Saturday, March 18, 2006

I Hate To Say It, But We Were Better Off Under Saddam

Three years after dictator's fall our correspondent is reunited with his two Baghdad guides, whose euphoria has given way to despair
By Nick Meo
London Times
March 18, 2006

IN APRIL 2003, as looters ran wild and Iraq woke up to a world without Saddam Hussein, I found two guides to navigate through the chaos. Noor was an English-speaking student and Abu Yasser a streetwise taxi driver who hung around outside al-Hamra Hotel in Baghdad to work for the newly arrived journalists. Together we explored a city gone mad.

Screaming mobs thronged underpasses, convinced that secret underground prisons inside the walls held their missing relatives. Giant fires burnt out of control. Gunfights raged day and night. In traffic jams polite Iraqis tapped on the windows of our car, thanked us personally for getting rid of Saddam, and asked if the American soldiers could now please leave their country. It was a confused but intoxicating time for Iraqis. The tyrant’s statue had been pulled down. What would freedom be like?

Three years on, my friends are still hanging around the Hamra, which is even shabbier than before but considerably more fortified. Abu Yasser has a new car and more cash than he had ever dreamt of, but does not know whether he will live to enjoy spending it.

Noor is still a gentle young man, but much more worldly-wise. Liberation should have offered him so many opportunities. Instead, he is a prisoner in the Hamra, sheltering behind its blast walls and armed guards like the few journalists still huddled there. He tried to set up an electrical goods shop when his employer pulled out as security worsened at the end of 2003. The economy was doing well and Baghdadis wanted to buy goods that they had been starved of for years.

A sure-fire business success ended with a Kalashnikov thrust in Noor’s face. The robbers then spent a leisurely afternoon removing his stock. Later they called him on his mobile phone and demanded $50,000 or they would kidnap him. He has barely ventured out since.

Few Iraqis do these days. They fear being caught in a bomb blast, hit by a stray bullet, rounded up by sectarian killers or abducted by criminal gangs. Three years ago the suburb surrounding the Hamra was full of children playing and grandparents whiling away the day. Now everyone is indoors watching corny Egyptian romantic films to try to take their minds off grim reality. Iraqi army patrols pass the few pedestrians at crazy speeds, training machineguns on them. US troops no longer have the swagger of victory but roar past encased in armour.

Three years ago Noor thought Iraq would be an oil-rich capitalist success story like Dubai by now. He isn’t quite able to explain how it has all gone so wrong.

Most Iraqis simply blame the hated Americans for their plight. In 2003 they were ambiguous, unsure whether they had been liberated or conquered. That ambiguity vanished long ago. Noor is less willing than most to blame the American scapegoat. “We were not ready for democracy,” he said. “Under Saddam the Iraqis had no respect for the law; they were afraid of the law. When Saddam went they had never known what freedom meant. So they behaved like outlaws.”

He is ashamed of the savagery — the kidnappings, beheadings, car bombings. Like most Iraqis he blames Americans, Syrians and Iranians for stoking the violence and hates the foreign jihadi fighters. But Iraqis have failed, he believes, and like everyone else he fears what the future holds now.

Noor is still a friend of America, but no longer an enthusiastic one. Too many friends have been shot by US patrols or humiliated at checkpoints. “I thought the Americans had come to Iraq to help the Iraqi people,” he said. “But we have learnt that they came here for their wants. We still need their help, though, if we are to build our country.”

If anything, Abu Yasser is even more despondent. Many of his friends, drivers and translators who worked for foreign journalists, have been murdered. In Baghdad today anyone working for a foreigner risks death as a spy or traitor.

Abu Yasser remembers that brief spring of 2003 with great fondness. “I thought we would have real freedom after Saddam,” he said wearily, “but now if you criticise a politician or a party, you can be killed the next day. I cannot relax, I suffer tension all the time. If civil war comes I will lock myself in my house and rot there. I would rather die than kill someone. I hate to say it, but we were better off under Saddam.”

Noor still clings to the hope that the political process may work. Abu Yasser believes that civil war is very close. Both could afford to get out of the country but are determined to stay. Abu Yasser said: “I still believe there will be freedom one day. But what will we have to pass through first to get there?”

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