Magazine

Dispatch from Iraq: Violence, Chaos...and Enterprise


Each morning the crowds gather in front of the barbed wire and tanks blocking the entrance to the Palestine and Sheraton Ishtar hotels, where most of the 1,000 or so international reporters in Baghdad are housed. Some Iraqis come to chant, in Arabic or English, "U.S. Army go home" and "America is the enemy of God." But many others are looking for jobs. They fill out application forms that vendors sell on the street for about 10 cents and hand them to the soldiers manning the entrances. "I have one for my father and for my two brothers," says 18-year-old Hussein Ali. "I am sure the Americans will give us jobs."

The soldiers, who have piled the forms 10,000 or so high, say a few applicants have been hired as translators. The desperate search for jobs is just one sign Iraqi society has been shaken to the roots by the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Most people haven't been paid in two months and can't afford to buy vegetables and meat that have doubled or tripled in price. Yet, despite criticism of the American occupation, many Iraqis see the U.S. as their only hope for reversing more than three decades of brutality and mismanagement. If the U.S. troops left now, "it would be a mess," says Mustafa Al-Bunnia, managing director of H. Mahmood Al-Bunnia & Sons Group, one of Iraq's largest private agricultural and building materials businesses. "The U.S. has to prove it can not only take out the President but also build a democracy and restart the economy."

Such lofty goals seem distant to a visitor to Baghdad in the waning days of the war. A sinister mood reigns in the city. The vast array of American tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees roaring through the streets has not yet proved enough to quell the chaos that erupted after Saddam's fall. The rattle of automatic weapons fire comes so often that few people pay attention.

An acrid smell still wafts from buildings stripped and set afire by looters, who have by no means finished their work. On a late April day, bands of men and boys were scavenging at the Defense Ministry, a complex of once-handsome yellow brick buildings on the banks of the Tigris. "There is nothing to do except steal," says Jaber Mohammed Ali, an out-of-work electrician who was helping friends to load a car trunk with aluminum window frames pried from their apertures.

The danger is that lawlessness could become a way of life. Vast thieves' markets have sprung up around Baghdad -- one trader was recently charging $800 for a gold-plated pistol engraved as a gift from the President. The largest market stretches across a huge dirt-poor Shiite neighborhood that was once called Saddam City but has now been renamed Sadr City for an ayatollah murdered on Saddam's orders. In makeshift stands along the road, grimy men sell just about anything, from Iraqi Olympic team track suits to weapons and ammunition. Rifle shots ring out as young dealers show off their wares. One, Amar, has a new Russian-made sniper's rifle on sale for $90. "People are buying guns to protect themselves from thieves and gangs," he says. Ominously, the gun-toting youths seem to be the beginnings of an armed militia in the area.

Iraqis say the Americans' inability to impose law and order is the major source of discontent with the occupying forces and the biggest obstacle to plans to rebuild Iraq. Some businessmen say outlaw activity is becoming more serious. "At first it was just individuals. Now it is becoming groups," says Al-Bunnia. One target of the gangs is the cash that fuels most of the economy. Iraqis usually deal in dinars for small transactions but some pay for bigger items in dollars. To avoid holding too many dinars, Iraqis sometimes bring their savings to moneychangers in boxes and get dollars instead. The exchange rate of the dinar has been fluctuating wildly. It went from 2,000 to the dollar to 4,000 when war with the U.S. became inevitable. Now, it's back to around 2,100. Carrying around cash makes Iraqis and visitors alike vulnerable to holdups.

Certainly, some people suddenly seem to have a lot of cash. Hassan Al-Waheed, who owns an electronics and household goods dealership, says business has never been better. Strangers from outside his area are plunking down wads of greenbacks without the usual dickering. "I don't know where they are getting this money," he says. "They don't argue. They just pay." His brother, Mahdi Al-Waheed, a professor of economics at the Technical College of Administration outside Baghdad, has little doubt about the source of all this cash. These new customers are looters -- they may have stolen cash or grabbed goods that they later sold for money. Al-Waheed worries that such people have profited sufficiently to become a new criminal economic force in post-Saddam Iraq.

The nascent political order taking shape in Iraq also has a rough-and-tumble feel. A gaggle of political parties -- from the Kurdish Democratic Party to the Iraqi Communist Party to the hardline Islamic Da'wa Party -- have seized former Baath Party headquarters and other regime buildings around town. Iraq's most powerful exile politician, Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), has the choicest digs: a luxury private club with park-like grounds. Chalabi's men patrol the area dressed in camouflage uniforms, carrying assault rifles. The INC is linked to a militia called the Iraqi Free Forces, which was trained by U.S. special forces.

Almost all Iraqis are skeptical of Chalabi because they view him as the Pentagon's candidate to lead Iraq. Still, he has been meeting with leading Iraqis to win support. His men also seized tons of files from intelligence archives so he can later publish the regime's crimes. And he is helping to capture regime figures. Chalabi keeps saying that he's not interested in being Iraq's top dog, but his longtime American aide, Francis Brooke, says he might change his mind. "George Washington turned it [the first U.S. Presidency] down many times," he says. "I wouldn't be surprised if the Iraqi people prevail on [Chalabi]." He is more prominent than many other contenders for the leadership so far.

Of course, it's early yet. Despite the chaos, the Americans and the Iraqis could well succeed in making Iraq a better place. One reason for optimism is the adaptiveness of Iraqis. When Baghdad's telephone system was knocked out during the war, small-time Iraqi businessmen ordered up Thuraya satellite phones from Jordan for $900 each and sold calls, often to worried friends and relatives abroad, for $10 per minute on the street. Osama Ahmed, one of a group of Thuraya men working the curb outside the famous Sa'a Restaurant, says he covered the cost of his phone in a week. Now there are so many of these entrepreneurs that the price of calls has come down to $2 per minute. Businessmen are also selling satellite dishes and decoders, allowing Iraqis to tune in to Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV for the first time -- provided the power is on.

But enterprise isn't enough to establish a stable society. Bringing order to Iraq will require leadership, and it may have to come from the U.S., because Iraqi exiles are divided and those who remained in Iraq have had no experience with pluralistic politics for decades. So far, though, the American civilian administrator, Jay Garner, and his team appear remote to many influential Iraqis, who aren't sure even how to contact them. The American authorities are ensconced in Saddam's Republican Palace behind armored vehicles. They have no conventional telephone service and are difficult to reach by satellite phones.

One of the few meetings between the American team and the Iraqis was a conference in Baghdad on Apr. 28. The 300 Iraqis assembled decided to meet again in a month to discuss setting up a transitional government. But there are still so many unknowns, and Iraqis leaving the conference weren't sure what to expect. Greeting an American friend, one Iraqi political figure worriedly asked: "Does the U.S. have a plan [for Iraq's future]?" A lot of Iraqis are anxious to see one. By Stanley Reed


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