As the blood-red sun sinks below the Baghdad skyline, the shooting begins. It is the sound of the anarchy into which the Iraqi capital has spiralled since the war’s end: the rasp of machine-guns accompanied by arcs of red tracer fire across the sky.
Throughout the city, fires burn, their flames licking the night. Now, with the United Nations Security Council having formally sanctioned America’s military occupation of Iraq, a massive operation is being prepared to catch up on a month of default and negligence in dealing with chaos and desperate need, with newly admitted international organisations hoping it is not too late.
Having been diplomatically brushed aside over the war, the UN is set to arrive under the leadership of the Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was for years responsible for the UN protectorate in East Timor.
The World Food Programme has pledged to buy this year’s crops, allowing Iraq’s farmers to sow for next time around. A relaxation of all customs duty is bringing in a flood of imported goods aimed at boosting a collapsed and workless economy.
But the massive task may be doomed: International Red Cross spokeswoman Nada Doumani says it is necessary ‘to fill a vacuum created by war and a lack of infrastructure caused by sanctions’.
Iraq is now a society of either predators or prey, fully armed with weaponry looted from military stores the Americans failed to secure after the war. ‘We all have guns now,’ says Abdul Ahmed Hasan, 25, surveying the charred remains of his looted photo laboratory. ‘Some have guns to attack, some have guns to defend their families. I have four at home.’
Baghdad is being carved up by armed gangs. Towns in the south – apart from the port city of Basra, under British control – are even more dangerous. In the city of Hilla, near Babylon, the poor quarter of Nada, where scores of civilians were killed by cluster bombs during the war, is out of bounds to strangers and US troops alike. Both The Observer and Human Rights Watch were warned not to enter without an armed escort.
In the grim wards of the hospital at Hilla, Dr Satar Jabel says victims of war are now outnumbered by those of gang warfare – wounded, if not with guns, with swords.
In Hilla, as in Nasiriyah further south, the arrival of any strange vehicle immediately attracts crowds of children pleading for water and food. ‘Before, we had no freedom, but we had security,’ muses Kadem Hashem – in the ruins of the house in south Nasiriyah, where he lost all 14 members of his family during a bombing raid. ‘Now, we have freedom, but no security, no work and no income.’
A government for this maelstrom is ever more elusive, with a total disconnection between the optimistic language of US press briefings at Saddam Hussein’s old palace and the anarchic reality on the street.
The Americans are even split over whom to back: the Pentagon is still committed to its pet politician, the formerly exiled businessman Ahmed Chalabi, who has no particular constituency in Iraq. The State Department, which has always distrusted Chalabi, backs a moderate Sunni Muslim leader, Adnan Pachachi.
Militant religious and political leaders from the downtrodden Shia majority manoeuvre and prepare for power, and Kurdish leader Mahmoud Barzani has quit in disgust the US-appointed commission tasked to form a government, returning to Kurdistan in the north with his militias.
Since the war, say workers for several aid organisations, the Pentagon’s administration has systematically hindered the reconstruction and the distribution of medicines and other supplies. At the root of the problems, says Pascal Snoeck of Médecins Sans Frontières, was the Pentagon’s insistence, in the face of mass looting, on sole hegemony in supervising the humanitarian aftermath of war, refusing to allow non-governmental aid organisations to operate except under direct authority of the occupying force.
While the US demanded such a role, says Snoeck – a logistics co-ordinator for the Paris-based group that invariably spearheads relief efforts worldwide – they were also thoroughly unprepared for the needs of the people. Their idea was that Iraq would be ‘liberated – problem solved’.
‘Now,’ says Snoeck, ‘they are saying they cannot manage, and the Americans have reversed their position, asking the NGOs, “Please come and help,” having ignored what we have been saying ever since before the war.’
The US is ‘in breach of its obligations under the Geneva Convention,’ says Alex Renton, spokesman in Iraq for Oxfam, in failing to prevent the looting, particularly of medical supplies.
‘The question of security is fundamental,’ says Renton, ‘as is the problem of looting. We did actually manage to repair the water system in Nasiriyah, only to see it looted a couple of days later.’
‘The Americans say now they could not have foreseen the problem of looting medical supplies,’ says MSF’s medical co-ordinator, An Willems. ‘But we had been telling them about this risk since just after the war.’
On the ground, the needs are plain to see in such places as the paediatric ward of the Khadessia Hospital in Thawra City, a teeming shanty of four million – all of them Shia – on the edge of Baghdad.
This is one of many hospitals into which the clerical authorities have moved, to provide security and medicine, and to become the only force of social cohesion by default of any alternative.
Here, Dr Hamas Assad Walid does his rounds through a thicket of beds filled with waifs suffering from diseases invariably associated with water contamination and the accumulation of stinking garbage, through which children pick for anything they can sell.
‘We have been seeing some 1,000 patients a day,’ says Walid, ‘and taking in about 60 to 70 – turning away hundreds of children a day.’ The hospital is full, with the first children now dying from chronic dehydration and gastroenteritis, and the first cases of jaundice and suspected cholera.
Her eyes yellowed, Hawra Abdullah came in seven days ago. Now she stares into oblivion and is unable to hear or speak. ‘She was always a quiet girl,’ says her mother, Kader, trying to smile, ‘but not like this.’
One of the hospital’s problems, say the doctors snatching a quick lunch in their shabby common room, was the American-backed reinstatement of Dr Ali Sultan, their old director under Saddam. Sultan was one of a layer of Saddam-era managers put in place by the man appointed by the Americans as Health Minister, Dr Ali Shnan Janabi, despite his record at the apex of the old regime. Doctors across Iraq rebelled against the Americans’ first Ministerial appointment and Janabi resigned after 36 hours.
The removal of the neo-Baathist tier has started in Baghdad, with doctors demanding the election of new managers but, in the countryside, the supposed de-Baathification has created just the opposite result.
In towns such as Hilla, there have been demonstrations against reinstatement by the Americans of Saddam’s old guard: in the town hall, hospitals and even the Red Crescent. These cronies are the only citizens in town blindly loyal to the American occupier.
Meanwhile, US tanks grind through the streets of Hilla, and the children still wave cheerily. The tank commanders duly wave back, but do not understand what is being shouted at them from behind those mischievous, smiling young faces…
‘My father is [sleeping] with your sister!’
Or: ‘While you are in Iraq, your wife is becoming a rich woman in bed [as a prostitute]!’