"We are sleeping lions. We're waiting to eat Americans"

For the first time, I've started to feel unsafe in Iraq.

Published March 20, 2004 10:56PM (EST)

The morning after the bombing at the Mount Lebanon Hotel in the Karada neighborhood, I traveled five miles from my home to visit the site. A block away from the hotel, the force of the explosion had shattered windows and strewn metal, brick and plaster along the road. Shopkeepers stood with blank, dazed expressions in the doorways of their messed-up stores. Some laconically cleared debris. Above one shop, a red plastic tricycle (like the Big Wheel I rode as a little kid) dangled by one handlebar from a metal window frame.

Farther down the street, I could see that the explosion had sheared the fagade of the hotel clean off, leaving a puzzle of half-rooms. Across from the hotel, two houses had been utterly destroyed by the blast. One was missing its roof and front and the remaining walls tilted outward. Amazingly, the whole family in the house had survived. Family members were venturing up to what was left of the second floor and sorting through belongings. Some chucked debris from the second floor onto a bigger pile of debris below. The family seemed anxious to be doing something, anything. It seemed as though, in throwing the debris, they were exercising some modicum of control over the chaos of their environment.

I spoke to some of the family members (through Amjad, my translator) next to pieces of a bedroom set that they had salvaged from the remains of the house. The family believed that American missiles had caused the destruction. A man in a plaid shirt, sweating from the heat and his exertions, said that he knew the Americans had fired missiles on purpose to kill Iraqis. They don't really want security, he said. They want chaos. That way they can stay in Iraq and take all the oil. The man gestured broadly with his arms and as he spoke his chin shot forward as though firing the words out of his mouth. FBI forensic experts have said that the blast did, in fact, come from a car bomb. But the man's insistence that the U.S. had fired a missile at the neighborhood is indicative of the streak of hatred and blame being aimed at the U.S. occupation right now. Iraqis who feel furious with the occupation see the U.S. presence as responsible (either actively or passively) for the continuing violence in their country.

The man pointed to his next-door neighbor's house. "What have they done to deserve this?" he asked. Most of the occupants of his neighbor's house -- a Christian family -- had died in the bombing (the man said eight, though other reports from the scene put the number at four). The man and I looked over at what was left of the house. Rubble, splintered wood. On a broken door poking from the debris, I saw part of a colorful wall calendar.

I turned back to the man and asked him a question many people have been asking Iraqis lately: "Was your life better before the war?" "Yes," the man said. "Yes, yes," his family agreed. "It was better." Then I asked whether he felt the situation had been improving since the end of the war. "It's getting worse all the time," the man said. "Every day explosions. A year has passed and no law." Again, his family voiced their agreement. "We want jihad against the Americans," the man told me. When I asked whether he was Sunni or Shia, he said he was Shia, but that it did not matter. Sunni, Shia -- they would all fight together against the Americans. "We are sleeping lions," he said. "We're waiting for the time to eat Americans."

The man asked Amjad where I was from, a question I hear so much that I understand it perfectly in Arabic. "American," I said. "I'm from America." Usually, when I say I'm an American journalist, people become happily excited at the possibility of conveying their story to the American public, which they see as separate from the Americans of the occupation. But in this case, as soon as I properly identified myself, I regretted it. The man stopped talking, probably worried that his talk of jihad might get him in trouble, but he looked at me with a spiteful expression. Other American journalists at the bombing site told me they had been saying they were Canadian or Australian. Anything but American. Here in Iraq, on the anniversary of the invasion, bad feelings toward the occupation have morphed into a general anti-American and even anti-Western sentiment. And for the first time -- Mom, stop reading this -- I've started to feel unsafe.

To be fair, while that man's pissed-off sentiments reflect those of many people in Iraq these days, they certainly don't reflect all. The results of a recent poll conducted in Iraq for ABC and the BBC paints the situation a little more optimistically. The poll shows that more than half the population -- 56 percent -- feels as though their lives are better than before the war. That number may seem surprising given the grim news from Iraq these days. But on the streets of Baghdad, I meet plenty of people who would agree with that view. At the Mount Lebanon bomb site, for instance, I spoke to a man who said he owned the property on which the hotel had been built. He was an older Kurdish man dressed impeccably in a suit and tie. He told me that, under Saddam, he had been persecuted, forced to give up his Baghdad house and move to the South. Now he had hope for his future. As we stood looking at the wreckage of the hotel, he said things were getting better. It would just take time.

A year ago I sat watching television in my New York apartment, listening to President Bush make his case for the war in Iraq. Despite the massive international protests, despite the U.N.'s case for continuing to search for weapons of mass destruction, I felt a depressing sense of inevitability . While President Bush indicated that Saddam and his stores of WMD posed an imminent threat to the American people, there was an overriding impression that the choice to invade Iraq had already been made, long ago, behind closed Washington doors.

Now, a year later, Saddam's weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found and it's become increasingly clear that the intelligence regarding Saddam's destructive abilities and intentions in regards to the U.S. was at best faulty and at worst criminally manipulated to serve the interests of the Bush administration. In addition, no credible evidence has emerged of a pre-war collusion between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

In the U.S., we're all familiar with the long discussion about the lack of WMD, the lack of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. It seems very important to figure this out; whether the Bush administration did or did not prevaricate to justify occupying Iraq should stand as an essential piece of the debate in the coming elections. But here in Iraq, the point is moot. The essential question here now revolves around the war's legacy.

Postwar Iraq has emerged as a nexus for terrorism. While some argue that most attacks are perpetrated by people crossing the borders from neighboring countries in order to maintain the lack of security, the failures of the U.S. over the past year are also creating a breeding ground for potential Iraqi terrorists, like the angry man at the bombing site. And while the majority of Iraqis would probably not take up arms against the U.S., it's that minority that we have to worry about. Based on the ABC/BBC poll, 17 percent of Iraqis think that attacks against U.S. coalition forces are acceptable. That's 17 percent of about 25 million people -- more than 4 million people, in all. When the Bush administration declares that it is winning the war on terrorism, it is obviously discounting the situation in Iraq. What's happening here is not a question of a few hiccups in light of the postwar transition.

I arrived in Iraq last May, when the country had just begun staggering to its feet following the fast knockdown of the American invasion and the days of riotous looting (unchecked by the new American occupying force) that left hospitals, ministries, museums, libraries, schools and countless other buildings as decimated as those actually targeted for bombing during the war. Garbage lay in drifts along street medians and sidewalks. The flipped, charred and skeletal remains of military vehicles dotted the freeway and open park areas that had recently been the scene of battles. Few women and children ventured outside those days. They stayed at home while men did marketing in the nervous city.

In some ways, a lot has changed in Baghdad since then. Most stores have opened again and women and kids walk the streets where vendors have set up shop elbow-to-elbow selling everything, literally, from soup to nuts. Construction is booming all over the city as Iraqis build or rebuild homes and shops. The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to fix aspects of the country's battered infrastructure.

But despite the American investment in Iraq, the needs remain overwhelming. Last June, I visited Yarmuk Hospital, one of the largest public hospitals in Baghdad. The hospital was in a dire state, deficient in medicines, machines, staffing -- in other words, everything. I returned to Yarmuk last week in the hope of seeing changes. Just inside the hospital, I met with Dr. Mariwan Hweel Saka and asked what, if any, improvements had been made. "Honestly," he said, "regarding the hospital, we are in the same position." He told me that, months earlier, American representatives from the Coalition Provisional Authority had come to inspect the hospital. They promised that Yarmuk would be the best hospital in not just Iraq but all of the Middle East. But nothing had changed and, except for journalists, he hadn't seen any Americans since that day.

In the medical ward nearby, I met with Dr. Nora Hisham. I found her in her office, which was furnished with a bare desk and a pair of rusting metal examination tables covered in ripped vinyl cushioning. She was a young woman wearing a maroon hijab and a clean white doctor's coat. As I introduced myself, another doctor popped into the office to borrow her stethoscope. There aren't nearly enough at the hospital and most doctors don't have their own.

Dr. Hishan offered to give me a tour of the ward and we walked down a corridor flanked by doors to recovery rooms. Along the corridor, in between the doors to the rooms, recessed niches behind glass held faded bouquets of red plastic flowers. Dust as thick as a wool blanket coated the flowers and the niches in which they sat. The cracked tiled floor of the hall showed occasional bloodstains and flattened cigarette butts. We walked to a room at the end of the corridor. "This room is for burn patients," said Dr. Hishan. She ushered me into square, windowless room ringed by cubicles partially obscured by the dark. Each cubicle contained a bed tented over with a shabby assortment of blankets. The blankets were meant to protect the patients from infection, but looking at them it was hard to believe they could be very effective.

In one cubicle, a woman who had been sitting on the floor next to a tented bed rose to greet us. The woman's 15-year-old daughter was in the bed, though the tent of blankets obscured her completely. Dr. Hishan told me that the girl had been burned when a kerosene heater exploded. She asked if I wished to see and pulled back the tenting to reveal the young girl's fire-ravaged face. I had to swallow a gasp as I saw just how bad the damage was. Her condition made the dilapidated, unsterile surroundings all the more awful. The girl moaned for her mother who whispered and cooed to her but couldn't hold her hands because they also were burned.

As we left the room, Dr. Hishan told me that the hospital did have medication to treat the girl's burns, but that so many other things in the hospital were deficient she didn't know where to start.

Yarmuk is just one of many hospitals suffering from neglect in Iraq a year after the invasion. There are a variety of reasons for the desperate conditions: the bureaucratic molasses of the CPA, corruption within the Ministry of Health, and the overriding lack of security that prevents nongovernmental organizations from doing work here.

But security isn't the only reason for the absence of NGOs on the ground in Iraq. An anonymous source who works with NGOs within the Coalition Provisional Authority said that a number of them, especially those related to the United Nations, were sitting out for political reasons as well. When President Bush chose to invade Iraq without the support of the U.N., he created an environment in which many NGOs choose not to work. The absence of NGOs, whether due to the overly dangerous environment (which most Iraqis would say is the fault of the occupation) or political distaste for the occupation (again, the U.S. is to blame), has been hugely detrimental to this past year's rebuilding process. Over the past year, Yarmuk has received occasional aid from NGOs, but not enough to make a real difference.

The events of the past week have shown that security in Iraq is not improving. It may even be getting worse. Dr. Hishan told me that the hospital's ambulances are in constant danger of attack by people who would steal them in order to use them for suicide bombings. Every day the hospital sees gunshot victims and people badly beaten during robberies. In the past year, the U.S. has been moving toward turning the burden of security over to the Iraqis by creating the new Iraqi police force, army and Facility Protection Service. Members of the Facility Protection Service act like a nationwide security service, guarding government installations and keeping watch over crowded public areas. These men, who don't wear body armor like the U.S. soldiers do, are under constant attack by people who see them as traitors for working in conjunction with the American occupying forces.

In Yarmuk, I met a young man named Saddam who had been a member of the service. He was in the hospital because he had been shot in the stomach while on guard at an open market. It was a random attack, not part of a robbery, and his assailant easily disappeared into the crowd. Saddam lay on a rusting hospital bed, covered up to his chest by a blanket that looked like it had probably been brought by his relatives from home. The room held eight beds altogether. The one next to Saddam's was empty and I perched on it carefully because it was broken and couldn't take my weight. On the floor in between us lay a catheter bag nearly filled with urine. A tube attached to the bag snaked upward and disappeared beneath Saddam's blanket.

Dr. Hishan had told me that Saddam had almost certainly been paralyzed from the waist down by the bullet. He couldn't move his legs. But he hadn't been told how slim the chances were that he would walk again. He was desperate to get transferred to the U.S. military in the Green Zone, which he knew to be a state-of-the-art facility. He was sure they could help him where the Yarmuk doctors couldn't. But the army hospital wouldn't take him. Though he was with the Facility Protection Service, they told him he didn't really work for the Americans.

Saddam told me that, because of all the attacks, a lot of men in the service (including his friend who stood at the end of his bed, nodding in agreement) were quitting. They didn't feel adequately supported by the U.S. And they didn't want to get killed. I asked Saddam what he had been thinking a year ago, at the beginning of the war. He told me, "Once the Americans occupied Baghdad I said, 'A day after today, we'll have a better life.' It's been almost a year. Everyone thought it has to get better. Instead it got worse."

Though some aspects of life have improved in Iraq, overall it's hard to feel optimistic. With the recent bombings and the targeted attacks against Westerners (Happy invasion anniversary!), this has been a particularly hard week. I spent part of today entangled in a fraught meeting about security concerns with some fellow journalists. These are all people who, like me, have tended to feel safe in Baghdad. But the last few days have us all a bit wigged out and we are carefully reassessing our security situation.

The people I meet who have the most hope for the country are those who are able to pull back from the day-to-day and see this period in the grander scheme of history. One such person is Donny George of the Baghdad Museum. After the war, as people well know, looters absconded with many of the museum's most precious artifacts; some have since been returned, but a great many are probably gone for good. In a bizarre way, though, in the wake of the looting, the museum has become one of Iraq's success stories. The wing of the museum that houses the offices is spotlessly clean. Each office contains new furniture and new computers, and the museum staff seems like the happiest bunch of people in Baghdad. Since the period of looting, the museum has received $3 million from the U.S. State Department as well as a promise for full U.S. cooperation on any projects, a directive that, according to Donny, came straight from President Bush. UNESCO has contributed another $3.5 million. Though the museum won't reopen for at least a year, when it does, it will be on par with any U.S. facility.

Donny told me that, as an archaeologist and historian, he sees this period differently than those who despair over the current problems.

History is filled with periods like this, he said. Little by little, he told me, stability would come. Then he told me about a Sumerian text he had once studied, written long ago during a bleak period of occupation by the Guteans. Who remembers the Guteans? But the text despaired over the political unrest in the country. Its conclusion, as Donny quoted it to me: "We don't know who's the king and who is not the king."

On days like this, I wish I were an archaeologist.

By Jen Banbury

Jen Banbury spent eight months in Iraq reporting for Salon. In early March 2004,she filed a story about Abu Ghraib, "Guantanamo on Steroids," which addressed early Iraqi allegations of detainee abuse.

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