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Dhar Jamail: Here Comes ''The Freedom''

Dhar Jamail's Dispatches From Iraq

Here comes “The Freedom”

January 27, 2005

My friend from Baquba visited me yesterday. He brought the usual giant lunch of home cooked food he always brings when he comes to see me. I’m still eating it, actually. I had it again for dinner tonight. Ah, the typical Iraqi meal.

He owns four large tents, and rents them to people in his city to use at funeral wakes, marriage parties, tribal negotiation meetings and to cover gardens, among other things.

During the Anglo-American invasion of his country back in the spring of 2003, when refugees from Baghdad sought shelter from the falling bombs, many of the families inundated his city. After his house was filled with refugees, he let others use his tents, for free of course.

Refugees from Fallujah are using them now.

At least 35 US soldiers have died in Iraq today. 31 of them died when a Chinook went down near the Jordanian border. At least four others died in clashes in the al-Anbar province. A patrol on the airport road was bombed, destroying at least one military vehicle. The military hasn’t released any casualty figures on that one yet.

“Bring ‘em on,” said George Bush quite some time ago, when the Iraqi resistance had begun to pick up the pace.

Today, during a press conference he spoke about the upcoming elections in Iraq.

“Clearly there are some who are intimidated,” he said, “I urge alls (not a typo) people to vote.”

Let me describe the scene on the ground here in “liberated” Iraq.

With the “elections” just three days away, people are terrified. Families are fleeing Baghdad much as they did prior to the invasion of the country. Seeking refuge from what everyone fears to be a massive onslaught of violence in the capital city, huge lines of cars are stacked up at checkpoints on the outer edges of the city.

Policemen and Iraqi soldiers are trying to convince people to stay in the city and vote.

Nobody is listening to them.

Whereas Baghdad is filled with Fallujah refugees, now villages and smaller cities on the outskirts of Baghdad are filling up with election refugees.

Yet these places aren’t safe either. In Baquba attacks on polling stations are a near daily occurrence. Mortar attacks are common on polling stations even as far south as Basra. A truck bomb struck a Kurdish political party headquarters in a small town near Mosul, killing 15 people, wounding twice that many. A string of car bombs detonated at polling stations in Kirkuk, which was already under an 8pm-5am curfew, killing 10 Iraqis.

Here in Baghdad, although the High Commission for Elections in Iraq has yet to announce their locations, schools which are being converted into polling stations are already being attacked.

Iraqis who live near these schools are terrorized at the prospect.

“They can block the whole city and people cannot move,” says a man speaking to me on condition of anonymity, “The city is dead, the people are dead. For what? For these forced elections!”

He is angry and frustrated because his street is now blocked as he lives near a small yellow middle school that is going to be used as a polling station.

Nearby some US soldiers are occupying a police station, as usual. One of them saw me taking photos and tried to confiscate my camera.

It didn’t matter that I showed him my press badge. After some talking he let me delete the photos and move on, camera in hand.

Sand barriers block the end of a street, the school where the insides are already in disrepair sits just behind them.

At least 90 streets in Baghdad are now closed down by huge sand and/or concrete barriers and razor wire. The number is growing daily.

“Now I’m afraid mortars will hit my home if the polling station is attacked,” he adds. He’ll be moving across town to stay at a relative’s house, which is not near one of the dreaded polling stations.

An owner of a small grocery shop nearby is just as concerned. He had to negotiate with soldiers to have them leave an opening on the end of the barrier so people could access his place of business.

“I’m already living off my food ration, and have little business,” he says while pointing at the deserted street, “Now who wants to come near my shop? All of us are afraid, and all of us are suffering now.”

A tired looking guard standing nearby named Salman chimes in on the conversation. “I would be crazy to vote, it’s so dangerous now,” he says with a cigarette dangling from his hand, “Besides, why vote? Of course Allawi will stay in. The Americans will make it so.”

A contact of mine just returned from spending a week in Fallujah. We shared some of the food brought from my friend in Baquba.

“I’d been in Fallujah for a week and all I’d seen was tough military tactics,” he tells me, “They are arresting people and putting them in these trucks, blindfolded and tied up. Everywhere I looked all I saw was utter devastation.”

He spoke with many families who told him one horror story after another, death after death after death.

“Then today, the military brings in a dozen Humvees and ground troops to basically seal off a small area near a market,” he continues, “In the middle of them is a CNN camera crew filming troops throwing candy to kids and these guys in orange vests start cleaning the streets around them.”

He laughs while holding up his arms and says, “I’d never seen those guys anywhere in the city before. I don’t know where they came from.”

After a pause to take a drink of soda he adds, “I’d never seen any boots on the ground at all, and all of the sudden there are all these marines standing around like everything was ok. It was the first time I’d seen any soldier not in a Humvee or a Bradley. I was really surprised.”

“All of it was 100% staged. Good PR before the election,” he says. Then in a reference to mainstream America he adds, “Fallujah is fine, now go back to sleep.”


Low Fuel, High Violence

January 24, 2005

Last night I peered out my hotel room window into the vast darkness of Baghdad. Aside from random lights powered by generators, the blackened capital city seemed to lay dormant under high winds and a cold, driving rain.

This morning as we’re driving under clear, crisp skies on the harrowing streets Abu Talat tells me, “We have had neither water nor electricity at our house since 9am yesterday morning. It is as if we are camping in our house!”

He laughs his usual deep laugh as I shake my head. I noticed he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days.

Sirens wail in the distance as Apaches rumble low overhead and we make our way to our interviews. Looking out the window I see a rough looking man wearing a black leather jacket ambling along the street. He wears a wide leather belt with a pistol strapped on his right side, and a knife which runs down to his middle thigh on his left. Welcome to occupied Baghdad.

A little further we begin what is often a quest to find some “reasonably” priced black market petrol. The first man we ask tells us 8,000 Iraqi Dinar (ID) for 20 Liters ($1.06 per gallon). While the prices have dropped from a recent 20,000 ID per 20 liters, they are still unacceptable to Abu Talat, who paid 100 ID for 20 liters prior to the invasion at pumps where maybe one car was in front of him.

He is irked at the 8,000 ID, so we drive past a miles long gas line to find a boy selling for 8,000 again, so we continue on to find another boy selling for 6,500 ID.

Abu Talat asks him some questions then drives off again.

“Why didn’t you take it for 6,500,” I ask perplexed.

“He wouldn’t swear to me it wasn’t watered down,” he replied with a smile.

Another block further we find another boy selling for 6,000. He passes the swear test so we wait as he dumps 20 liters through his old plastic half of a soda bottle into the tank. Nearby is his cache of fuel, on a handy push cart so he can make a quick getaway if Iraqi or US soldiers decide to break up his little black market, as they so often do when the feel compelled.

We continue on over towards Khadamiya while listening to the radio. The Iraqi resistance appears to be spreading to the south as a few days ago an Italian soldier was killed when his helicopter took ground fire. Just yesterday a Polish soldier died when his helicopter took fire near Babil, while today 6 Iraqi soldiers were wounded when a car bomb detonated at their checkpoint in front of the Polish military HQ in Hilla.

In case you missed it, recently the Bush administration quietly downgraded the list of members of the famed “coalition of the willing” from 45 countries to under 30.

Then of course there’s always Mosul-another US soldier died there today in clashes, bringing the Pentagon number of dead troops to 1,372 since the invasion. Also, just north of Ramadi today a police station was raided by resistance fighters who made off with equipment and weapons. They didn’t kill any policemen, but after forcing them out of their station they warned them they would kill them if they returned inside.

After interviewing some folks in a mosque (more on that at a later date), we decide to venture into a gas station to see how the manager is faring with the crisis. We’re walking after we park the car and I’m startled by nearby gunfire. Abu Talat doesn’t even flinch.

“You’re not even going to look,” I ask him.

“Why? This is nothing for me anymore,” he says back smiling, “This is the freedom of Iraq!”

Riyad Atoush sits slumped behind his old desk in a small office. Beeping cars impatiently wait outside for their chance at the pump.

“We stay open from 6am to 6pm every day,” he tells me, “But yesterday we closed at 4pm since we ran out of fuel.”

They normally get two tanker trucks each day, each one holding 32,000 liters of the now precious liquid, but today only one showed up.

“There is a rumor that the government will be raising the prices at the pumps,” adds Mr. Atoush, “But for now we just continue to ration the fuel; even plates one day, odd the next, 30 liters (7.5 gallons) per vehicle.”

He concludes by saying that they hope to receive three tankers per day soon; that is if there are no more attacks on pipelines or stolen tanker trucks.

Back on the streets it is the usual cacophony of honking traffic jams, rumbling choppers overhead, and Iraqi and US soldiers on the streets.

We sit in a traffic jam and I notice a small child next to us.

He is peering out at an Iraqi soldier standing with his Kalashnikov on the other side of our car.


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