Saturday, December 30, 2006

Baghdad Now

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Hannah Allam, former Baghdad bureau chief for Knight-Ridder, left in 2005 to become bureau chief in Cairo. She returned to Baghdad not long ago to cover a story, and found a city that had changed radically. It's hard to pick out parts of her article to quote, because it's all so horrifying -- so I'll just quote the first few paragraphs:

The tiny, dusty shops of Kadhemiya are treasure chests filled with agate, turquoise, coral and amber. I used to spend hours in this colorful Baghdad market district, haggling over prices for semi-precious stones etched with prayers in Arabic calligraphy.

That was just before I left Iraq in 2005, when rings from Kadhemiya were simply sentimental reminders of a two-year assignment here. When I returned to Baghdad last month, however, I found a city so dramatically polarized that sectarian identity now extends to your fingers. Slipping on a turquoise ring is no longer an afterthought, but a carefully deliberated security precaution.

A certain color of stone worn a certain way is just one of the dozens of superficial clues - like dialect, style of beard, how you pin a veil - that indicate whether you're Sunni or Shiite. These little signs increasingly mean the difference between life and death at the terrifying illegal checkpoints that surround the districts of Baghdad. In a surprise reversal, Shiite militiamen have usurped Sunni insurgents as the most feared force on the streets.

When I was last here in 2005, it took guts and guards, but you could still travel to most anywhere in the capital. Now, there are few true neighborhoods left. They're mostly just cordoned-off enclaves in various stages of deadly sectarian cleansing. Moving trucks piled high with furniture weave through traffic, evidence of an unfolding humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced Iraqis.

There is so much more. Allam relates her colleagues' indifference to Saddam Hussein's trial, or his (at the time) impending execution -- they had more pressing concerns. The greeting "How are you?" is answered now with the single word, "Alive." Most days you find 40 freshly dead bodies on the street each morning; on a slow day there are only 17 or so. "In a surprise reversal," she writes, "Shiite militiamen have usurped Sunni insurgents as the most feared force on the streets."

A Time article also, like Allam's piece, datelined December 28, describes how Madi Army irregulars "flip" Sunni-owned houses by giving the families 24 hours to leave, and then turning their houses over to Shiite families.

Given these realities, you would think that Pres. Bush would have more productive things to do than stage a lavish theatrical piece revolving around the execution of a former dictator who had long since become totally irrelevant.

But clearly not.

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