May 20, 2013
So This Is What Victory Looks Like?
Posted on Jul 7, 2009
By Scott Ritter
Fireworks lit up the Baghdad sky on the evening of June 30th, signaling the advent of “National Sovereignty Day.” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared the new holiday to commemorate the withdrawal of American combat troops from the Iraqi capital and all other major urban centers, although thousands of “advisers” would remain in the cities, embedded with Iraqi forces. The celebration transpired inside a city that has been radically transformed over the past six years. Even with American combat forces ostensibly withdrawn, Baghdad remains one of the most militarized urban areas in the world. It wasn’t always so. When I was in Baghdad during the 1990s, I was struck by the lack of an overt military presence for a nation purported to be governed by one of the world’s worst militaristic dictatorships.
Of course, in the city areas housing Saddam Hussein, his family and inner circle, and the seat of government, one would see green-clad soldiers of the Special Republican Guard standing watch over the gates controlling access into and out of these islands of power and privilege. But in the rest of the city—the vast majority of the city—there was no military presence. Traffic police stood on little islands in the middle of busy intersections, keeping the bustle of a modern city moving along at a brisk pace. There were soldiers in uniform around, but they carried no weapons, being on leave from their duties in Iraq’s conscript military. Just like their fellow servicemen in other cities around the world, they would enjoy a day or two walking the streets and markets of Baghdad, taking in the sights and sounds, grabbing a glass of tea, a quick meal and the sight of pretty girls neatly attired in Western-style dress.
Let there be no doubt, Iraq was a police state, and the streets of the city were also filled with agents and informers of the regime, quick to detect any hint of rebellion or insurrection. Telephone calls were listened in on and conversations illicitly recorded in the hope of finding evidence of dissent. And when dissent was found, the forces of repression would mobilize quickly to crush it—secret police and paramilitary forces for small incidents, and the battalions of Special Republican Guard for larger threats. But Baghdad, like Mosul and other major cities, was also a place where someone—whether resident, visitor or even U.N. weapons inspector—could leave his or her home or workplace in the evening and travel freely without fear of endless roadblocks, checkpoints, car bombs and firefights.
One could take in a street market in what was then known as Saddam City (today we call it Sadr City), the Shiite-dominated neighborhood in the northeast corner of Baghdad. Or grab a kebab in Karrada, a Sunni-dominated neighborhood in the center of town. Or visit the shopping districts of Monsouriyah, or tour the gold-domed mosques in Khadamiyah (Shiite) or across the Tigris River in Adamiyah (Sunni). The quality of the Baghdad-Iraq experience fluctuated given the state of the economy (U.N. sanctions crippled Iraq from 1991 until 1996, when the controversial oil-for-food program breathed new life into what had become a stagnant existence). But whether the shelves in a given shop were full or empty, one thing remained constant—Baghdad and the other major cities of Iraq functioned in a manner more in keeping with the open societies of Europe, and less like the municipality under siege that exists today.
Baghdad survives now as a city defined not by its thousands of years of history, but rather segregation brought on by policies of deliberate ethnic cleansing. The city is now a checkerboard of neighborhoods walled off from one another by giant concrete-block dividers installed by American troops in an effort to keep Iraqis from killing one another, a phenomenon born from ethnic and religious differences which have violently come to a head in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Once we get beyond the pageantry and spectacle of the deception that is taking place in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities “formerly” occupied by U.S. troops, the pretense of progress is difficult to sustain.
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