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- April 28, 2003
- Vol. 59
- No. 16
Streets of Fire
In Baghdad Freedom Brought Relief, Turmoil and a Scramble for Survival
It used to be a grim joke. The huge ornate compound known as "The People's House," which Saddam used as one of his many residences, was so feared by the locals that they avoided even passing near its walls. "Nobody's been in here," said my interpreter Jamal in a hushed voice as he guided our car through the front gate on April 12. Now, however, locals were treating the place like they owned it. Looters had driven their cars onto the grounds and were busily carting off everything that was or wasn't nailed down. While men bent double under chandeliers and furniture passed by, one of the visitors, Abdul Karim, 41, sat in a throne-size chair and loudly declared, "I want to drink Saddam's blood!"
Under the circumstances, the chaos and rage that engulfed Baghdad after the arrival of American forces was understandable. In fact, it was hard to find residents of Baghdad who didn't nurse raw grievances against the old regime. (Abdul, for instance, was a torture victim.) At the People's House a man named Mohammad Zahair Alewi came up and grabbed my elbow. He showed me pictures of his two brothers who had been arrested 24 years ago for performing their prayers in the Shi'ite fashion, which Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, had banned. "I can't give up hope on them," said Mohammad, 40, a livestock merchant. "I've been to the empty prisons. Where could my brothers be? It all seems so hopeless." But when I brought up the possibility of meeting his family at home, gently suggesting that a story on his plight might help his search for his brothers, he became alarmed. It was clear that, despite the evidence all around him, he was terrified that Saddam might still return to power. The fear went that deep.
The sad fact was that the end of the regime at the hands of U.S. forces did not mean the end of new tragedies being visited on the long-suffering populace. On the afternoon of April 12 I was with Lt. Tom Klysa of the Marines' 3rd Civil Affairs unit, which acts as a link to citizens, when he got word that two unarmed Iraqi civilians had been shot by Marines at a nearby checkpoint. The man driving had been unable or unwilling to stop when ordered to do so. He had been wounded and evacuated to a field hospital; the woman with him had been killed. After consulting with the Marines on the scene, Klysa, 33, from New York City, returns to our Humvee angered that the soldiers involved don't want to take proper care of the woman's body. "They won't transport it and won't even provide security," he says bitterly.
Never mind that the streets are littered with the rotting bodies of Iraqi forces, Lt. Klysa's sense of decency won't let him ignore what he sees as his responsibility to do the right thing. Under his supervision, the victim is carefully zipped into a military-green body bag and we set off, looking for a place to leave her. We eventually end up at a hospital, where Dr. Mustafah al Waid tells us to come around back to the morgue. There is still not enough electricity to refrigerate all the bodies here and the alley is filled with a terrific stench. We look at the victim's identity cards. The pictures show a strikingly pretty woman with long eyelashes and shoulder-length hair. "She was a teacher," says the doctor. Lt. Klysa turns away. "This is terrible," he says. "Things are happening so fast here."
Klysa is right, things are happening rapidly. After the first few days, the spasm of looting has started to subside. In the upscale Kharada district, residents had put an end to the ransacking by banding together and arming themselves with Kalashnikov rifles. Elsewhere a few Iraqi recruits, mostly former policemen, have gone on patrols with U.S. Marines to try to show a return to order. A few vendors hawk cigarettes, bottled water or shoe shines, and a handful of restaurants have reopened for business.
But the idea that the capital is anywhere close to returning to normal is ridiculous. More and more people are beginning to venture outside their homes again, yet many of the men have weapons stashed just out of sight in case of trouble. More important, the feelings of anger and resentment are still close to the surface. On Sunday, April 13, I dropped by a market stall operated by Saheb Majid al Badradi, who proudly showed off an automatic rifle he had looted from a Baath Party office. But the assembled crowd was transfixed by some snapshots taken from the home of Saddam's son Uday, until a few days ago one of the most feared men in Iraq. There were photos of Uday partying with call girls. Shots of him drinking with friends. The cluster of people gasped in disbelief at one picture that showed Uday feeding two of his pet lions from an overflowing platter of meat. "Look at all that meat!" shouted one person in the throng. "It's an outrage! I could feed my entire family for a year on that!" Even now, the truth of what they had endured was hard to stomach.
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