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a desperate country
From: Martin Smith · Re: South of Baghdad · Date: Dec. 6, 2003

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Iraq's Peoples and Politics
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Introduction: A Long Road

[Our translator] has asked me on several occasions why the Americans aren't doing more to rebuild Iraq. There is sometimes an accusatory tone, as if I am in part responsible.

We began this trip assuming we'd travel the length of Iraq, all the time steadily making our way southward -- from the northern border with Turkey to the southern border with Kuwait. Instead, we've lurched about from north to south to north to west to east to south.

To plot our progress you'd draw a line from Silopi, on the Turkish side of Iraq's northern border, to the town of Dohuk, then down to Mosul, east to Kirkuk, up to Suleimaniya, back to Kirkuk, and then again back west to Mosul. Next draw the line south to Baghdad, west to Falluja, north to Baquba, and south again to Baghdad, west again to Falluja, then north to Samarra, Tikrit, and yet again Kirkuk. Finally draw back through Baghdad and farther south to the Shia cities of Karbala, Kufa, and Najaf.

I describe all this lurching backwards and forwards to stress how much of the country we've taken in from our car windows. For hours we look upon vast stretches of virgin desert or distant mountains along the Iranian border, or at groves of date palms and patches of verdant farmland. Iraq's rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and lesser ones too, we've crossed many times. We've seen oil fields, the derricks and the refineries. And we've seen vast military complexes with their earth-covered bunkers and drab military housing.

But of all the passing views, it is the almost uniformly squalid, dilapidated, and godforsaken towns, villages, and cities that make the most lasting impression.

Iraq is a truly desperate country. Aside from some stretches of West Africa, I have seen few places so devoid of civic sensibility. Villages are hellholes of mud, sewage, and trash. Buildings are crumbling and graffiti-covered. Vast tracts of churned earth and garbage are everywhere -- vestiges of projects begun but apparently abandoned. There is little evidence that anyone is making any effort to clean up.

It is not that there are starving people, or even so many beggars. There are some. But most people's bellies look full. The markets are bustling with fruit and vegetable sellers offering pomegranates, apples, oranges, lettuce, scallions, cauliflower, and until recently a delicacy beyond people's pocketbooks, imported bananas from Ecuador and Colombia. There are stalls full of nuts and spices: pistachios soaked in lime juice, peanuts, cashews, black tea from Vietnam, and everywhere cardamom. In the meat shops hang fresh carcasses of lamb. On sidewalks chickens are roasted in large batches on spits over gas flames. Dry goods and sundries are selling. Money changes hands. But it is a debased capitalism amid communities of squalor and filth. People are out for themselves. Three wars in 20 years have robbed the country of its men and its spirit.

After a while it wears you down. On one long drive from Najaf back to Baghdad, I fall into a long conversation with [name withheld], my translator. She is an educated Iraqi who has studied English and American literature, from Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and D.H. Lawrence to Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller. Her master's thesis is titled "Hedging in Political Discourse: Challenges in Translation."

[Our translator] has asked me on several occasions why the Americans aren't doing more to rebuild Iraq. There is sometimes an accusatory tone, as if I am in part responsible. On this car ride, I take her on. No hedging.

"You think the Americans are doing nothing. But if Ambassador Bremer were here he would tell you about hundreds -- no, maybe thousands --of projects."

"Where are they? Do you see them? Where are they?"

I have heard this refrain throughout Iraq. And she has a point. While it is true that there are many, many projects underway, they are almost entirely invisible. It is not that you can't arrange a visit to a repaired, refurnished, and repainted schoolhouse; we have done so. But to an average Iraqi, nothing stands out. Scores of towns have no evident reconstruction projects underway. And 10 repaired schoolhouses in a city with hundreds of crumbling schoolhouses means little. Electricity is still intermittent, and the lines for gas run for blocks. I try to offer an explanation.

"It is a matter of scale, [name withheld], and one of expectations. The job is larger than you or I can comprehend, and your expectations of the Americans are crazy."

"You have launched a space shuttle and landed men on the moon."

"That's math and science." Here, the problem is getting people to stop shooting each other and work together. That is much harder. "Anyway," I tell her, "no one could have gotten to the moon if people were shooting at them."

"But America is wealthy. You could do it if you wanted to." The implication is that America is conspiring to cripple Iraq.

The car slows to navigate some gaping potholes, some security barriers, and a checkpoint. [Our translator] is like so many Iraqis I have met. She expects the moon. I tell her that would be nice, but did she really think -- and I gesture to the coalition troops outside, these from El Salvador of all places -- that those kids care about Iraq? "They want to go home. If anyone is going to fix Iraq, it's going to have to be Iraqis."

There is a pause. "You are right." She is clearly not happy about this, nor hopeful.

I try to console her by citing many mistakes the Americans made in the early days after the March invasion. "You are right," I tell her. "The Americans could have done much better. But when they leave, it will be useless to blame them any longer. They will be gone."

We drive on past Hillah and head north to Baghdad. On the way we pass through Babylon, from which Nebuchadnezzar once ruled the great Mesopotamian civilization. It is dark out now, but on a previous trip to Iraq, in July, a road sign lured me and some colleagues to make a detour to the famous Hanging Gardens. Unfortunately, we found the site closed off and occupied by U.S. Marines. A couple of mangy, stray dogs scattered, looked up, and barked as we approached. Then, quietly, they went back to nosing through piles of garbage. The Marines have all gone back to Camp Pendleton in California and have been replaced by a Polish regiment. The garbage is still there, I am certain.

[Editor's Note: The name of the Iraqi translator has been removed from this dispatch for security purposes.]


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posted february 12, 2004

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