Theme Park Death
By Robert Fisk
22 August , 2005
Monday, George Bush was praising the greedy sectarian politicians here
- who had totally failed to meet the new Iraqi constitution deadline
- for their "heroic" efforts for "democracy". At
about the same time, I came across a friend at one of Baghdads
best-known hotels. He is the deputy manager and Ive known him
for more than three years, but he now looked twice his age. He grasped
my arm and looked into my face. "Mr Robert," he said, "do
you realise I was kidnapped?" Every day now, I come across Iraqi
acquaintances - or friends who have cousins or fathers or sons - who
have been kidnapped. Often they are released. Sometimes they are murdered
and I go to their families to express those condolences which are especially
painful for me - because I am a Westerner, arriving to say how sorry
I am to relatives who blame the West for the anarchy that killed their
loved ones. This time my friend survived, just.
Another good friend,
a university professor, visits me for coffee the next day. The absence
of identities in this report tells you all you need to know about the
terror which embraces Baghdad. "I was invigilating the last exams
of term in the linguistics department and I saw a mature student cheating.
I walked up to him and said I believed he was cribbing. He said he wasnt.
I told him I would take his papers away and he leant towards me and
made it clear I would be murdered if I prevented him completing his
exams. I went to the head of department. I thought he would discipline
this man and take away his papers. But he talked to him and then said
that he could continue the exam. My own head of department failed me
completely." My professor friend loves English literature, but
he has new problems.
"Many of the
students are now very Islamically oriented. They want their classes
taught through the prism of their religion. But what can I do? I cant
teach existentialism any more because it would be seen as anti-Islamic
- which means no more Sartre. These same people ask me for the religious
message in Eugene ONeills plays. What can I say? I cant
teach any more. Do you understand this? I cant teach." Since
Baghdads " liberation" in April 2003, 180 professors
and schoolteachers have been assassinated in Iraq, and shortly after
my professors visit, I receive a call from one of his colleagues.
old Amin Yassin and his son two days ago. We dont know where they
are." Amin Yassin was not, like some of his colleagues, an ex-Baathist.
He was a retired linguist who taught grammar in the English department
of Baghdad University. His 30-year-old son is a secondary school teacher.
The two were seized in the Khavraha neighbourhood, seven miles west
On Thursday, in
the an-Nahda bus station, two bombs tear 43 people to pieces - almost
all of them Shia Muslims - and at the al-Kindi hospital, which also
receives a bomb close by, relatives of the missing are screaming as
they try to identify the dead. The problem is that the morticians cant
fit the limbs to the right bodies and, in some cases, the right heads
to the right torsos. I head off to the Palestine Hotel where one of
the largest Western news agencies has its headquarters. I take the lift
to an upper floor only to be met by a guard and a vast steel wall which
blocks off the hotel corridor. He searches me, sends in my card and
after a few minutes an Iraqi guard stares at me through a grille and
opens an iron door.
I enter to find
another vast steel wall in front of me. Once he has clanged the outer
door shut, the inner door is opened and I am in the grotty old hotel
The reporters are
sitting in a fuggy room with a small window from which they can see
the Tigris river. One of the American staff admits he has not been outside
"for months". An Arab reporter does their street reporting;
an American travels around Iraq - but only as an "embed" with
US troops. No American journalists from this bureau travel the streets
of Baghdad. This is not hotel journalism, as I once described it. This
is prison journalism.
One of the Americans,
an old and brave friend of mine from Beirut days, walks over. "Have
a look at this, Fisky," he says. "This is the kind of crap
we get from the Americans these days - this is what they want us to
write about." It is a news release from the Coalition press office,
the spin doctors of the occupation troops here. "Comics Bring Barrels
of Laughs to Task Force Baghdad," it says.
I drive back across
Baghdad. There is a massive traffic jam because the Iraqi National Guard
- the American-trained Iraqis who are supposed to save Donald Rumsfelds
career and let the US forces reduce their troop strength here - have
mounted a checkpoint. Most of them are so frightened that they are wearing
ski-masks over their mouths. Like every Iraqi I meet, I do not trust
the Iraqi National Guard. They have been infiltrated by both Sunni and
Shia insurgents and now have a nasty propensity to carry out house raids
on Sunni areas, to arrest the menfolk and then to steal as much money
as they can find in the house. "First they arrest my son and then
they take all my jewellery," a woman complained on an Arabic satellite
channel that was investigating this venal militia.
I go home and switch
on my television to find the BBC reporting on an " elite"
force of Iraqi troops who are receiving anti-terrorism training in Britain.
And there they are, foliage attached to their helmets, leaping over
hedges and cooling streams. In the Welsh mountains.
Friday night. In
the heart of this vast and oven-like city stands the Green Zone, 10
square kilometres of barricaded, walled, sealed-off palaces, villas
and gardens - once the Raj-like centre of Saddams regime wherein
now dwell the Iraqi government, the constitutional committee, the US
embassy, the British embassy and many hundreds of Western mercenaries.
Many of them never meet Iraqis. Women in shorts jog past the rose beds;
armed men and women " contractors" lie by the pool. There
were at least three restaurants - until one of them was blown up by
suicide bombers. You can buy phone accessories in a local shop, newspapers,
pornographic DVDs. For tactical reasons, the Americans were forced to
include dozens of middle-class Iraqi homes inside the Green Zone, a
decision that has outraged many of the householders. They often have
to wait four hours to pass through the security checkpoints. Irony of
ironies, the tomb of Michel Aflaq, founder of the Baath party that once
included both Iraq and Syria, lies inside the Green Zone.
On Friday night,
this crusader castle was bathed in its usual floodlights. I was looking
up at the stars over the city when there was a dull sound and a flash
of light from within the Green Zone. Somewhere not far from me, someone
had launched a mortar at the illuminated fishbowl that has become the
symbol of occupation for all Iraqis. Many ask what will become of it
when the whole Western edifice here collapses. Some say it will become
insurgent headquarters, others the next parliament. My guess is that
whoever runs Iraq once the occupation collapses will turn the whole
thing into a theme park. Or maybe just a museum.