Monday, July 17, 2006

Baghdad Days: Sirens

Another chapter from Bagdhad where Raleigh just returned home from. . .Baghdad Days – Sirens

This morning as I walked back to my trailer from the gym I heard sirens. The sun was just up but the air was still and the brutal heat of the day had not yet set in. There were many sirens coming from across the Tigris River, outside the concrete wall that surrounds the Green Zone. I couldn’t tell whether they were Iraqi police or militia or firemen or even Coalition forces or PSDs. And I hadn’t heard the loud boom that sometimes turns out to have been an insurgent bomb so I didn’t know what the sirens were rushing to. But I imagined it was an IED or a VBIED or the new threat – an EFP. And I imagined that we would be able to check the internet in an hour or so and see a story about the damage and a picture of a burning automobile or a blasted storefront. Last night there had been a bicycle bomb in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, a Sunni stronghold, and a second bomb in Hilla, south of Baghdad, a Shiite area. Both bombs were in “crowded market areas” and produced the requisite stories and photos. Reports varied but perhaps 40 people were killed and 90 injured.

The seemingly random bombs and the more targeted kidnappings and killings get the headlines and the attention but a more insidious form of terror threatens Iraqi civilians in their daily life. The more subtle threat builds on the public atrocities but takes the form of watchful eyes and hidden activities and perceived threats. It generates fear and uncertainty and demands conformity and obedience.

The Embassy here recently sent a cable back to Main State reporting anecdotal evidence of the effects of this on certain Iraqis who are members of the US Embassy staff. The cable was obtained by the Washington Post which published it with very little comment. The cable reports that some of the local Iraqi staff have been harassed over proper dress and habits. Unknown people have advised them to wear a veil and not to drive a car. Another staff member was warned to cover up and not to use a cell phone which was suspected of leading to unwholesome relationships with men. The cable reports that some ministries have been forcing women to wear the headscarf (hijab) at work. The women report that they cannot identify the groups that are pressuring them. They could be Sunni or Shia but they appear conservative.

Iraqis who work in the Embassy have a heightened concern. They need to cross through one of the International Zone checkpoints to get to work each day. Employees report that starting in April the demeanor of the guards changed, becoming more militia-like and taunting. Some of the employees requested that they be issued press credentials so that they could not be identified as Embassy employees. That information could be a death sentence if it found its way to the wrong people.

We have seen the same scenario play out in our office. Our translator is a married Iraqi woman who wears a hijab and conservative dress in the office. Nevertheless, she adds a full black abaya over her office clothes and changes to a white head scarf before she leaves the Palace each day. She arranges her transportation so that she never takes the same route two days in a row and has informed only her husband where she works.

There are many stories of violence and the threats of violence. The DG of Accounting in the Ministry of Finance has been kidnapped a few weeks ago and not heard from since. Iraqis believe that traveling to the Baghdad Airport is dangerous because people are watching and if they travel too frequently they will be considered well-off and at risk of being kidnapped for ransom. Some central bank employees do not send their children to the local schools because they do not believe they will be safe.

This morning we had planned to travel to a local hotel that is the preferred meeting spot with central bank employees. The central bank had concluded that American advisors should not travel to the central bank compound because of the uncertain security situation. It is not clear whether this advice was aimed primarily at improving the security of the American advisors or the central bank employees. Nevertheless we readily agreed to meet at the hotel and have done so on several occasions.

On this morning, however, the meeting will not occur. We called our interlocutor to confirm the meeting and he informed us that he was not willing to travel to the hotel. He said that after our last meeting someone from his town had seen him and made inquiries about him in his town. The inquiries resulted in the information that he had recently traveled out of Iraq on official business in connection with a project funded by the Americans. He made clear that he no longer considered it safe to visit the hotel. He said, “They kill people.”

As life becomes nasty, brutish, and short outside the International Zone my admiration grows for those who are willing to persevere.

Be well,


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