Cockburn in Baghdad
22 June 2003
As temperatures reached a scorching 45C (113F) in Baghdad last week
people in al-Thawra, a sprawling working-class slum, unearthed hidden
rifles and threatened to kill the manager of the local electrical sub-station
if he did not resume power supplies.
"Some had guns and others
threw stones at us, but I told them this was just a sub- station and
we aren't receiving any electricity," said Bassim Arman, the harassed-looking
manager. "Now I have to close down anyway, because employees are
too frightened to come to work."
Electricity is vital to life
in the Iraqi capital where the temperature can soar as high as 60C (140F)
at the height of summer. Without it there is no air-conditioning, no
refrigerators to prevent food rotting and no light in a city terrified
by looters. The failure to get the electrical system working has become
a symbol for Iraqis in the capital of the general failure of the American
occupation to provide living conditions even at the miserable level
they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.
Asked about Baghdad's lack
of electricity at an air-conditioned press conference, Paul Bremer,
the American head of the occupation authority, looking cool in a dark
suit and quiet purple tie, simply asserted that, with a few exceptions,
Baghdad was now receiving 20 hours of electricity a day. "It simply
isn't true," said one Iraqi, shaking his head in disbelief after
listening to Mr Bremer. "Everybody in Baghdad knows it."
Few Iraqis mourn the fall
of Saddam but there is a growing, at times almost visceral, hatred of
the occupation. "They can take our oil, but at least they should
let us have electricity and water," said Tha'ar Abdul Qader, a
worker at the Central Teaching Hospital for Children, the main door
of which can only be entered by walking through a fast-flowing stream
of raw sewage.
Attacks on American troops
are still sporadic and not organised centrally, but when one American
soldier was shot dead and another wounded by gunmen in a passing car
near al-Doura power station, passers-by unanimously said they approved
of the attack.
Even the few Iraqis who have
joined the Coalition Provisional Authority under Mr Bremer - which operates
out of Saddam Hussein's heavily fortified Republican Palace in the centre
of the capital - describe the American officials administering Iraq
as "living in an air-conditioned fantasy world".
At a meeting on Thursday
between Mr Bremer and some 60 Iraqi political leaders, formerly the
opposition to Saddam, Mahmoud Othman, a highly respected veteran Kurdish
politician, bluntly suggested that the American army pull out of Baghdad
and other Iraqi cities to camps in the countryside.
"I told Bremer that
Baghdad was a paralysed city," said Mr Othman. "He and his
staff don't really know what it is like, because if they go out at all,
it is in air-conditioned cars. But I've walked the streets, and I know
what it is like. They are ill-informed and ill-advised."
Only 15 minutes' walk from
Mr Bremer's office Shamsedin Mansour, a poor shopkeeper in an alleyway
off al-Rashid street, gave a bleak picture of how he and his neighbours
live. "We have had no electricity for six days," he said.
"Many of our people are suffering from heart problems because of
the heat. We live with as many as 42 people in a house and do not have
the money to buy even a small generator. Without light at night it is
easy for gangs of thieves with guns to take over the streets, and the
shooting keeps us awake. If we try to protect ourselves with arms, the
Americans arrest us."
The problem for the US administration
is that it largely operates without any help from Iraqis, because it
allowed the Iraqi state to dissolve after the war. American soldiers
man checkpoints, their heavy armoured vehicles blocking the road, and
search for arms. But Iraqis simply drive around them through the side
streets. Even if the soldiers checked identity cards or passports this
would not be very useful, since a fully stamped Iraqi passport can be
bought illegally for $50. Many blank passports were stolen by looters
at the end of the war, together with the requisite stamps.
The obvious solution for
the US is to set up an Iraqi provisional administration, operating under
ultimate American control. But attractive though this might be, it would
also mean ceding some power to Iraqis, something Mr Bremer is loath
to do. Hoshyar Zebari, a leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, says
that ultimately the US will be forced to allow an Iraqi provisional
government of real authority, "because their present course - occupation
by America alone - won't be successful".
The main reason why Washington
does not want to give up any power is the fear that this would ultimately
open the way for a takeover by Iraq's Shia Muslims, who account for
at least 55 per cent of the population and would probably win any free
elections. Just outside the Mansour Melia hotel on the Tigris in Baghdad
yesterday, a Shia religious leader in turban and dark clerical clothes
called Sheikh Ahmad al-Zirzawi al-Baghdadi was leading several hundred
demonstrators to Mr Bremer's headquarters. "We are not asking for
American troops to withdraw, just free elections and the release of
our leaders whom they have arrested," he said.
But for President George
Bush it would be deeply damaging if, in an election year, the successors
to Saddam Hussein in Iraq turned out to be Islamic religious parties
with possible links to Iran.