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Voyage to the Country of Hate

OUM QASR (April 8, 2004) -- The first stage of the ascent toward Baghdad from Kuwait. A year after the war, people still live less well than during the time of the despised dictator.

A multi-colored ribbon of cars snakes along for more than a kilometer. Once past the Kuwait border, every gas pump that punctuates the route to Basra offers the tableau of irritated resignation from drivers who wait sometimes five hours to fill up.

It's the first grievance against occupation forces that we hear on this road that the coalition has borrowed to connect to Baghdad.

A year after the war, in an oil country, the gas shortage still rages as it did on the first day of the Anglo-American troop incursion.

In Oum Qasr, an underprivileged township of 150,000, whose every block of houses counted a prisoner, a death row inmate, or a martyr during Saddam's time, the residents, like so many betrayed lovers, keep trotting out their disappointment with and their resentment against the liberators. One year after the war, people still live less well than under the despised dictator.

"Last month, milk rations were missing. This month, there's no rice, and there's still no running water!" Furious, this souk merchant demands that unkept promises be noted. Like everyone here, he loathes the little neighbor that taunts his country with its standard of living and its petrodollars. This cursed Kuwait responsible for all the looting and shortages...

Basra: A Ton of Gasoline for $200

Here on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab, 45 ports live exclusively off contraband: a ton of gas sells for over 200 dollars.

Gas contraband is General Qaduum's personal battle. The Basra Police Chief is 40 years old and has beautiful blue eyes. He's a new generation cop. Every day, he boards and searches these tanker trucks that instead of distributing gas to the pumps are going to sell it to the tankers that lie at anchor in the Shatt al-Arab, equidistant from Iraq and Iran.

Usually, however, the General is powerless. The papers are in order, approved by the political parties sitting in the Iraqi Governing Council. "Chalabi's Rifah Party is at the heart of trafficking in the region," Qaduum accuses. "Saddam, at least, was alone. Today we have to deal with a hundred Saddams, who push their pawns, and then when we ask for help from the British, they tell us that trade is free!"

'Today We Have to Deal with a Hundred Saddams'

At least once a week, Qaduum patrols the 45 ports that, all along the Shatt al-Arab from Fao to Basra, export contraband oil and gas and bear evocative names such as "al-Flous," "Money".

The stowaways from Iran, who are suspected of being the source of several of the attacks that have bloodied Iraq, come through the same ports.

To show his men that he is not afraid, Qaduum drives his own car at the head of a cortege of 15 armed police. He wants us to understand the scope of the traffic that diseases his country. He assures us that without his escort, it is impossible to get into these filthy ports where a ton of oil sells for over two hundred dollars. All the traffickers are armed and ready to defend their business dearly.

And yet, all along this sensitive border, we didn't encounter a single checkpoint, not a single patrol by coalition soldiers. At one intersection, a fine paved road leads to the Al-Barak port. Trucks, loaded with new cars without plates coming from the Emirates, leave the immense port, guarded like a fortress. But we won't go any further.

Al-Barak is the port of Kaled al-Amar, Bin Laden's uncle, Basra's first cop, explains to us with a sigh, "It's a private port; I don't have the power to go there. They'd think I was trying to attack them and open fire."

Radioactive Tanks Enroute to the Basra Hospital

On the road to Basra, the calcified carcasses of Iraqi army Soviet tanks lie along the shoulders like abandoned toys.

Researchers have measured the radioactivity of these hulks that continue to emit depleted uranium from the shells that hit them last year. The figures are alarming.

The Head of Pediatric Leukemia, Dr. Jenan Hassan, expects a fresh outbreak of young patients in 2005, given the incubation period.

Before Operation Desert Storm, there were only 19 children a year with leukemia. In recent years, however, the doctor attends more than 200 patients a year, not counting all those whose parents are wealthy enough to have them sent to Baghdad for medical care.

Childhood Leukemia Continues to Soar

Draped in a turquoise hijab, the energetic 47-year-old doctor makes her rounds. In her department, thanks to an Austrian NGO which has taken charge of the wing with children suffering from leukemia, the rate of cure has gone from 20 to 50% since the regime's fall. When she evokes the atmosphere in the town, however, the pediatrician loses her fine optimism.

"Before, I could pop over to the hospital at 2 in the morning. Today my colleagues have taken turns getting murdered... We have 160 political parties in Basra. New portraits replace the old ones. Personally, I can't tell the difference."

Dr. Jenan's children go to school with bodyguards, and her daughter, who had been harassed by Islamists trying to indoctrinate her, has quit her university studies.

A few weeks ago, one of the Islamist parties tried to take over the hospital, but the energetic doctor chased their militia away. "Ever since, we make the rounds to defend the hospital. But how much longer can we hold out?"

Basra Prison: New Home for a Teenage Rape Victim

The day before we arrived in Basra, two young women who worked for the American firm KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, were murdered in the taxi that was supposed to take them home. Small Islamic groups claim credit for the crime.

"There are parties that have decreed women should not work for foreigners, indeed, not for anyone," explains the Chief of Police.

You only have to take a tour of the Basra prison to understand the hard reality of life for a woman in today's Iraq. In this filthy prison which stinks of urine, 350 prisoners are piled into six cells.

In the women's section, there are only eleven prisoners. However, according to the opinion of the jailer himself, only one of them really deserves detention. Iman Abdallah, 33 years old, threw a grenade at an official building in exchange for a few dollars. Orphaned, she justifies her act by her impoverishment. She knows she will probably spend the rest of her life in jail. As for the others...

Asil Jasem, a very pretty eighteen-year-old brunette, was kidnapped by a man who raped her. The police picked her up and took her in and the judge placed her in detention so her family wouldn't be tempted to kill her to restore her honor.

She's been hiding in prison from her family for three months. The jailer harbors no illusions about her fate. As soon as she leaves, they'll kill her.

Dounia Abdul Wahad, 24 years old, is accused of murder. In fact, her brother killed a man who was harassing her. But since she was "the source" of the crime, she's the one who will pay. She's been in prison five months and ten days.

Her neighbor is a simple-minded person, protected here from the street. The next woman is a young girl of 15, who is the sister-in-law of a kidnapper no one has been able to arrest. She is serving his sentence in his place...

A Close Call in Suq ash Shuyukh

The township of Suq ash Shuyukh, a source of obsessive worry for Italian Colonel Luigi Scollo, who heads task force number 11 responsible for controlling the region, is to be found on the Nasiriya road.

Something is always happening in this little town where Shi'ite extremists make the law. Suq ash Shuyukh's specialty, however, is train attacks. It is said that the bandits have an understanding with the conductor such that he slows down in the vicinity of this little town.

Candidates brave or unaware enough to board the phantom carriage with the broken windows have become rare. That's not Suq ash Shuyukh's only curse, however. Only at some remove from the train tracks can one make out the ecological disaster of the city's sewers. Torrents of whitish foam flow directly into the stream from which some draw their "potable" water.

When we try to leave the city, a pick-up truck full of Iraqi police blocks our way. A dozen Kalashnikovs are trained on us. In this city where people firmly believe Americans who want to justify their presence in Iraq are responsible for the attacks, we have been taken for terrorists.

Once the "misunderstanding" was cleared away, the policemen asked that we follow them. Soon, however, a car intervenes: militiamen from the young Shi'ite extremist Moqtada al-Sadr's party have their finger on the trigger. The Iraqi police respectfully efface themselves.

"Do you know you just missed being killed?' scolds Adnan Daoui, Representative from Al-Sadr's office, who was warned of our presence by a neighborhood militiaman. "Have you forgotten that in every city you must present yourselves to the local authorities?"

Seeing the local residents' deference towards Daoui, we quickly understood who represents the authorities in question here...

The Nasiriya Hospital that Saved Jessica Lynch Is Now Filthy and Impoverished

In Nasriya, poor sheep graze on garbage in the ruins of buildings bombarded during the last war. People fought in this city that contemptuous Iraqis call "the Weed" to mock the obtuse character of the city's residents.

The American "heroine" Jessica Lynch fell into an ambush here. People remember the Hollywood epic in which she was presented as the first imprisoned woman soldier since World War II to be "liberated".

A raid worthy of the best studios was organized against the Nasiriya Hospital, where, according to American General Headquarters, the young woman was being held. Only later did we learn that, in fact, the soldier had been cared for there by Iraqi doctors who had done everything to save her life.

Dr. Harith, 26-years-old, a young emergency internist with round eyeglasses and a lanky bearing, was one of those doctors. He took care of Jessica Lynch when she regained consciousness, 24 hours after her arrival. "I even arranged the pillows so she could see the city from her bed," he recalls. "She kept repeating she was afraid of Saddam. She was a baby."

When he considered she was in fit condition to travel, he was the one to try and organize her transfer to an American checkpoint in an ambulance. In vain. Welcomed by shots, the vehicle had to turn back. We all know what followed: the nighttime raid that shook the hospital and the soldier's removal.

Since then, Dr. Harith has not received a word of thanks for having taken such good care of the American heroine. The only one to receive the prize of American citizenship was the lawyer who showed the marines where the girl was located: "Amusing, when you consider that that man, a former member of Saddam's secret services, is being sought by Nasiriya residents for the harassments to which he subjected them."

Today, however, the "Lynch affair" is the doctor's last concern. The hospital's lamentable state of disrepair gives him a chill down the spine. Garbage burns on the front steps.

The emergency room is filthy and overcrowded. The repugnant acrid smell of mixed urine and blood forces visitors to keep a handkerchief over their face. There is a shortage of everything.

The young intern states bluntly that the hospital's situation has deteriorated terribly since Saddam's fall: "The Italians brought us a little package of medicine, but in this hospital we receive up to 2,000 patients a day. It's like trying to feed a family of fifty people with a sandwich!"

The Rape of the Treasures of Oumma and Gudaia

Traumatized by the attack which cost 16 of their soldiers' lives in November 2003, the Italians have taken refuge in the airport.

Today they are leaving one of their last posts in the city, Nasiriya's museum. The director, Mr. Hamdani, swallows his shame and ends up agreeing to take us on a tour of his establishment.

Bottles of wine on the pedestal of statues of Sumerian gods, plastic strewn on the ground, and remains of meals...The archeologist cannot keep back his tears before this spectacle. In the small room where he had put away the treasures from Sumerian sites, he let us touch cuneiform tablets, necklaces, and 5000- year-old children's toys.

With an escort of 15 customs agents, we accompany him about a hundred kilometers from Nasiriya to the site of the first Mesopotamian temple of which we have traces, the Gudaia Palace.

About 40 statues exhibited in the Louvre come from this site. Today, however, you'd say that an army had turned the ground over. Looters directed by antiquities dealers have systematically dug, ravaged, and reduced this fabulous depositary of ancient history to powder.

Ever since the Sheikhs gave their approval to looters if they agreed to turn 20% of their proceeds over to the mosque, the antiquities hunting season has been open: for a few dollars, Baghdad merchants can procure themselves the ancient pottery and cuneiforms that Western collectors fight over.

Hardly any need to put oneself out: all you have to do is walk on this sea of Mesopotamian shards to pick up cuneiform tablets, royal seals, and little bas-reliefs, without even having to dig.

In Oumma, where just walking around, you bump into intact Sumerian vases dating to 2,500 BCE, the thieves have, nonetheless, destroyed a large part of the ancient city's walls. For the market is saturated with pieces from this period, and Western dealers now seek objects older than 5,000 years: so the thieves destroy everything above the most ancient layers....

"For collectors, these pieces are nothing but a pretty piece of pottery in their showcases," despairs Hamdani. "For us, they're the missing link to decipher the world's first civilization."

And to defend this cradle of humanity against looters, there's just an old, almost blind man who uses his Kalashnikov as a cane. No trace of the sharpshooters dressed in black and armed like science fiction robots that patrol Nasiriya's streets in their armored vehicles. All the same, they are the ones who are charged with protecting these sites...

A Look Inside Nadjaf's People's Courts

At the Nadjaf municipal civil court, there are about 20 judges sitting in the president's office sipping tea. Idling, they count their murdered colleagues. Of course there was the ex-president of the Nadjaf court, then the Mosul judge, the Kirkuk judge, and, most recently, the Hilla judge.

Today, there are no hearings. Not the least little divorce, nothing. For in Nadjaf since the fall of the despised regime, one can finally leave it up to the religious authorities or the tribal sheikhs to settle differences.

Of these new "judicial centers", the most popular is that of Moqtada al-Sadr, the young extremist leader with the sinister expression who preaches hatred for the Americans. In a narrow alley, a compact crowd hurries in front of the dispensary for the champion of Nadjaf's disinherited. Under the black turbans, the glares launched at foreigners are filled with hatred. Everyone here is waiting only for a signal from the guide to take up arms against the invader.

Inside Moqtada's court, in the little hearing rooms, judges, like the plaintiffs, squat right on the floor. In this place called "a court of law,' sharia is applied to every infraction. The "court", which only sits in the morning, hears over 50 matters a day.

To be a judge, there is no need for a diploma; it's enough to have studied the Koran. The house even includes a little prison. Here, everything is done to reconcile the parties present. If a plaintiff refuses all forms of compensation and the "judge" declares the accused guilty, it is the injured parties who themselves carry out the sentences, cut the hands off thieves, execute murderers.

Seated in a suit in a little room, the Sheikh Ahmed al-Hussein arbitrates a conflict between two brothers who are fighting over their inheritance, listens to plaintiffs who sob. In 20 minutes, the verdict is given. And social and religious pressure is strong enough that the verdict is applied without argument.

When necessary, the police collaborate with the "court of law." "They even help us arrest alcohol vendors who refuse to come before us," acknowledges Sheikh Ahmed, satisfied.

In Baghdad, Foreign Mercenaries 'Securitize the Perimeter'

When you arrive in Baghdad, the first thing you notice -- the most spectacular change -- is the consumption frenzy. The fury to buy.

On the sidewalks in smart districts, in Arasat or in Al-Mansour, there's a pile of overflowing boxes. You can find television sets for under 100 dollars, satellite antennas for 75 dollars and washing machines for 150, or about one month's salary for a bureaucrat.

In front of the city's hotels, on the other hand, there's an altogether different ritual that gets played out: one of fear and obsession with security. One runs into former British, South African, Chilean soldiers, who walk with their legs apart, their hand on their weapon's grip, to -- as they say in their jargon -- "securitize the perimeter."

While foreigners hole up in the hotels under the protection of these armies of mercenaries, in Baghdad, Iraqis -- the men, at least -- breathe.

Finally. At night, people line up in front of Chez Al-Faqma, the best ice-cream merchant in the city, and, on the banks of the Tigris for the first time since the war, the dominoes players have returned to Al-Beyrouti.

On the terrace of this old Baghdad cafe where the waiters sport red vests, the wind carries the good scent of the river. A boat glides on the water. The illusion of peace, however, never lasts very long. According to the Iraqi police, there are about 25 attacks a day in the capital. Only a third are foiled.

A Mosque in the Al-Khazalia Neighborhood

Friday is the day of prayer and in Baghdad tanks and armed militias take position in front of "sensitive" mosques.

Ibrahim, 14 years old, is on duty at his neighborhood mosque. He can act as detached as he likes, one nonetheless feels his pride at playing one of the tough guys with his Kalashnikov among his pals whose eyes dart lightning.

A few days ago in this neighborhood, the just completed Shi'ite mosque was demolished by a bomb. Concatenation of reprisals: one of the Wahabite notables of the neighborhood was murdered and the Sunni mosque attacked in turn. The tension is so keen that armed bodyguards accompany the sheikh into the mosque's interior, a sacrilege for Muslims.

Nonetheless, it's not the conflict between Shi'ites and Sunni that will be the subject of the Sheikh's sermon today. Draped in his ample white tunic over which his long black beard flows, the Sheikh flies into a rage against "the invader."

He compares the good smell of martyrs to the pestilential odor that emanates from Americans' corpses. "We're all going to die, it's our fate as men," the Sheikh, in tears, prophesizes. "So let's die bravely. Let's imitate the example of Sheikh Yassine [the Palestinian Hamas guide who was murdered March 22 by the Israeli army] and of the martyrs who blow themselves up in booby-trapped cars in Israel!"

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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