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William Rivers Pitt: A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 10 July 2006

Upon reading of the astonishing shooting incident in the al-Jihad neighborhood of Baghdad yesterday, I sat down and attempted to imagine, simply, what it must be like to live in that city these days. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be surrounded by constant violence, escalating cycles of revenge, and a total absence of government control.

Pretend you live in Iraq. The day starts, as it usually does, with you wondering what will happen because of the bombings and killings the day before. Several members of a Shiite family were mowed down by gunmen in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad yesterday, and three others were shot to death in an ice cream shop. A Sunni cleric was shot to death yesterday, and several people died when a Baghdad mosque was bombed. Four children were killed by mortars in the capital. Outside Baghdad, three US Marines died when their convoy was bombed in al-Anbar.

You hear about all this - Shiites killing Sunnis, Sunnis killing Shiites, the mosque getting bombed and the Marines getting killed - and you know what you knew the day before, and the day before that: someone, somewhere is going to try to exact revenge today for the mayhem of yesterday. It could be Shiite revenge, Sunni revenge or American revenge, but the arc always arrives at the same spot. Someone is going to die today, and you hope it isn't you.

You attempt to go about your business, but that is hardly a simple task. Every neighborhood you pass through is barricaded and patrolled by "neighborhood governments" who are armed to the teeth and murderously distrustful of outsiders. Kidnappings happen all the time. Islamic fundamentalists, once a rarity in Iraq, now patrol the streets doling out punishment to anyone deemed to be dressed improperly.

If your errand is to get some gasoline, you'll be in line for the rest of the day and into tomorrow. If you're looking for food, your chore is equally daunting. Fresh food is hard to come by, and not a good idea generally. Electricity is off for hours at a time, turning your refrigerator into a useless hotbox, and anything you buy will spoil quickly in the stifling heat.

There is no true government outside the so-called "Green Zone" set up by the Americans. Beyond the concrete barricades and hard-eyed soldiers, it is a free-for-all. As you walk, you catch a snippet of the American president bragging about Iraqi democracy on someone's radio, and you laugh to yourself at the absurdity. You laugh quietly, however, and not for long. You don't want to draw any attention to yourself.

You turn the corner into the al-Jihad neighborhood of western Baghdad and head for a vegetable stand a friend told you was good. Before you can get there, you see three cars drive up and stop. Out of the cars pile several black-clad men toting assault rifles, and you dive for cover, and you watch.

The guns erupt and people begin to drop. The gunmen begin kicking in doors and dragging people out into the street, where they are riddled and left to bleed out. You see several people hanged by improvised nooses, and you see others held down and tortured to death with power drills. From one kicked-in apartment door you hear horrifying screams and the sound of a hammer pounding, and you realize that someone inside is being pegged to a wall.

Before you turn to flee, you recognize the shooters as members of the Shiite militia they call the Mahdi Army, which is controlled by powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Mahdi fighters means the ones dying are Sunnis. You count more than fifty bodies on the ground before you duck behind some cars and sprint around a corner. The vegetables can wait.

On your way back home, you hear a distant boom. When you get back to the relative safety of your own neighborhood government-guarded apartment, you hear that two car bombs went off at a Shiite mosque not too far away. You do a little mental calculus: The Shiites gunned down yesterday means the Sunnis who died today paid for that carnage, and the Shiite mosque bombing today means the Sunnis outraged by the massacre in al-Jihad reached out to touch someone.

The electricity comes on for a little while that night, and you tune in to an Al Jazeera news broadcast. You hear the Iraq deputy prime minister for security affairs, Salam al-Zawbae, accuse the defense and interior ministries within his own government of helping the militias organize and carry out the attacks. "Interior and defense ministries are infiltrated," says Zawbae, "and there are officials who lead brigades who are involved in this. What is happening now is an ugly slaughter."

The power abruptly cuts off again and the television screen goes blank. You sit in the dark and think about Bush's happy comments on Iraqi democracy, the words you heard on that radio before the shooting started. Politicians loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr control more than thirty seats on the so-called Iraqi parliament, making any attacks against the Mahdi Army a ready excuse to explode the government. The civil war playing out in the streets is also being fought by those supposedly elected to lead Iraq out of chaos.

You hand-roll a cigarette made of black market tobacco, and you sit in the dark, and you try to guess who will die tomorrow. You hope, as always, that it isn't you.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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