Talkin' trash to the garbage around me.

23 November, 2007

It's getting better all the time (it can't get much worse)

It's all the rage these days to point to the admittedly better numbers of civilian deaths in Iraq and claim that "we're winning." Unfortunately, the description of conditions in Baghdad don't really inspire confidence:
Days after she returned from Syria, 23-year-old Melal al-Zubaidi and a friend went to the market on a pleasant night to eat ice cream. It was a short walk, yet unthinkable only a month ago for a woman in the capital. Still, her parents were nervous, and Zubaidi wore a head scarf and an ankle-length skirt to avoid angering Islamic extremists.

The Zubaidis, a Shiite Muslim family, have yet to pass another boundary. When they fled Iraq five months ago, a Sunni family took over their large house in Dora, a sprawling neighborhood in southern Baghdad. When the Zubaidis returned this month, they were too scared to ask the new occupants to leave. So they rented a small apartment in Mashtal, a mostly Shiite district.


Hashimi no longer sees bodies in the street when he opens his front door. Sunni extremists no longer man checkpoints to search his vehicle for alcohol or signs of collaboration with the government or the Americans. Roads are being paved, and municipal workers are sprucing up parks and traffic circles. His patch of Dora is now a fortress, surrounded by tall blast walls that separate entire blocks.

"It's totally secured," said Hashimi, who was an intelligence officer during the government of Saddam Hussein. But a few days ago, he drove across the main highway to another section of Dora. He felt a familiar fear. "You're lost there. You don't know who controls the area, Sunni or Shia, American soldiers or Iraqi security forces. It's still chaotic."

He never drives on side streets, afraid of the unknown. On a recent day, he wanted to visit a Shiite friend in Amil, a district controlled by the Mahdi Army, whom he had not seen in a year. But his friend advised him not to come. Hashimi felt relief. "I'm afraid to go to Shiite areas," he said.

Before Hashimi left Iraq, he used to pick up a friend every day from the mixed enclave of Bayaa and take him to the security firm where they both worked. But during his time in Syria, Shiite militias cleansed Bayaa of Sunnis. "It's impossible for me to go there now," he said.

So he spends most of his days in his once-mixed neighborhood, now a mostly Sunni area. A nearby tea shop is open until 10 p.m., but all other shops close by 7 p.m. Under Hussein, they used to be open past midnight. The walled-off streets have squeezed the pool of customers. Electricity, Hashimi said, is still scarce.


Hashimi is worried that the wall could easily crumble. He recently applied to join the Iraqi police. But he doesn't trust the Shiite-led government to integrate Sunnis into the political system, the police and army. And what if the American troops leave?

"Of course, if the political process is still the same, and the Americans withdraw from Dora, in a couple of days everything will collapse again."

So, "winning" is the dysfunctional political status quo with the population segregated into fortified enclaves, afraid to venture beyond their walled-off neighborhoods, even to meet family members.

This is the "peace" of a military occupation, premised on a terrified and demoralized population and armed factions biding their time for another opportunity. You'll have to excuse me if I'm not ready to dance a little jig for our pyrrhic "victory."

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