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.