The following is one entry in series of letters from a participant in last year’s Meretz USA Israel seminar, currently doing development work in Iraq. We are posting the letters anonymously to prevent any negative consequences for the author.
The contrast [with Kurdistan] that awaits me at “home” in Baghdad: Baghdad is cement grey and sand tan. You cannot hear the calls to prayer over the mortar rounds, generators and sporadic gunfire. On an average day the central depository for Iraq security information broadcasts 90-250 incidents in Baghdad ( www.brief.aegisiraq.com ), 150 Iraqis die for every American killed, there are 137 private security forces in Iraq, of which 34 are “registered,” there are 60-80 insurgent groups recognized and counted but nobody knows the real number. To put a more personal face on it, four days ago I was stopped from going to a site that our team had visited several times, because the convoy was attacked. The team reconnoiters every destination no matter how many times we’ve gone there (including one of our own compounds that has 80 guards on it), because the situation changes daily. Our chief of security told me that – having been in Iraq for two or three tours and Vietnam as well – this is the most violent time in this city and far more dangerous than Vietnam ever was for him. If this is not a full-fledged civil war, I do not know the definition.
Kurds hate Turks and Arabs, Iraqis suspect Kurds and hate Turks, etc. etc. Tribal, political, national, and religious hatreds are a speciality here. Mix in a belief in revenge and a long memory and politics gets very complicated. The Kurds do kind of like Americans. One told me many pointed stories about how the American military made significant inroads against corruption, causing Kurd dissidents to come out into the open in expectation of a freer society. Then “terrorism” in the south raised its ugly head, the Americans left the Kurds to their own devices and old leaders, and people who had expressed opinions were hung out to dry– literally.
Getting from Baghdad was a kick. Iraq proves that there is no institution too small to be confused and no place to small to be disorganized. We waited four hours to take off. We went through security five times, including some very detailed checks. In Baghdad you can’t go through the last security check and the ticket counter until your flight is called. But sometimes it is not called, so you have to watch everyone you suspect might be going where you are. The counters (and gates, by the way) are unmarked. You can stand in the wrong line and get to the front only to be sent away.
After you get your ticket, you must go to another line to get a stamp–$1 American, then to another to get your boarding pass. Iraqi Airlines has a neat system for ticketing. Your ticket has no number, there are not assigned seats. Each ticket carries a termination date, like the bottom of a yogurt container. Because flights are cancelled all the time – sometimes in the evening when curfew makes it impossible to leave the airport – almost every flight is overbooked. The crush at the gate is astounding. I traveled with a women who converted to Islam relatively late in life. She is about 10 years my junior, but in garb and hajab she looks younger. We told everyone I was her step parent and we had to sit together – family is a big value here. Since no man would touch her, we barged ahead. Of course our flight back today was cancelled. So we leave tomorrow, we think.
My favorite story was of one of our team who had a 4 PM flight that was rescheduled – to 10 AM the same day! We call it “InShallah Airlines,” because whether it flies or not is a whim of fate over which nobody has control.