Inside the ghost town

The silent streets of Baghdad tell an ominous tale: A year after Saddam's fall, the hope and optimism that followed the American invasion are dead.


Phillip Robertson
April 15, 2004 3:30AM (UTC)

On Saturday afternoon, the pilot started his steep descent after following the great black wire of the Tigris south toward Baghdad. Cultivated areas along the banks looked like burn marks, as if the electrical current had suddenly spiked, leaving a tarry ghost where the river should be. The large reservoirs to the north of the city were empty spaces in the dun vastness and the water in them had a metallic sheen that did not reflect the sky. As we made our approach, fires burned north of town. Smoke from a burning fuel tanker poured into the air and finally stretched out into a gray line over the horizon. We couldn't see much from the air, but on the ground in Fallujah, the U.S. Marines were fighting militants for control of the city. But the uprising, because that is what it is, is not confined to Fallujah. In Baghdad, battles with militia loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were raging in the Sadr City slum. Other Iraqi towns are under the control of his Mahdi army. Refugees streamed out of Fallujah on any available road.

It was true long before we landed in Baghdad: The American project in Iraq is dead, and with it much of the hope and optimism that followed the overthrow of Saddam. The city I remembered from a year ago, with its long palm-lined boulevards and frantic markets, no longer exists. It has been replaced by something that echoes of shell-shocked Kabul, in Afghanistan. On the way toward Sadoun Street and Paradise Square, I was turned around and couldn't locate the river. Baghdad has become a tangle of concrete barriers and barbed wire; officialdom and the press have retreated into an archipelago of fortified islands. To do this to a city does not seem right under any circumstances, but it is easy to understand why the elite has created the armed enclosures. Most of them no longer believe that the American mission can succeed, and so they are afraid of becoming targets; the blast walls are monuments to their pessimism. Of course, it is far easier to hate strangers who live behind a maze of walls. This is what is happening in Iraq now.

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On the way into the city from the airport, we drove past the wreckage of a convoy that was still smoking off to the side of the road. A few drivers nearby accelerated to get away from the twisted frame. When our airport van passed it, the passengers became quiet and abandoned their excited chatter, hypnotized by the sight of the ruined trucks. I was struck that the United States, whose careful public relations campaign stressed the reconstruction of Iraq, could not even secure the road to the airport. Too much was happening at once, and there just are not enough soldiers to go around and protect long stretches of road. They are too busy protecting themselves.

I checked into the Palestine, which is a horrible place but has decent electricity, after walking a mile down the road to get there. No vehicles are allowed near the Sheraton and the Palestine unless they have special clearance, so we carried our gear through the checkpoints, run first by Iraqis and at the last stop to the hotel, by U.S. soldiers. No one asked for I.D.; there was a quick search by young men who joked that they were mujahedin, and while this is a typically Iraqi joke, it could easily be true. Sadoun Street is blocked off and closed to people and vehicles. Small groups of kids milled around the checkpoints, along with translators. But after trying several routes away from the hotel, I found only barbed wire and concrete barriers. It was hard to find way out into the normal part of the city. The only way out of the sealed area was to walk a mile along the river, then cut across Sadoun just before long stretch of razor wire that stopped all traffic on the road.

Baghdad is a city of talkers, and I knew this neighborhood as a place where even strangers used to greet one another. Now, though, this convention has become obsolete. As I walked down the street, the city's new personality came through, and it was bitter and sullen. It didn't want to talk. Eventually, a worker from Sudan fell in beside me. He was wearing a janitor's uniform. "Where are you going?" he asked. I told him what I was doing. He didn't understand. For some reason, he was faking a leg injury and every few steps would cry out in agony, perhaps because he wanted me to know that only a fifth of whisky would set things straight. We crossed Sadoun so he could get his liquor, and at the end of a recently created dead-end street, where the controlled area ended, two American soldiers waited in an armored personnel carrier. They said they had just arrived from another position. People were staring at us in an unfriendly way.

"Grenades just come out of nowhere," one of the soldiers said. "You don't know where they're coming from." The young man manning the APC's gun was mystified by the grenade-throwing technique. "We never know who's doing it," he added. Both the soldiers were expecting bad things to happen that night, but they would stay there and guard that edge of the zone. The next morning, I left the Palestine to get away from the barbed wire and the blast walls. It was extremely depressing inside the compound because true security requires emptiness. Around the Palestine, the military engineers had tried to achieve their goal and had come very close. The man at the desk wanted to know why I was leaving, but it would have taken too long to explain. On Sunday, the emptiness was everywhere. I found a new place to stay.

In the gloom of my hotel lobby, I learned that many people are either leaving or talking about leaving. The only light comes from the TV, which is tuned to Arabic channels, the staff glued to it because many of them have families in Fallujah. In the lobby of this place, the guests talk about the kidnappings, because it is difficult to move around the city now for fear of being pulled out of a car, and they have nothing else to talk about. Working in the last few days has become nearly impossible, if work means driving around Baghdad and talking to Iraqis. Going outside Baghdad now is regarded as madness. Roads are sprinkled with checkpoints, but it's not clear who runs them. There is a general sense among the foreign contingent that if the militants start killing the hostages, the whole place will go to hell and there will be a rush for the exits. Everyone pays close attention to the fate of the kidnapped foreigners. We watch al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya for new hostage statements. Lately the Arab channels have been running tape of the bodies of two Americans lying in the street in Fallujah. It is hard to tell from the video who they were and what their jobs had been. It is disturbing because there is something triumphant in how al-Arabiya runs the replays of the footage.

Oddly, the Iraqi drivers and translators are full of hopeful tidbits. "The Japanese will be released soon near the border with Jordan," one man told me. But it hasn't happened. Part of the problem is that there are no leaders to talk to; the hostage takers belong to cells that may be in business for themselves. Money might also be behind it, ransoming off the hostages to acquire weapons and materiel for the insurgents, but political motives drive the business as well. It is a symptom of hatred as much as it is politics or greed. It's also true that for every kidnapping, there are unreported near misses. Journalists have been detained at improvised checkpoints, threatened by the insurgents, and then released. It's clear that passports from coalition countries are bad luck, especially those bearing the seal of the United States.

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The day I arrived in Baghdad, Rita Leistner and Adnan Khan were driving back from Karbala after covering the Arbaeen festival. Near the Sunni town of Latifiya, south of Baghdad, they stopped to photograph a burning truck and unwittingly stumbled upon an ambush set up for coalition forces. Khan, a contributing editor for Maclean's magazine, was taking photographs close to an abandoned building when he heard shooting coming from inside. As he backed away toward the edge of the village, an insurgent leaned over a wall and started screaming at him with his rifle raised. Another fighter appeared and demanded his camera. Khan gave it to him and tried to explain that he didn't take any pictures of them, but they didn't believe it. After a period of heated negotiation in the village, where local people and their driver argued for their lives, Khan and Leistner returned to their car to find it had been carefully searched by insurgents who wanted to know their nationalities. "They were prepared to kill us. If we'd had American passports, we would have been dead," said Khan. Leistner and Khan are Canadian citizens. Strangely, the threats didn't end when they left the village. On Tuesday, the fighters sent a message to Baghdad through an intermediary, threatening to kill them if there were any further American actions in Latifiya.

And then, early Wednesday Baghdad time, more troubling news: Four mutilated bodies were found at an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Baghdad. Though their identities hadn't been confirmed, they were believed to be four Halliburton workers who had gone missing in recent days.

Sadr City. It is a vast slum in the east of Baghdad; a year ago, the people of Sadr City had welcomed the U.S. invasion; today, it is a center of militant Shiite opposition to the U.S. occupation. We quickly found a man who could take us to the headquarters of Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and make the necessary introductions. Our new friend, a clean-cut young man, works as a security guard in a hotel complex where many foreigners stay. The three of us drove to Sadr City and stopped in front of the recently rocketed headquarters, while the contact made sure it was OK for us to enter the building. I was searched and then ushered in to see a young man in a large black turban sitting behind a desk. The room was bare except for the desk, and piled on the desk were posters of a threatening al-Sadr with the caption, "Our followers will go to paradise, your followers will go to hell." The al-Sadr people were ready to talk to the press and had been talking to reporters for quite a while. They were all perfectly polite; it seemed they wanted to make an international impression. A boy with a rifle darted in and out of the office. Other poor young men hid behind the building and ducked out of view when foreigners appeared.

"We expect the Americans to come any minute," one of the bodyguards said. It was not unreasonable. An arrest warrant for Muqtada al-Sadr has been in force for more than a week and senior U.S. officials have said that they will capture or kill him. Al-Sadr was in Najaf, which his militia controlled, raising the possibility of an American assault on a Shiite holy city.

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Amir al-Husseini, chief of al-Sadr's organization in Baghdad, had the unnerving habit of staring at his desk and sighing when he answered questions. If there was an intimation of tragedy, the sighs became audible. I asked him what he thought about the American demand that Muqtada al-Sadr surrender or leave Iraq. "We don't care about their demands because we are fully prepared to give our blood to defend Muqtada al-Sadr. They demand his exile because they don't want to confront him, but it will not happen because we will redeem him with our blood." He drifted in and out of religious language, but he was well-spoken and clear in denouncing the wave of kidnappings in Iraq. "We denounce any kidnappings. It is against our religion."

I asked him if we could go to Najaf with a safe-passage letter from his office, and al-Husseini wrote it out for me in a careful neat script. They are young, earnest men, but I left with the feeling that they are in over their heads. It did not seem that they were nervous, but instead happy and proud to be taking a stand. Al-Husseini, who stood next to Muqtada al-Sadr in one of the posters, wanted me to know that they were not afraid of death, and for a moment in that office, I believed him.

Driving out of Sadr City, we came on a small lake that had formed when a sewer pipe burst. Children with bare feet were playing in the foul water, splashing and kicking in it. The smell was terrible. At that moment, I looked up and saw the local Iraqi police station crouched next to an American military base. Up on a mast above the station, where the Iraqi flag should have been, was a portrait of Muqtada al-Sadr, his hand in front of his face, threatening all enemies.

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Late Monday night we learned that the followers of al-Sadr have left the government buildings in Najaf, but I do not believe they have gone far.


Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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