April 1, 2008  

Hope and skepticism

Iraqis at home and displaced weigh changes in Baghdad

Last April, this column described initial responses by Iraqi bloggers to the “surge” of American troops in their country. Writing from shattered Baghdad and exile in Damascus, they recorded hopeful auguries as families returned to reclaim their lives in such one-time combat zones as Baghdad’s Haifa Street. But such hope was tempered by long-sewn despair: One blogger noted in February 2007 that he didn’t know whether to feel happy because the violence was dissipating, afraid that it may return or “sad because deep inside I think I know it will.”

One year later, Iraq’s growing community of milbloggers reports continued improvement, citing both the success of the surge and the growth of “awakening councils” that comprise former Sunni insurgents who have worked with coalition forces to expel tyrannical al-Qaida terrorists.

“I can finally say that things are better now here in Baghdad,” “Iraqiya” recently wrote in her eponymous blog. She even described a “marriage spree” as young men who were so fearful of their short life expectancy in recent years that they refused to get engaged try to make up for lost time. Iraqiya’s hopeful observations follow an August note in which she despaired that the ceaseless Baghdad violence left her feeling “discouraged, so broken, and above all so sad” that there was no hope for her country.

Likewise, “Caesar,” at In Iraq, Sex is Like Snow, returned to Baghdad in September after a year of college studies in Damascus and was shocked by the revitalization of a once-dying city. Walking around a major bazaar in early February, Caesar recalled that only a year before, the market had been shuttered by fights among al-Qaida gunmen, Iraqi police and coalition forces. Today, “life is flowing back in the veins of that bazaar” as merchants reopen their stores and the shoppers return.

Nonetheless, many Iraqis have taken the progress with a strong dose of skepticism. One issue is the role of the “awakening councils,” which have played a crucial role in ending al-Qaida’s reign of terror but have also established their own questionable ascendancy. Contrasting views on the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya, a district that fell under al-Qaida control in 2006, provides a useful measure of both the gains and the continued risks.

“Mohammed” at Last of Iraqis writes that Adhamiya became all too personal a bellwether for him in May 2006, when a date with his then-fiancée was interrupted by the murder of a shopkeeper by masked assassins. Over the next year, the violence escalated until the bodies of men and women were left unattended in the streets for fear of booby traps. After Sunni “awakening councils” launched a late 2007 uprising against the al-Qaida in the district, Mohammed reports a stunning turnaround in the former killing ground: “I noticed that some shops reopened and many shop owners were preparing their shops to reopen them, it was a very beautiful scene to watch your beloved dying neighborhood beginning to have [its] life back specially when you see the people walking in the street with that smile on their faces, the smile for the future.”

Nonetheless, Mohammed finds it disconcerting that many of the awakening council men are former al-Qaida members and insurgents who are now “mercenaries … [and] traitors for what they pretended to believe in, who were given weapons and control” after betraying their al-Qaida paymasters in support of the Americans. He concludes cautiously, asking “who knows what might happen if [the awakening councils] regain the full control? Who can trust any militia after such struggles and suffering?”

“Nabil” at Nabil’s Blog reports a far more cynical account from a cousin who lives in Adhamiya: “Do you remember the men we used to see on [motorbikes] who used to kidnap people and kill people? Well, yeah, now they call [themselves] the Awakening men of Adhamiya, they have removed [al-Qaida] masks from their stinky faces and now wearing the masks of the awakening wave. … [They are] kidnapping people and killing people for no specific reasons or sometimes for money. … The only thing changed is their name from [al-Qaida] to the Awakening men.”

More than 2 million Iraqis remain dispersed among Syria, Jordan, Egypt and further afield in Europe and the U.S. These Iraqis have more regular access to the Internet than their counterparts who have stayed behind and make up a large portion of the Iraqi blogging community. The refugees are wearing out their welcome in countries such as Syria, where a regime that was once heavily subsidized by Saddam Hussein now hosts over a million displaced Iraqis. “Al-Rasheed” at Great Baghdad describes a recent visit to Damascus, where he and his uncle went shopping and were accosted by a merchant who demanded to know “where do you Iraqis get all that money from and spend it like that?” Al-Rasheed took umbrage at the man’s assumption that “since we came to this country to take refuge from the violence, then we must be considered like beggars.”

“Zeyad” at Healing Iraq is one of the lucky ones who has made it to the U.S. and is studying for a master’s in journalism at the City University of New York. He describes the even more dramatic efforts of Iraqis who pay almost $7,000 to shady brokers to arrange entry into Sweden. Although Sweden’s high approval of refugee applications is a boon to the few Iraqis who make it there, the journey is a perilous one. Unable to go directly, one man traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam but ultimately was returned to Iraq after failing to convince Vietnamese officials — while speaking only Arabic — that he was a Lithuanian citizen who was traveling back to Europe.

The challenges for Iraqis who seek to rebuild their country or just escape with their lives are bewildering. The lull in violence since last summer’s surge is the best opportunity that many have seen in years to reclaim some portion of their life, a fact that many Baghdadis seem to recognize. But the continued trepidation of Iraqi bloggers, and the humanitarian crisis posed by Iraq’s exiled and internally displaced population, are useful reminders that the American commitment to address these challenges will yet be measured in years.

Blog Roll



In Iraq, Sex is Like Snow


Last of Iraqis


Nabil’s Blog


Great Baghdad


Healing Iraq