After a one-month visit in January 2008, FRANCE 24 senior reporter Lucas Menget is in Iraq once again. Read his impressions about the situation in Baghdad in his reporter's notebook.
Baghdad, April 8
Sadr City. ( yet again?!)
In just a few hours, it’ll be five years. Five years that this war has failed to end. Five years that I’ve been interested in it. Five years that I've been counting the dead, that we've been trying to understand the details, measure the change and constantly rediscover the absurdity of it all.
We’re about to spend our second night of editing, to try and show with just a few video pieces what Iraq looks like five years later. The task is near impossible. You would need to explain both the complexity and the attachment, the drama and the laughter, the Shia, the Sunni, the Christians, the more or less crazy ones. The suicidal and the visionary ones. Those who are realistic and those who are lost. The sand and the oil. The foolishness of a few mad men in Washington and the naivety of their successors. The dreams of Iraqis when, five years ago, speech became free for a few months. The disillusions now that words need to be whispered again.
Five years later, Sadr City isn’t Saddam City anymore. But it’s not doing any better. We finally managed to go there for real. We’ve had to circle obstacles, to follow the steps of those who break the curfew. We’ve had to ask for our way, to cross dumps and find the men from the Army of Mahdi. They were expecting us. Narrow streets, low houses, garbage everywhere. A few silhouettes leaving houses. Women in black. Men hiding. The ceasefire is a big joke. Showers of bullets ring out above the roofs. The city’s entries are closed. Two million people are waiting, waiting for a calm they no longer believe in anymore. So they support the fighters.
One of them is leading us. Right, left and right. Houses look the same. The portraits of Moqtada, too. The streets lead to an avenue. There are no cars, no noises. On the other side, there’s an office of the Sadr movement. The militant walks slowly, with a limp. He lowers his head against the wall, turns it to the right, then to the left. His friends wave at him on the other side. We start running at his signal. In a few seconds we’ve reached the other side of the avenue. At the end of it, the American snipers haven’t shot a bullet.
We get a warm welcome. “Rat-a-tat! Snipers! Welcome". We’re embedded with the Mahdi army, we’ll see what happens. We don’t have to wait long. A thick black smoke emerges from a housing block. As always, the crowd hurries as close as possible to the fire. Oil drums explode. Kids step back a meter then move forward again. The habit. The madness, too. Screams.
There’s more smoke further down the road. Tires are burning. This is an artisanal smoke screen to blur the vision of American snipers and facilitate the crossing of an intersection. A car parks at high speed along a dust-swept squalid sidewalk. A crowd gathers. The back trunk isn’t locked. A leg sticks out from a dirty blanket. Or what is left of it. It is riddled with shrapnel. It’s not wounds we see, but holes. Looking at the man’s body, you can’t tell whether it’s dead or alive. Today’s body count: 18. Screams.
Very near there, in an office, the Baghdad representative for Moqtada Sadr looks impeccable. The man sports a fine beard and his thin body is cloaked in a white dishdasha lined with a grey veil. On his head, the sayyed’s turban. “Sir, what do you think of those five years of war?” His answer to my stupid question is simple. “The Shia are still suffering. But Saddam was the student and the Americans are the masters.”
Damn, five years.
Baghdad, April 7
The water of the hotel’s pool is known for being cold. Even in the summer when Baghdad melts under the 50 degree heat, the pool stays cold. In the summer, it’s ideal. The hotel could get the star it never earned out of it. Right now, the pool is ice cold. Just plain ice cold. The hotel employees look at me in my bathing suit night after night, startled. They look at me looking at the pool and not knowing whether I should dive in or not. Behind the restaurant’s window, they smile, talk to each other and point me with their finger.
The pool is deep. At night, the water turns dark. The muezzin sings. The birds that hide in palm trees grow silent as the sun sets. It’s time to take a dive. There’s no way to go in slowly. I wonder whether it would be shocking to have a bath at prayer time and whether the waiters disapprove. At the same time, they can’t be angry at a mad man. I dive in.
I’m gripped by the cold, almost suffocated for a few seconds. To swim, swim and not stop. To warm up and relax. To think about nothing else but the water and count the laps. 10, 20, 30, 40… After 20 laps, I don’t feel the cold anymore, just the pleasure from swimming.
Swimming in Baghdad is something shameful. Beyond the hotel’s wall, I can see the light from weak, yellow lamps or the rapid bluish reflections of a television in apartments. Sometimes, a silhouette emerges in the window frame. In two days, it will be five years since Saddam’s regime fell. Before that, swimming pools used to be reserved to the rich. It’s still the case today. Privileges just changed hands.
To swim longer. Power cut. The hotel disappears. I swim in the dark. The power generator starts again. The light comes back. There are nice lamps around the pool, broken arm chairs and giant ash trays. Useless. The hotel’s glory days were in 2003, at a time when the country should have switched to democracy. There have been very few customers since.
Two huge Chinooks fly over the neighbourhood. They’re big, slow and very noisy twin-engine helicopters. I can make out their shadows. And when I plunge into the water, I can’t hear them anymore. They’re there when I’m out the water but they’re gone when I’m in. It’s actually quite easy to make two war choppers disappear.
The fog is back later in the night. It’s a fake fog but it looks like a nice thick fog wrapping itself around the city. The halos of the few lights left are vanishing. It looks almost poetic. But it’s more like dust and sand being blown from the desert even when there’s no wind. A smell of earth sweeps through the air. In a few hours, everything will be covered in yellow dust, inside and outside.
Maybe to better dampen the lights of the fifth anniversary’s candles.
Good night, good day
Najaf, April 6
The Southern motorway
It almost felt like we were going on holiday. Almost that is - if there weren’t so many checkpoints and so much security. And probing from policemen and soldiers. But, even so, the road south from Baghdad takes us close to the sea. We’re not going that far of course, just leaving the capital Baghdad to find out what people in Najaf thought of the “situation,” as Iraqis say.
It’s impossible to nap in the car as checkpoints dot the way south. Sometimes it’s the police, sometimes the army. Sometimes all you need to do is smile and call everyone “habibi”. Other times you have to turn off the engine, wait around while a soldier calls his boss, reads your invitation, shows it to his friends with a grave look… and then you smile and call everyone “habibi”. Other challenges greet the travellers: holes in the road. Back-breaking of course. Especially because our vehicle hurtles its way down south. Iraqis don’t drive, they forge ahead. There are no rules. Faster, stronger, heavier… We forge ahead. Not to mention drivers’ use of the horn. If an Iraqi doesn’t use it at least once a minute, in short blasts, he feels inferior. The left hand is also very useful. To show where we are going, when we are speeding up, to show irritation, or to say ,“it’s okay, my friend, I don’t mind. That’s life.”
But when you meet a lorry head on, with its lights on in the middle of the day, you have no choice but to make way. With regret of course. Then you catch up. And if there are traffic jams in your lane, use the other…. Napping on our way to Najaf is a bit like trying to fall asleep watching a video game at full volume.
As we cross the least agreeable areas of Iraq, the “death triangle” famous for its abductions and other expressions of neighbourly goodwill, roadblocks become more and more serious. A strange comparison springs to mind. “Doesn’t it look like the West Bank.” The checkpoints are built on the side of the road, with lanes. Several queues of cars await inspection, separated by concrete parapets. A large awning protects them from the sun. In other words, the checkpoints look like big sheds – Israeli fashion. With walls everywhere which remind us of other walls. Could it be that the Americans sought council from neighbours in the region?
It’s getting hotter and hotter. The water level of the Euphrates is low. It’s not dry but almost. Ezekiel’s grave is somewhere in a grim village overlooking the river. But the poor old man is far less popular than the Shiite imams and the ayatollahs whose portraits hang on surrounding buildings. Sistani, Sadr father and son, Hakim, they are all there. And others, less known, but probably just as feared. Much of the future of the country depends on them. Some refuse to meddle in distasteful politics, while others take it head-on. Non-violence versus violence. Pragmatism and conservatism.
Through the streets we see the dome, the mausoleum of Imam Ali, the focus point of one of the most important fights of the last five years. In the offices around it, discussions among religious men and politicians are constrained. Everyone says they are against the war. Najaf is calm. Very calm. A safe stroll through the city is possible. A unique opportunity in Iraq. And very agreeable one too. “Najaf is a model town,” explains the governor. Thanks to a factional agreement not to fight over the holy city. Diplomacy here is an art. And hatred between rivals a way of life.
The governor of Najaf asks me to invite Nicolas Sarkozy to visit the town.
Baghdad, April 4
There are times when we need to forget about roosters and snipers. One can't keep pondering over what goes on in a rooster's mind during the night or the sniper's thoughts during the day. There are days when (British author) Bruce Chatwin's "What am I doing here?" come to mind. While waiting for the rooster to sleep and the sniper to wake up, absurd questions pop up in one's head but the answers remain ambiguous.
And when the answers are vague and questions forgotten, it's time to find a difficult task- for us it's finding honey for the acrid yoghurt we have for breakfast in Iraq. "Tell me Muthanna, before returning to Sadr city, can't we find some honey?" Another absurd question. “Shrugging his shoulders, "Pfff, maybe" he responds. " But why?" "No reason, just to find some honey," we tell him.
Our driver knows the dimensions of his car to the millimeter. There are no traffic regulations or traffic lights here. Just a few policemen causing confusion - but with a smile. Muthana thinks while his friend drives us through while laughing (and us holding our breath). "Yes, maybe, honey. Actually, there is a shop round the corner, the Honey Market."
It's in a square. There used to be a statue here before. To a Sunni hero, which was brought down by the Shiites, or maybe the contrary. No one remembers anymore what really happened. Now there is just a lone and empty pedestal surrounded by palm-trees. And in a dark corner of a dilapidated building, we find the Honey Market.
This is the dream. Guillaume cooks, and cooks very well. We can't believe what we see - there is tuna, sardines, peas, cheese (wrapped and expired, but hey, it's still cheese), yoghurt, fruit juice, dry cakes, chocolate and honey. "Do you like honey chicken?" asks Guillaume, losing himself in one of the aisles. “Well yeah, obviously." Adieu roosters and snipers. We've found something to allow us to forget about you for a few hours.
"Any wine?" Obviously not. The owner comes over to talk to us. He’s one of the last Christians in the area. "We used to sell wine. But we were kidnapped and held hostage for a week. We had to pay and were forced to stop selling wine."
The wine, it doesn't matter, only if you knew how elated we are.
Behind the counter, there are toothbrushes, shaving cream, lighters, cigarettes, and even postcards, but no stamps. In any case, we’d have to find the post office. The shop’s business has been taking a nosedive. Before, everyone considered him the nice guy downstairs. Today, he is nobody, at best. He intends staying that way - to survive.
When a female American soldier is in a good mood, she may use the word 'honey' to address a friend in the regiment. Apart from that, the word isn't used much in Baghdad. It's too sweet.
Baghdad, April 3
A volley of gunfire, no one pays attention. It's so common, a flurry of shots. For a yes, for a no. To scare or to kill. For fun or to frighten others. Iraqis no longer run for cover on hearing gun shots. They don't duck down or interrupt a conversation in the street. Just look over their shoulder, eyes searching the source of the shots. A silent confirmation. There is no point wasting time over gun shots. Eyebrows are raised and life goes on.
One shot, a single shot. This is worrying. The silence is wrenched by a loud bang. Where is it coming from? Heads duck down to dodge the shots. People start running for shelter. A shot: it's a sniper. In Baghdad, snipers are replacing the kamikaze in the latest competition to catch on: who is going to kill the most? Though rarely frightened, Iraqis fear the snipers. They've a reason to be scared. "No, no, mister. Sniper", they say with a telling look, and furrowed brow.
Once again, we approach Sadr city. A man tells us of what's been happening further ahead, in the hidden quarters of the Shia bastion. Pro and anti-Sadr groups clash. Those who accepted the ceasefire, and those who rejected it. But they stand united against American forces. The gravity of the situation: US forces have prohibited Iraqi security forces from re-entering Sadr city. It's big, it's serious. The Apache helicopters whirl, accelerate and leave. They bolt and strike their rockets. It all happens so quickly. "No mister, it's too dangerous for us and for you. We cannot go there. Another day, Inshallah," says our friend in Sadr city.
He tells us of the hospitals overcrowed with wounded people and unidentified charred bodies. He tells us how families don't have the courage to come and claim corpses. Three hospitals in Sadr city, each managed by a different faction: if injured people are taken to a hospital managed by a different camp, they are killed. Ambulances are targeted. I insist, ask for precisions. Why haven't people fled? "Flee where? But then, one gets used to it."
And again, the snipers. Deployed on the roofs. American soldiers need more than tanks to oust them. They need to get out of their cover, expose themselves. Search, confirm, hit. It's not easy, especially in narrow streets. Snipers, what are they thinking about? How many targets today? "Here, this woman, where is she going? Why there? She will not go." The sniper isn't visible, we can't hear him. Maybe it's too late. It's unfortunate. The sniper sees, whiffs, thinks, reconsiders a little. His target just went by or maybe not.
Iraqi soldiers observe helplessly, standing next to their armoured vehicle. Between two concrete walls to protect themselves. An ideal spot for live shots, to attempt to report on the situation in Sadr City. To explain that the authorities' optimistic statements are false: clashes continue. There is no victory - not for Maliki, nor for Sadr. The troubles in Basra have spread to Baghdad. Checking that the green lights are blinking. The cable is connected. "Is it fine Guillaume?" Guillaume checks on the computer, lying on the ground close to the ground. "It's good". A minute or maybe two. A tall guy. A white shirt on grey concrete. What's the sniper thinking? "Who's this? A journalist? Which country, which network?" Maybe the sniper doesn't care. Maybe they think it's just another corpse. He pulls the trigger, he looks. Hundreds of metres away, the body hears gunshot and the sound of the bullet. Missed.
Baghdad, April 2
One o'clock in the morning - and the rooster wakes up. What does he do during the day? Does he sleep? How does he do it? Today, three people were killed in one of the city's biggest commercial streets - three women shot dead in a mobile telephone store in the central Kerada district. The armed men fled in a car while the women were sent to the morgue. A little further out, in a Shia area, an Iraqi cameraman took one step more than he should have - and lost his leg. He survived the blast, but faces the rest of his life with just one leg.
And the rooster slept. Or maybe not. Maybe he has insomnia at night. Too many helicopters. And these lights, which come on and go out depending on the generator's will. Maybe it disturbs his sleep. Have experts thought of analyzing a Baghdadi rooster's circadian rhythm? I'm sure we'll learn something - about the rooster, about others, about us. But no one cares about roosters in Baghdad. That's OK - after all, people aren't even interested in the three women killed this afternoon in the mobile telephone store.
But it's strange to find a rooster awake at 1 am. You have to keep looking at the time to make sure the rooster is mistaken, not you. That you haven't missed the liveshots for the 8 am news bulletin. You confirm that it's still night, the streets are still deserted. Helicopters are flying lower and faster. Helicopters at night are normal, but the rooster....
We're forced to hear him crow, because that's all we can hear. But thousands of stray dogs seem to respect it. The rooster crows, the stray dogs stop howling. These dogs enjoy following police patrol vehicles. At night, no one is allowed in the streets except for roosters, dogs and the police. And when there isn't much to do, the troops shoot at a stray dog to keep the upper hand. A single shot normally does it.
This calms the rooster. A gunshot or a burst of Kalashnikov fire keeps the the rooster quiet for a few minutes. And then he starts again. "Rise and shine Baghdad!" I guess he falls asleep at 5 am or he goes into hiding. He clearly doesn't want to witness the events of the day.
Go on, keep quiet, rooster, get some sleep.
Baghdad, April 1
A walk in SadrCity
The technical equipment is packing in on us. Let’s not get angry! Hours to work out all the tiny details on incomprehensible programs, to call the specialists. Dozens of cables to disconnect, reconnect. And the feeling that our luck is running out. Then suddenly, it works. There you go, a live transmission! Then it crashes. Frustration. Even the mobile phones don’t seem to work anymore in Baghdad. You have to try ten times before getting a line. Muthanna explains: “The Americans fry everything as soon as there is fighting”. If that’s the case, better not invest in telecommunications in Iraq.
Moqtada al-Sadr’s party deputies are unreachable, either because the line doesn’t connect, or because they are “in a meeting in the Green Zone”. What are they talking about? With whom? Since Sadr called the ceasefire, nobody really knows what’s being negotiated behind the scenes. What are the Americans’ options? With calm barely restored on the Sunni front, the inter-Shia war threatens to explode. And Barack Obama wants to leave only enough security to protect the US embassy… Good luck to the ambassadors.
The deputy who was supposed to take us to SadrCity is still in a meeting. “Boukra,” he says. Tomorrow. The key word that signals our rendezvous isn’t going to happen... The technical equipment, the Green Zone, the deputies… Nothing is working today in Baghdad. Too bad. We head out to “take a walk in SadrCity”.
For once, the highway isn’t backed up. And as we near SadyCity, there are almost no more cars. An Iraqi army roadblock. Discussions. They let us through. A tide of pedestrians floods SadrCity. It’s the end of the day. They look tired, tense, annoyed. Those who agree to talk are furious with the Americans who close this city within a city. SadrCity: two million inhabitants, almost all Shia. The fiefdom of Moqtada in Baghdad. His reserve of fighters and followers.
The curfew hasn’t been lifted. With the two other Shia neighbourhoods still shut down, half the city is inaccessible. That doesn’t exactly reflect the official word.
The main square in SadrCity is closed. But Sadr the Imam, the father, watches over. Even dead. A huge fresco shows the white-bearded elder with a hard look. At his feet two American Abraham tanks move about, turrets pointed towards the edge of the square. Right now, his son Moqtada is playing a delicate game of chess with the Americans. Not surprisingly, the passers-by don’t understand much, and just want to take back a little control over their own lives.
Excitement. Trucks are trying to barge their way into SadrCity. They are loaded with boxes, and men wearing red vests. It’s the Iraqi Red Crescent, come to hand out food and medication. The Iraqi army lets them go ahead. But, by radio, the Americans halt the convoy. Not a possibility, just right now. There is no “boukra” in American, but the guns on the armoured vehicles are just as efficient. Polite, diplomatic, the Red Crescent chief explains that “the security situation is still fragile, and that one has to be patient”.
Later, another convoy. White, armoured 4x4s. Tough, armed men. Earpieces. And pick-ups loaded with militia. It’s Ahmed Chalabi, who also wants to meet the inhabitants of SadrCity. “I have come to show my support to the people of Moqtada al-Sadr,” says Chalabi, his pink tie and sharp suit tailor-made to slide over a bullet-proof vest.
What’s this, the neo-cons’ former beacon of hope for Iraq, since faded, come to support one of the US’ biggest enemies? The ‘Green Zone meetings’ must really be entertaining. More so than life under curfew.
Baghdad, March 31
Do not exceed 210 km/h
Monday morning, Amman, in the departure lounge for the flight to Baghdad. There are only a few of us, so it will be the small Falcon, Jessica. There are only Americans, and us. The Iraqis telephoned: the curfew has been prolonged. It’s impossible to get to the airport without armoured escort. Those who were headed there have to remain in Jordan until things calm down. Muthanna calls to confirm. They can’t do anything. Neither they nor the security team can leave their quarters.
We board all the same. We’ll see. Delicately placed on the Baghdad baggage carousel, a book and a glasses case lead the long line of black bags and bullet proof vests. They’re mine, forgotten on the plane. My mind must have been on something else. How do we get to our hotel? The terminal is empty. The employees can’t come to work. We get ready to settle in. I approach an American journalist. He talks with the head of security at his channel. “We can’t leave you here. We’ll bring you into town, to stay with us. We’ll see what happens.”
The highway is deserted, except for some military convoys in a hurry. Our procession zigzags ahead. I have never seen these roads so isolated. From the back of the tinted, bullet-proof Mercedes, the palm trees speed past. The crackling radio exchanges, serious, efficient, precise, leave no room for smiles. Except for a lone American roadblock, the check points have all disappeared. We can go flat out until we reach town. The driver – Iraqi – floors it. Above his dashboard, a clear note: do not exceed 210 km/h. He’s not far off.
At the entrance to the protected zone, we are greeted by some American journalists, a crater and piles of rubble strewn about. A shell from a mortar launched last night. The Green Zone isn’t far. Back in Baghdad, all good. Last time it was snowing. Now it’s 30°. The sun brings out the city’s rare colours. Yellow, sometimes orange. But especially the yellow of the dust and sand. Even the palm leaves are yellow. A sandstorm is stirring.
We have to get organised, find a way to cross the Tiger and get to our accommodation. Our American friends are stressed out, uneasy, but still find the time and courtesy to offer a drink and make the necessary calls to work everything out.
Night is falling. Gotta get going. Two cars, again escorted, and all the necessary authorisations. We head out. Radios and phones are running hot. Our hotel is informed and will open its gates for the grey Land Cruiser as quickly as possible.
Some good comes out of the curfew: Baghdad’s kids use the wide streets to stage football matches. In theory, one can’t even cross the street. But in Iraq, football rules. Through the window peer surprised faces. Surprised, but not alarmed. You never know who’s doing the rounds in these armoured cars. Glances are exchanged. The Tiger is black in the setting sun. We cross the bridge. In front of the hotel, we are welcomed by employees who help us with our luggage. The guards are alert. No dawdling… A stack of money changes hands. Thanks!
The night is short. Dawn breaks with two developments. Car horns: the curfew has been lifted. The sky is yellow: the sandstorm has arrived from the Arabian Peninsula. “Order restored?”, asks the newsroom. A little, sure, but what order? Some Shia neighbourhoods are still closed. 300 were killed and 1,000 injured in the six days of clashes. Moqtada al-Sadr’s military credibility went up a notch, as did Nouri al-Maliki politically. And not far away, Iran is whispering in the ears of the two Shia camps.
Mid-afternoon, and mortars rain down upon the Green Zone. Five injured. At the end of the day a mortar hits at the end of our street. The building lurches. – the stomach as well.
As the mortar flies, we’re right between the Green Zone and the presidential palace.