Thursday, November 20, 2003

There have been pounding sounds for several nights now, but instead of Improvised Explosive Devices blowing up at nearby Baghdad University, they appear to be the sound of coalition forces targeting safe houses used by insurgents just south and west of the city. The photographers still rush up to the 10th floor at night to try and see what’s going on, but they’re not rolling out of the hotel at every blast the way they used to. The military likes to give these operations names like Iron Hammer and Ivy Cyclone II.

The city seems to have more concrete barriers on the streets than ever before. Apart from the ones placed in front of sensitive locations, it’s not clear what the barriers do when they’re placed in the streets, except slow down trafb in places where you’d think this was undesirable. The jams trap coalition convoys as well as Iraqis. Apparently these things are made in the north and cost a fortune to transport here via flatbed truck. They certainly aren’t preventing any shootings or stopping any mortars and they help make the place look even more under siege. On Abu Nawass Street, which runs along the south bank of the Tigris opposite the Republican Palace compound, security measures taken not by the coalition but by the news media have allegedly shuttered shops belonging to Iraqis trying to make a living. Go to and scroll to or search for Ghayda Al Ali.

I’ve spent the last two days talking to soldiers who work in mortuary affairs taking care of the bodies of their fallen colleagues, and also talking to the angry families of Iraqi detainees held by coalition forces. Sad on both counts.

There are sixteen mortuary affairs specialists who handle the dead in the greater Baghdad area, and everyday a body comes in that must be tentatively identified, inventoried and placed in a casket to be airlifted home.

On the detainee issue, which has been exacerbated by the departure of the Red Cross, it’s been difficult getting a more detailed response from coalition officials. They acknowledge the system needs improvement.

“I thought the Americans were going to help us, more than Saddam Hussein” said Sadia Mohammed Jabber, whose son has been detained and is missing. “But they are doing nothing but arresting people just because someone says they’re a bad guy or they’re a Ba’athist.”

There are plenty of bad guys who insist they are innocent. But there seem to be just as many cases of bad intelligence, or false accusations because someone has a grudge.

I’m out on a midway break tomorrow Thursday. You do need to recharge, I think, so that the bureaucracy here does not wear you down and so that you can see stories with either fresh eyes or at least without a totally jaded attitude. Bush is in London vowing to stand firm in Iraq, and soldiers here seem resigned to staying for a long time. But politically-minded types keep throwing around the words “exit strategy.” Most Iraqis I’ve talked to are sufficiently distrustful of all the interest groups here to be seriously worried about an early departure by the Americans.

Meanwhile, it is a little surreal watching the Michael Jackson child molestation press conference live on BBC tonight, from Baghdad.