In Dante's Inferno, Limbo is the first circle of hell, a place where souls persist in desire without hope, living upon the brink of grief's abysmal valley. Iraq, a year after the war, is in limbo. When Saddam Hussein, hated by most Iraqis, was seen having his teeth examined like a wild creature, many Iraqis I know did not react with howls of sweet revenge. They felt strangely sorry for him. He was humiliated. From far-off Vancouver, I was baffled, but I suspect that Saddam's humiliation symbolized the same of Iraq. Even if it was a dictatorship, corrupt and poor, it was still in Iraqi control. By the time of Saddam's capture, Iraqis were not in control; the Americans were.
When my 50-year-old cousin, a civil engineer, searched for work behind the concrete ramparts of the Green Zone (where the Coalition Provisional Authority is entrenched in Saddam Hussein's lavish palace, a symbolic fact not lost on Iraqis), he was shocked to see Americans driving around, eating happily in cafés. Huge American and British flags flanked a tiny Iraqi flag in the courtyard. My cousin has not worked since the invasion. He has desperately tried to get contracts, he says, but without the right contacts with the CPA, he has little chance. It is rumoured, he goes on, that many western companies have signed U.S. military contracts that promise not to hire Iraqis.
Disillusioned Iraqis can't understand how the most powerful country in the world still cannot provide electricity, phone service, oil, and, most of all, security. How do Iraqis live with disorder and turmoil day in, day out for a year? How can they plan or hope for the future? Reconstruction is a joke, with the odd paint job the only work people see being done. Freedom has meant that Iraqis can express their opinions and contact loved ones in exile. But the average Iraqi has not tasted daily freedom.
After 25 years of war and sanctions, Iraqis are exhausted. While the rest of the world is concerned with weapons of mass destruction and whether or not George Bush will be reelected, Iraqis are consumed by the anxiety of their daily lives. Unemployment is at 60 percent. Before the war, women hardly went out because they were too busy surviving. Now they don't leave the house for days for fear of rape or murder. If they do go out, it is never after dark, as they did before. After the war, my 70-year-old great-aunt had a back operation. She is immobile, living alone in Baghdad, with no telephone. I haven't spoken to her since the "shock and awe" campaign of the war.
Everyone in Baghdad worries about terrorism, assassinations, and the spectre of civil war. The main complaint is that the Coalition has not restored security. Freedom means nothing without security. My cousin's dark sense of humour masks his deep disappointment. After hearing occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer's optimistic radio address that schools and hospitals were open and that life was improving, my cousin laughed and said: "Mr. Bremer thinks that we are living in the best country in the entire world."
Talk to my cousin or any other Iraqi and they will tell stories of daily bombings and death. Iraq Body Count confirms that these are not isolated incidents: up to 10,000 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the war, and there are many more unreported deaths. Its Web site (iraqbodycount.com/) gives the chilling facts about the way Iraqi civilians die, from roadside bombs, gunfire, mortars, hand grenades, land mines, rocket-propelled grenades, car bombs, collision with U.S. armoured personnel carriers, automatic and large-calibre weapons, to name a few.
On March 8, Iraq's Governing Council (or, as Iraqis joke, "the Puppet Council") signed the Transitional Administrative Law that will govern Iraq after the occupation ends on June 30 until national elections in 2005. There should be tremendous optimism that democracy is under way, but the U.S. appointed the signatories and most were exiles. Most Iraqis distrust them and their actions.
No one knows for sure who is carrying out the terrorist attacks that haunt Iraq, or why. Will they start a civil war? Who would benefit from instability? Certainly not Iraqis, most of whom are baffled by constant western references to the Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Kurdish divides. Many families are a mixture, and there has never yet been a civil war. Is it a deliberate policy of divide and conquer?
Iraqis need an elected government they believe in, because until then no one can do anything truly constructive. Will the U.S.--led Coalition let democracy flourish in Iraq? Direct elections are the true test of the intentions behind the invasion. I hope that the world's attention isn't deflected away by then.
Peace marches are being held in many cities, including Vancouver, this Saturday (March 20) to mark the one-year anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq. In Vancouver, the march begins at 11 a.m. at Seaforth Peace Park at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge and culminates in a rally at Sunset Beach, off Beach Avenue at Bute Street, at 1:00 p.m. Writer Noam Chomsky is the featured speaker. For info, check www.stopwar.ca/.