February 3, 2009 – If there is to be any degree of honesty in our communication, we must begin to acknowledge that the lexicon of words that describes the human condition is no longer universally applicable.
I am in Iraq after four years away.
Most Iraqis I talked with on the eve of the first provincial elections being held after 2005 told me “security is better.”
I myself was lulled into a false sense of security upon my arrival a week ago. Indeed, security is “better,” compared to my last trip here, when the number of attacks per month against the occupation forces and Iraqi collaborators used to be around 6,000. Today, we barely have one American soldier being killed every other day and only a score injured weekly. Casualties among Iraqi security forces are just ten times that number.
But yes, one could say security is better if one is clear that it is better in comparison not to downtown Houston but to Fallujah 2004.
Compared to days of multiple car bomb explosions, Baghdad today is better.
Is it safer? Is it more secure?
Difficult to say in a place when the capital city of the country is essentially in lock-down and prevailing conditions are indicative of a police state. We have a state in Iraq where the government is exercising rigid and repressive controls over social life (no unpermitted demonstrations, curfews, concrete walls around the capital city), economic (read – the 100 Bremer Orders that were passed under the Coalition Provisional Authority – all of the key laws over economic control still in place), and political life of the citizenry.
By definition, a police state exhibits elements of totalitarianism and social control, and in today’s Iraq, we have plenty examples of both.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines security as “The state of being free from danger or threat.”
I visited the Dora area of Baghdad, which is completely walled off with thanks to US occupation forces. Umm Shihab, a tired-looking woman selling vegetables in the local market, told me, “Our sons are still in jail and we want them released. We want the government to lift these walls. Why do they keep them?”
Walking around Dora, I wondered how anyone could feel secure surrounded by so many soldiers, police and weapons.
I did not, and I am certain neither would you. But then we are American and our notion of security is different.
Armed with a media permit, we were allowed to drive along the empty streets of Baghdad on the Saturday of the elections. What struck me during the drive, and later at a polling station, was that there was no escaping the feeling that anywhere, anytime, a bomb could be detonated. It was omnipresent, as was the fear of being kidnapped. This latter threat, though vastly diminished as compared to a year back, is still real. As Western journalists, we are worth a pretty packet of ransom.
But I am able to travel, gather information and file stories, when earlier I could never be sure that I would be able to make my way alive from the airport into the city, so let me assure you, Iraq today is certainly better than it has been since the first year of the occupation.
For the provincial elections on January 31, traffic bans were ordered in Baghdad and other major cities. Security forces deployed on the occasion include hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Police and Army personnel, over 130,000 US military personnel and an estimated 50,000-75,000 mercenaries.
The closely monitored frontiers with Iran and Syria were sealed off completely. A nighttime curfew was implemented at 10 p.m. Friday and remained in place till roughly 6 p.m. Saturday.
Stretching from the foothills of the lower Kurdish-controlled north to the Persian Gulf in the south, double-ring security cordons surrounded thousands of polling sites located in schools, offices and civic centers.
The illogical question that rears its head each time I push it back is, “What does a ‘secure’ country need that kind of security for on election day, or for that matter on any other day?”
I would like to mention here that through the entire period of my four-year absence I have maintained regular correspondence with my friends and contacts in Iraq, and therefore have had accurate information all along about the totally abnormal life that the average Iraqi has been living. Yet, witnessing it on arrival has left me reeling.
I’m surprised at myself for being surprised that the situation is as unbearable as it continues to be. As a succinct summary after a week’s stay, I have this to offer: The situation in Iraq has not changed except to worsen. What the passage of four years of occupation during my absence has brought to the people of Iraq is greater displacement, more economic degradation, extreme desperation, untreatable sickness and a near-total loss of hope.
What does this do to the psyche of a normal human being?
And yet, “God willing, these elections will help us, because we need more security,” said Ahmed Hassan after he voted on Saturday, “The Iraqi people are tired. We want to be able to relax.”
You may wonder what for him and his fellow Iraqis would constitute security. Perhaps like us in America; to go through a day without negotiating streets filled with armed men, military hardware, and U.S. military helicopters and jets roaring overhead.
Or is that too much for them to expect as so many millions of my fellow Americans stand mute witnesses to:
The long, long war (that) goes on ten thousand miles from home.
So, men are scattered and smeared over the desert grass,
And the generals have accomplished nothing.
Li Po (Circa 750)
Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq,” (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last four years.