer, now working
fitfully as a taxi driver- interpreter, complained that "Bush
it. So, why doesn't he fix it?"
"How can we fix it? And with what?" a perplexed college
upperclassman, named Ali, asked. He is not just eager to start
earning a currently nonexistent living, but more basic than that, he
is anxious to simply complete his education at Al-Mustansirya
University, Baghdad's second largest.
But doing that is on indefinite hold. Besides the absence of power,
the campus is a mess! Most class rooms, labs and administrative
spaces are in shambles: torn apart, looted and/or trashed by
rampaging civilians during the first days of the city's
(And down the street from the University, the local public grammar
school is in an equally sorry disheveled state too.)
Our tour of the campus is monitored and chaperoned by young men in
casual civilian clothes wearing green armbands made out of green
rags, who also are sporting menacing automatic rifles. Obviously
around to keep order, they scurry shyly out of sight when we try to
take their picture. They apparently are providing security with the
blessing of the officer in charge of two huge U. S. tanks stationed
across the street from the main entrance to the campus, because he
can easily observe the armed youths as they politely query each
person as he or she seeks to get inside the gate. "Our rules of
engagement, do not apply to boys like them. They are here to keep
order," the officer says, "so we don't disarm them."
"Are they students?" I ask Ali.
"No. They are from the Mosque."
"Why from the Mosque?"
"The Imam told them to come."
"Why the green arm bands?"
"They are Shia," says Ali, as he literally pushes me along in
to comply with the guards softly but firmly voiced recommendation to
keep moving and complete our tour as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, in the sprawling dusty dirt poor neighborhoods where
Sadaam did the least for the people, particularly the Shia, the
lights remain permanently off at night; the water taps are dry for
days on end; and there is no medicine for even the simplest of
ailments. So these Iraqis, who were among the first naturally to
cheer on the allies as "liberators," when it was finally safe
that, are becoming disillusioned fast with the virtually nonexistent
pace of power, water, medicine, and jobs restoration, as well as the
prospect of a drawn out process to acquire U. S. bestowed permission
to rule themselves.
As a result, these fuming millions are quickly forming into hitherto
unimagined broad-based coalitions. And a myriad of political
perhaps as many as 20 and rising—are emerging too in this former
party nation ruled by just one man. Potential party loyalists are
being wooed by organizers with offers of regular stipends for their
future votes and vote getting efforts.
However, the development of one particular broad-based coalition—
probably the largest in Baghdad—is more than political. This
historically unique alliance has the potential of becoming a social
and religious phenomena as well as political powerhouse.
The mushrooming coalition is comprised of poor Sunni and Shiite
Muslims. The partnership is being organized, pursued and jointly
promoted by already popular and therefore influential local Sunni
and Shiite clerics. Assertively militant, they are already
politically radical by western and most current Arab establishment
The coalition's savvy religious leaders, like their colleagues in
other Middle Eastern countries, are adept at organizing and
providing the kind of reliable social services capable of winning
the hearts and minds of their deprived beneficiaries to their
political agenda. Currently they have joined together to push for a
quick end to the occupation and the hopefully quick installation of
an elected government, which they would want to function along pious
Sadaam Hussein kept this kind of alliance from forming during his
paranoid reign by sewing suspicion of the Shiite majority among his
minority Sunni. His shrewdly promoted fear led, as he planned, to
hatred-motivated dissension, which enabled large scale violent
governmental persecutions, especially in the south. Sunnis who saw
through the subterfuge and resisted Sadaam's divide and rule
strategy were dealt with in an equally atrocious manner.
Recently we visited a former Baath Socialist Party (Sadaam's
neighborhood office located in a building on Palestine Street, a
major Baghdad boulevard. It had been commandeered by Shia in the
area who has turned it into a Mosque.
As in many other districts, the men there were encouraging others
from the neighborhood to help find those who had been involved in
the post invasion looting in order not to punish them but instead to
try to get them to respond positively to a joint plea by their Sunni
and Shiite cleric-leaders to give back what they stole.
And, guess what!? Many of the young men we encountered there were
wearing green armbands like the ones we saw embellishing the sleeves
of the youthful security guards at the university. Many also were
wearing black headbands. Meanwhile on the new Mosque's roof,
snapping smartly—and one could sense proudly—in a breeze, was
A horizontal banner perhaps twenty feet long was secured to a low
wall outside the building. I asked one of the typically young men
milling about what the sign said, "It says," he answered
There is only one force: the force of Islam."
"What makes this force?"
Pointing to his right hand, he said, "This is Shia." Then
to his left hand, he continued, "This is Sunni."
Then, interlacing his fingers, he squeezed his hands together
tightly and added with a blissful smile, "That be one big
At that moment, a grinning companion who had been nodding
affirmatively as his friend explained the significance of the
banner, placed a fresh red gardenia in my hand.
So these people too are part of the unending traffic snaking along
Iraq's main thoroughfares. But, unlike those essentially aimless
Iraqis described at the beginning of this piece, these Iraqis know
exactly where they are going; and they are in a hurry to get there.
* Jerry Levin is the former Beirut Bureau Chief of CNN in its early days. He was taken hostage in Lebanon in the early 1980s. He is now a committed 'peace activist' and passionate supporter of Palestinian Statehood.