Monday, December 29, 2003

Ahmed Ibrahim, the senior undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for the Iraqi Police.

Not less than 43 photographs of Ibrahim and other senior police officials decorate his office walls and desk, including at least three identical photos of Ibrahim shaking hands with L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq.

Like many Iraqis working closely with the Americans, he is officially an optimist.

Asked if attacks would increase or die down now that Saddam is behind bars, Ibrahim referred to a brief window of time just before death when Muslims believe there is clarity and forgiveness and then it's all over.

“These operations are just like the awareness before death for those who are behind these attacks. The violence will come to an end soon. We have intelligence and we have every indication things will be over soon.”


Iman Khider, 46, is another optimist. It's refreshing to hear the hope in her voice and the confidence she has in a new Iraq. But she is an exile. Her reaction to Saddam's capture is wholly unlike the feelings of many, many Iraqis here who regardless of their oppression are still grieving for their country after watching Saddam give himself up without a fight.

Iman is more than thrilled to be back in Iraq after an extended vacation and an attempt to study abroad turned into more than two decades away from her family.

"Twenty five years I spent outside Iraq, moving from place to place, UK, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the US. All of these years, Iraq was in my eyes. I don't remember a day that I did not think of Iraq. All of my family is here except me."

In addition to her mother and father, who are still alive, Iman has 7 sisters and a brother.

She is married to another Iraqi exile who has a contract with the Defense Department to help rebuild Iraq. Both Iman and her husband worked most recently in a opposition radio station in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They've also lived in New Jersey.

Iman left Iraq when she was 19. She had wanted to study art but was rejected by the College of Art because she was not a Ba'athist. She decided to study outside of Iraq instead, and was on vacation in Lebanon when the Iran-Iraq war started and she could not return.

At the same time, Iman had worked in a government ministry. While in Lebanon, she applied to the Iraq embassy to continue her studies outside of Iraq but was rejected because she was a government employee.

"I was told I will face the death penalty if I did not return to Iraq," she said. She finished college in Lebanon anyway.

"In Iraq, the government was always asking my family about me. I stopped giving information to my family for 17 years. I tried to send verbal messages to them because it was too dangerous for them for me to send letters."

Iman managed to see her mother once, when her mother visited Amman shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. It was their first meeting in 17 years.

Three months ago, Iman finally made it back to Baghdad, driving in from Kuwait. She says she will never leave Iraq again.

She found new generations of her family she had never met. Even the younger members of her family had gray hair. But it took several steps before she could bring herself to their doorstep.

"I was supposed to go directly to my family, but I could not get out of the car because of my emotions. I went directly to the Sheraton instead," she said.

"I stayed in the hotel and called them by phone after two hours. I told them I will call you tomorrow, it's difficult for me to see you today. Then one by one I saw them. I was afraid I would not be able to withstand my feelings."

Mostly Iman is confused about why the old regime viewed her as such a threat.

She's returned to find a country broken by sanctions and brainwashed by Saddam. When his statue fell on April 9th, she knew it was a historic moment. But it didn't move her as much as the video of his capture.

"I shouted when I saw him. I called him a dog. Twenty five years I'm waiting for this moment. I said, 'I paid 25 years of my life, I lost my family because of you.' I left the house, I walked for a long time, from al Jadida Street to Haifa Street. I felt that my rights were returned to me, finally, just then."

As for rebuilding Iraq, she is confident that capitalism will bring in a new era.

Iman is angry about the coalition's mistakes and their inability to provide basic services such as electricity and gasoline. She faults the coalition for not securing Iraq's borders, and for not keeping their promise to improve and add to the rice, milk, tea and sugar that Iraqis get from the food rationing program.

But she's confident in the long term.

"We've opened a new page. People want to work, they want to eat and Saddam was an obstacle to that. The Iraqi people can't be patient. They want to catch something in their hands and the Americans are very slow to act. Iraqis have suffered a lot so they are in a hurry now."

"I'm optimistic. I know the Americans are telling the truth about the old regime. They are very slowly improving their way of doing things. They depend on trial and error and this takes time."

Thursday, December 25, 2003

It's a relatively quiet Christmas Eve in Baghdad, apart from an RPG (or something) that narrowly missed or slightly damaged the Sheraton Hotel, next to the Palestine.

A store in Karada called Golden Toys has a fake tree, Christmas ornaments and a Santa in the window. But the owner was inundated with last minute shoppers and too busy to talk. Customers eyed radio-controlled toy cars, electronic keyboards and Barbie doll lookalikes named Julia, Susan and Inul.

Across the street at Flowers Supermarket, people stood four deep at the cashier and said, unsurprisingly, that they viewed Christmas through the lens of a postwar lack of security.

"Before we used to have our mass from 10 pm to midnight because there were no security issues," said Sister Elham Hanna, 30, of the Mary Immaculate Congregation, as she stood in the styling gel and moisturizer aisle. "Now we have to make mass at 4 p.m. The war, the occupation, Saddam's capture, these things don't make Christmas any different this year, except for the timing of mass."

Meanwhile, my colleagues David Gilkey and Chip Somodevilla (Detroit Free Press photographers) describe their run-ins with the US military in an article in The Nation.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

I am just back from a trip to North Iraq where the electricity is 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Which means that there is often no hot water. When there is also no oil for heating, it’s a disaster.

I can hear the thump and boom from my balcony again tonight after several days of quiet. Sounds like they are pounding al-Dawra and Southwest Baghdad. I’m told the whirring is a gatling gun and that the military is calling this operation Iron Justice.

On the road back from the North, Iraqi police were burning gasoline confiscated from Turkish truckers. The trucks were supposed to be coming back empty after dumping their loads at gas stations in the south, but they were obviously setting aside gasoline to sell to black marketers. Incredulous Iraqi drivers can’t believe the authorities are wasting such precious fuel.

But if the police (or US soldiers who occasionally monitor them) were to simply impound the gasoline, they would surely be accused of reselling it themselves.

In Erbil province, I saw part of the Iraqi flag reproduced on the sleeves of some border guards and former Peshmerga soldiers. But the part that says God is Great in Arabic (in Saddam’s handwriting) was missing. Were the words removed in the fervor to erase all things Saddam? Or because Arabic words are not so valued in the Kurdish north? It was just a shirtsleeve, but if it was the Iraqi flag, it would upset a lot of people in the south and in Baghdad.

Got my first Blackhawk ride, with the 101st Airborne. Noisy but effective way for generals to get to ceremonial handovers of power from the coalition to Iraqis, quickly. Spectacular scenery of deep ravines, green hillsides and snow-capped mountains. When you're in the garbage-strewn flatlands south of Mosul or near industrial centers such as the refinery town of Baiji, it's difficult to imagine the resources Iraq is supposed to have. But Erbil and Sulaymania look gorgeous.

I’m confused about tomorrow being Christmas Eve. It doesn’t feel like it and I have no idea what I’m going to do, apart from the story I’m working on. One soldier said he brought his Christmas gifts in with him eight or nine months ago in anticipation of having to send something home to the States now. He added a few Christian trinkets he bought in Iraq – a keychain cross, a small dangling Bible that I initially mistook for a Quran.

There is a potluck dinner party on Thursday but looking at the Rice Krispies and Lapsang Suchong tea in my cupboard and my semi operational two-range stove, I can’t imagine what I would cook. My more determined colleagues tracked down a Turkey over Thanksgiving but mostly the supermarkets here stock canned foods and wonderful surprises like cheap freshly popped popcorn.

It’s freezing here now, about 37 degrees Farenheit. I might celebrate by doing a little shopping with the outgoing photographers who have become experts at ferreting out stopwatches the former dictator gave out to friends and supporters as well as slightly tacky lighters that burn a multi-colored flame and show the faces of Saddam Hussein and George Bush.

It's 2 a.m. here. More next time.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

I am not sure, but whether Saddam is tried by an all-Iraqi war crimes tribunal may be yet another divide among the many issues that seem to split the Sunni and Shia in Iraq.

While many of the Shia I’ve interviewed want Saddam to be tried and executed, Ala Hussein, 41, a Sunni who runs a small grocery store from his garage now makes a distinction because Saddam was captured by the Americans.

“If the Iraqis capture him, the situation is different. We can consider him a criminal and punish him,” Hussein said, as neighbors stopped by for candy, milk and chips during yet another blackout and counted out their dinars in the darkness.

“He deserves the death penalty if the Iraqis defeated him in a revolution.”

But now Saddam is a prisoner of war, captured by the bully in a mismatched fight between a great nation and a third world country, Hussein said.

“The trial should be done in an international court in the Hague because he is a prisoner of war and he was the leader of an Army.”

Hussein thinks a trial by an all-Iraqi war crimes tribunal would be less fair.

He says he wanted the Americans to invade because Saddam was a despotic ruler and the conditions in Iraq were terrible. He was expecting real democracy, quickly.

“But what happened next was there is a problem of sectarianism in Iraqi society and the Americans began dividing Iraq according to ideology,” Hussein said.

These differences are hundreds of years old, but according to Hussein, they have been exaggerated by the coalition forces, who have set up a Governing Council dominated by Shia. The Sunnis on the handpicked council have no real following.

The council set up a war crimes tribunal this month and Shia members of the council have said Saddam could face the death penalty.

“There is a great deal of Sunni and Shia differences in Iraq,” said Dr. Mohammed al Dahri, 33, a urologist from Haditha in al-Anbar province, a moderate Sunni. “Sunni don’t necessarily like Saddam but they prefer him to a Shia leader. They don’t say it frankly.”

People from al Anbar province, which includes Falluja and Ramadi and the largely anti-American Sunni Triangle, did not benefit under Saddam as much as the Tikritis, al Dahri said.

“I don’t know why people from Adhimiya and al Anbar go out into the street and shout his name. Except they don’t like the Americans and they don’t want a Shia leader.”

Optimists here say the Americans are finally beginning to pay more attention to the Sunnis.

Pessimists would argue it’s too late.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

I've been in Baghdad since Oct. 10. Originally I was to go home this Saturday but the editors in Washington asked me to stay on through mid January.

I said yes in part because this continues to be an important story and because I can't be sure whether I'll get another chance to come back here soon. And because of my husband's patient support. But at this very moment, I suppose I am feeling a wee bit tired.

There is the reporting of the last 36 hours, the capture of Saddam Hussein. But that's not what I mean.

It's also not just the physical running around and the interminable waits and security checks (it can take 4 hours door to door to cover a 45 minute briefing by the top military or civilian commander here).

Instead, it's the feeling you get when all arguments are circular.

When you hear and sympathize with frustrated voices on both sides, day after day.

When you want to believe there is reason for hope but then report on the aftermath of an explosion at a mosque where leaders publicly appeal for calm but privately stir things up.

When you listen not so patiently as people blame the Americans for dividing the Sunni and the Shia, who were all just brothers in Islam before the war.

It's not as simple as saying the US administrators here are screwing it up.

They have made a ton of mistakes, from disbanding the 400,000-strong old Iraqi Army to a tough de-Ba'athification policy that's uprooted low- and mid-level Ba'athists and all of the effective technocrats who ran the country. This alienated and marginalized even moderate Sunnis, who are increasingly looking the other way when their extremist cousins fire off RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and plant IED's (improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs).

It's also the Iraqis turning in their neighbors because of a grudge and then complaining about the military's detainee policy.

Families can't find detained relatives and the backlogs are terrible. But when a tip comes in that Abu Mohammed has a bunch of weapons, the military is going to respond with force. Soldiers are taking deadly sprays of shrapnel and losing arms, feet and worse to daily attacks that rise and fall in cycles.

Selfishly, I admit, things were brought home quite clearly when a Time magazine writer and photographer were badly injured by a grenade while embedded with US troops in Baghdad.

Iraqis have this wonderful optimism about being able to fix the country themselves, without any help from Iraqi exiles, who have a bad name because they haven't suffered under Saddam. But they need both the expertise and the management skills from abroad. There's no way they can modernize without foreign investment and all the pros and cons that that brings.

Meanwhile, the violence continues.

Two suicide car bombs went off in Baghdad and north of Baghdad today, killing at least 9 people in the third and fourth attack on Iraqi police in two days.

"The capture of Saddam Hussein has no impact relationship with the resistance," said Mohsen Abdul Hameed, a Baghdad University professor and one of the Iraqi Governing Council's five Sunni members.

"Most of the Iraqi people are happy about his capture. But a ruler for 35 years? Definitely, some of the people will be sad for him. Possibly it's an issue about his dignity, the way he was found," Hameed said.

Intelligence tips were supposedly up before Saturday’s capture. But they’re also up as a result of Saddam's arrest, the military says. Apart from finding valuable documents in his underground bunker, I'm not sure how they're able to quantify or connect this one-day spike to the capture, as a practical matter.

It's hard to see how this is going to soften the anger and frustration people feel about everything from a lack of political representation to aggressive raids to gasoline shortages to the oppressive look of concrete and barbed wire all over town to the lack of electricity (still).

The resistance is not just a bunch of Saddam sympathizers.

"Nationality Iraqis," as they are called here, strongly oppose any foreign occupier of their land and territory. It’s nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Many of them are Sunni, but some are just "good muslims" or Islamists. A Baghdad University Professor who is Sunni says it's just part of the basic religious education for most Muslims but especially for the Sunni.

Sunni Triangle residents (Falluja, Ramadi, Samarra, Dialla) are angry about the way they've been treated, especially during military raids and the recent get-tough campaigns.

They insist they’re not all planting roadside bombs and firing off rocket propelled grenades. Many of them are of course. A lot of them benefited financially under Saddam or were in the Army but are now jobless. Tribal sheikhs feel disrespected by coalition officials. Tribal leaders who could calm some of these insurgents down are not likely to do so after being disrespected.

And moderate, educated, political types in Baghdad are angry that the Americans are dictating who their legislators are going to be. They’re also annoyed that the coalition put Sunnis on the Governing Council who have little clout and no followers.

Finally, there’s a real sadness, even on the part of Iraqis who hate Saddam and believe he destroyed their country. They still feel for him as a once powerful Iraqi man, and they talk of dignity and humiliation even as they acknowledge the horrible crimes he's accused of - from mass graves to gassing the Kurds.

The idea that he was living in a hole, and didn't fight back (even though he had two AK-47s and a pistol) is too much to bear for some. They’re asking today whether the Americans anesthetized Saddam first before capturing him. It would have better if he killed himself, or was killed by the Iraqis, rather than be captured by the Americans, they say.

If the coalition is accounting for this degree of national pride or Islamic pride, it's not obvious.

Monday, December 15, 2003

This morning the Coalition Press Information Center press desk announced a 3 pm press conference. Because we had to be seated by 1:30 pm, we knew it had to be the top military or civilian commander in Iraq, or a Governing Council member (they have been targeted for assassination and have similar security procedures).

It was unusual that the press desk wouldn't say who the speaker would be; they added cryptically that it was a "very substantial announcement."

By 1:20, as I was arriving at the convention center after nearly an hour in traffic, reports that Saddam Hussein had been caught had begun to spread and were already airing on Arabic television. The US soldiers and Iraqi security guards at the convention center gates all had big smiles on. As we got searched, we could hear the beginnings of celebratory gunfire in the capital.

Shortly after 3 pm, a tired-looking Ambassador L. Paul Bremer strode to the podium and announced Saddam Hussein's capture at 830 pm Saturday, Baghdad time, to a packed crowd of journalists, soldiers and coalition workers.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him," said Bremer, flanked by the top American military commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and the next president of Iraq's Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi. There were loud cheers from the soldiers and coalition workers who packed the auditorium.

But some of the most emotional moments came from members of the Iraqi media. Several of them stood and shouted as a videotape of Saddam was shown. One said she was too emotionally overcome to ask a question. Another, Fatah al Sheikh, a journalist with Ishrakat al Sadr newspaper (owned by the Sadr organization, a Shi'ite group), sobbed loudly, collapsed in his seat and was comforted by his colleagues.

“Long Life for Iraq!” they shouted, along with "Death for Saddam!" and "We want punishment for Saddam!"

My translator and driver were excited at first, then dumbfounded, then a little confused and a little sad. Then happy again. We went from the convention center through the streets of Baghdad, from Shia neighborhoods to Sunni strongholds, talking with men and women about their reaction to news that many thought would never happen.

"At first I was really excited. Something inside of me felt like things are going to change for the better," Omar said.

But after he heard the applause that greeted Bremer's announcement and the passionate cheering from the Iraqi journalists, Omar said he felt very sad.

"For a democracy, you need a neutral and free media and what that journalist said was crazy," Omar said. "Death to Saddam?"

Omar wasn't the only person in the room who was uncomfortable with the cheering. "It was unprofessional. We were working. It was a news conference. It wasn't supposed to be theater," a photographer said.

Omar also admitted that it was sad seeing someone once so strong look so weak, especially as the videotape showed an Army medic doctor feeling Saddam's head and pressing down on his tongue with a wooden stick.

"I hate Saddam, I don't like him, but he's an Iraqi and for the Americans to find him living in a hole ... and it looks as though they're treating him like an animal," said Omar, who is Sunni.

Hassan, my driver, who is Shia, was less upset about that, saying Saddam looked healthy and didn't seem to be being mistreated. But he too said, "Really, it's difficult. First I am happy but now I don't know if I am angry at Saddam or sad for him. After all that talk, all that you did Saddam, you hide yourself in a hole and they capture you like a mouse?"

On the street, reaction was mixed.

A blue pickup truck cruised through the streets of al-Eskan honking its horn and carrying more than a dozen young men hanging out of its doors and windows. Abbass Ibrahim Abbass, 23, a cloth factory worker, shouted, "I'm happy because they catch Saddam. Damn the Tikritis!"

But as darkness fell in Adhimiya, a man with a black scarf wrapped around his head fired a Kalishnikov into the air as he led about 200 young men through the streets chanting "Long Live Saddam!" Some of the men in the crowd carried posters of Saddam. An older man watching from a side street muttered, "They're just kids."

Abdul Adim, a 45-year-old employee of the Ministry of Housing who would only give his first name, said:

"Saddam is a Muslim man and the infidels have caught him. I wish the Iraqis themselves caught him because the Iraqis should rule their own country, not the infidels," he said. "I prefer the Iraqis kill Saddam themselves rather than let the Americans catch him. We are Muslims, we should fight occupiers, we should fight for our lands, this is a part of our religious belief."

There are now many reasons for anti-American hostility.

Almost no one we talked to thought the violence would end.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

New Iraqi Army soldiers are leaving their posts reportedly because the pay ($60 a month) is too low.

It's the same salary Iraqis get as members of the new Iraqi Civil Defense Force and the Iraqi Police, both of which have been targeted by insurgents who have killed them at an alarming rate.

But teachers are getting $140 a month and engineers even more than that.

And members of the old Army, who were given pensions after staging angry protests over the summer, are in some cases only just receiving payments for September.

Things are a bit skewed here.

Some housewives don't know the price of meat because they cannot afford to buy it. This explains why some Iraqi manual laborers who earlier this year were paid about $2 a day by coalition forces took the job.

But other Iraqis are buying $110 new model Samsung cell phones. And those are among the cheaper models - one merchant is selling a $445 new model that includes a digital camera. It's not clear how many customers he'll have for that one. (The networks aren't up yet and cell phone service, once promised in December, is now not expected until at least the New Year).

CDs are also expensive here, my driver Hassan says.

I told him about the RIAA and the controversy over copying digital music at home.

His eyes grew wide at the idea of paying $16 for a new CD.

There are virtually no original CDs for sale here in Baghdad. Only good quality copies and bad quality copies.

Hassan didn't even consider buying a good quality copy at 5,000 dinars ($2.50) until I insisted that a bad quality version of the latest Amr Diab CD was unlistenable with its skips and stops.

There's a CD shop in Karada called Ghost which sells dozens of copies including recent releases by the Raveonettes and Eminem. But most of the foreigners who come in seem to want Arabic music, he says.

The latest hit by Nancy Ajram:

kill meh oo sahr (he said a word and something happened)
albi be kill meh (something in my heart, because of that word)
nar a lar nar (a fire on a fire)
bess meh a la bess meh (a smile on a smile)
gelbi eh tar (my heart is confused)
nessani ess me (makes me forget my name)
madri keif oo when (i don't know how and where)

yaaaaay saha yoonoo (wow the magic of his eyes)
nazrahtoo (the way he looks at me)
owuhl matla ayna ba'ayne (the first time we met, eye to eye)
yaaaaay shoo mah doo ma kill mah too (how nice his words)
kill meh kaif lau kanu it nane (it's only one word, what's going to happen if there are two?)

Saturday, December 06, 2003

In reporting a story about the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq, I kept asking Iraqis whether they thought democracy was consistent with Islam.

In Najaf, a conservative holy shrine city about two hours south of Baghdad, the answers were pretty consistent.

"We want democracy according to what Sharia law says," said Na'aman al-Mayahi, 28, a student at Sadr Religious University.
"If we apply the sharia by its strictest laws, then we will have democracy. Our laws are peaceful laws."

When I explained that some of the basic democratic rights included the right to free speech, the right to assembly, free direct elections and equal rights for everybody regardless of sex, race, religion, etc. al-Mayahi said quickly "not all these four are allowed by Sharia law."

Adnan Khalil Ibrahim, 42, a retired high school chemistry teacher, told me that in Islam, "we treat everybody equally."

I asked about women.

Men are allowed to have four wives; women are entitled to half the inheritance their brothers get; a woman's word is worth less than a man's in a court of law; a woman's murder if guilty of adultery can be sanctioned in certain cases.

"If you did a census in Najaf, how many people would actually have more than one wife?" Ibrahim said. "You will find a rare number of people who do this."

One reason for the four wives rule, Ibrahim added, was "to protect women from falling in sin or committing adultry because of their sexual needs. "

It's true there are restrictions on women in sharia law, Ibrahim said.

"As far as inheritance is concerned, it's common that the responsibility of putting bread on the table belongs to the man alone and because men are more responsible from this point of view, they inherit more. Each woman has a husband taking care of her, so her financial needs are less, while a man is supporting himself and his family."

Under Saddam, Iraq's three wars decimated the population. There are entire villages - in the Shia-dominated south, ironically - where it seems only the women are left.

(The population is also very young. In 2000, the median age in Iraq was 17, meaning half are under 17. "That tells you this is a population that is very malleable," Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a senior program officer with the United Nations Foundation told me recently. "They're easily persuaded, they can moved by grievances as well as by greed, they can be called to arms, they can fight.")

Actually, in our laws, we consider women more important than men, said Ibrahim's cousin, Adil Abdul Eelan, 25.

Eelan works in the Islamic Cultural office in Najaf, which publishes leaflets and holds seminars about Islam. "We consider women to be a jewel. No one can touch her."

My translator that day was Shamil Aziz, 51, an engineer and a Christian, with two daughters, Mariam, 24, and Nadine, 21. He is worried about a new government dominated by Shia clerics, if it means an elevation of sharia law. He has relatives in London and in Sweden but he doesn't want to leave Baghdad.

"In the Quran, it says thieves should have their hands cut off, but why should I accept that?" he said. "Women caught committing adultery will be stoned. Why should I accept that? If my wife witnesses a crime and wants to testify against the suspect she will need two women to counter a man's testimony in a court of law. Why should I accept it? If I have five boys and five girls, they are all my children and it's my money, why should I accept their inheritance laws?"

But aren't those rules just for Muslims?

"Look at Iran," Shamil said.


I had dinner with my driver’s family recently, and their views were more optimistic than a lot of the public reaction I’ve been hearing reporting on plans for a new Iraqi government.

“Let me tell you something. The Americans cannot fix everything in 6 months, 7 months, 8 months,” said Mahir Abdul-Razak, my driver’s older brother and a graduate from Baghdad University’s College of Administration and Economics. “In the near future, you will not hear so many explosions. Step by step, this will take time. I know that if Iraq does not get development, it is not good for America.”

Mahir blamed the countries surrounding Iraq for sending in foreign fighters.

“They are afraid of a new Iraq so they send terrorists to stop the progress or they do not stop them from coming. Saudi is the first country afraid of us, also Iran.”

When Mahir graduated, he decided against a government job because they only paid about 3,000 dinars a month (less than $2 a month at today’s rates, but worth slightly more before the war). “I would have had to take ‘commissions’ from people,” Mahir said. “It’s a very big problem in Iraq.”

Mahir now commutes 35 miles to Bacuba each day to work with his father’s building and construction company, which is far when many people can barely afford to fill up their gas tanks.

But things are better now. Before, when government and business officials were asked to for routine transactions, they would always have their hands out, Mahir said. “Now, I notice, in the banks, in government offices, they are shy. Nobody is asking me for money.”

Instead of 3,000 dinars a month, teachers are now getting 240,000 dinars a month (about $140 a month).

“It’s a very big jump,” said Maha Abdul Razak, Mahir’s sister. “My cousin was a teacher and she wanted to retire before the war. Now she is back to work. She has bought a satellite dish. Her children are wearing new clothes. Engineers take even more - $180 US dollars a month.”

Maha is nursing a one-month-old baby girl, Miriam. She and her husband Basil also have a son, Yousef, who is 3.

“It’s difficult for the Iraqi people now, waiting, waiting for something good. The good life will not be for me. It will be for my children,” Maha said.

“I graduated in 1993 but when I wanted to work the government said I must go far away to Dialla. I was in Baghdad and I should teach English to secondary school students here. They said I had to spend three years somewhere else, but I had my family and I’m a girl, so it wasn’t possible. So what am I doing now? Losing my language, just forgetting it.”

Monday, December 01, 2003

Members of the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council - a group of Iraqi-Americans hired by the Defense Department to help rebuild Iraq - are planning an anti-terrorism demonstration for this Friday, Dec. 5.

Since the coalition says more and more Iraqis are convinced terrorists are targeting them and not just the US military, it'll be interesting to see if the protest draws big crowds.

While some IRDC members have complained about being sidelined by the coalition and by Iraq's Governing Council, my translator thinks the IRDC is a more credible and more effective body than the US-appointed council.

"They are working as civilians," said Ali Abbass, a 21-year-old dentistry student. "We know they are also appointed by the Americans, but they are simple people, they don't travel with big security teams and they move among the Iraqis. They speak the language, they are depending on the tribes for help and to communicate. They have been abroad and they are educated, but they are not working with the coalition's name. And their jobs and families are in the US so they will go home."

And yet, Ali thinks the most high-profile project they're working on at the moment is terribly misdirected.

The demonstration - which is supposed to take place simultaneously in Detroit, Washington, Paris and London - is currently consuming hours of planning, including elaborate discussions on how to publicize the protest in a country without basic communications.

To send a unified message to the terrorists, the IRDC members want every business, school, mosque, political party, union and neighborhood group in Iraq to urge people to demonstrate.

"I can see the great effort they are putting into this. If they are asking all these organizations to help, why don't they ask each group to pay a small amount of money to help make a civilian volunteer force to protect the schools and neighborhoods?" Ali says. "You know terrorists are also targetting crowds. Are you sure they should be encouraging people to get in the streets?"

True, Iraq is finally free to have demonstrations, one of the basic rights under democracy.

"But this is the first time we are seeing car bombs, grenades, disguises like donkey carts for bombs," Ali insists. "They should educate people about terrorism not just tell them to walk in the street and shout. Iraqi people don't really have meetings and talk about community issues except in the Ba'ath Party.

"When Saddam had an election, the Ba'ath party carried out everything. They were professors in the universities, employees in government agencies, even at the smallest level they were spread through every neighborhood, so it was very organized. Now the IRDC is trying to import a very American concept. It's a nice idea but I don't think it works with the current situation. They are finding a lot of sympathetic people who want to feel they are doing something important, but this is not what we need right now. We need security, electricity, jobs. The Iraqi people are still living in the dark ages and here they are gathering thousands of people for nothing."

Jalil Talib al-Musawi, a former Army officer who said he represented an Islamic group called al Sadeh al Ashroff ("Honest Relatives of the Prophet"), seemed to agree.

"Why aren't you directing your energy at the imams of the mosques?" al-Musawi said at a recent IRDC planning meeting. "You should monitor the mosques. After six rocket-propelled grenades were fired the other day, the mosques in Khadra and in Dora started to broadcast halahil (celebratory noises often heard at weddings)."

US Army Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling has said there are about 20 mosques in Baghdad that the military is keeping tabs on because of potentially incendiary Friday sermons. It's not clear how much free speech the clerics will have in this new democracy.