Of Hotheads And Dead Horses

Baghdad under American occupation is like a devoted wife who is nonetheless carrying on a happy affair. She feels terrible about it, but she just can't help herself.

"There's an Iraqi proverb," says actor Risan Mohammed, "Whoever is sleeping with my mother, we'll call him Uncle." Iraqis are angry at Uncle Sam's troops over the continued disorder and are convinced the Americans are here to stay to pillage their vast oil wealth. At the same time they're thrilled to see the back of Saddam Hussein and enraptured by their first taste of freedom in 30 years. Former general Jay Garner, head of the Americans' reconstruction authority, keeps trotting out the same metaphor to explain the conundrum. These are people who had been locked up for years in a dark cell, and suddenly allowed out in the sun. "Now they're blinded by the light of freedom," he says. But while their eyes adjust, you can't help but feel some of them should be locked up again 'til they get over it. Or at least put their sunglasses on. Like love affairs, freedom doesn't always make for happy endings.

Traffic is a good example of license taken too far. This city of 5 million people has broad boulevards and modern expressways, and in the past it rarely experienced traffic jams. Now they are epic. Hardly anyone has gone back to work, but they all seem to be driving around. One-way signs, stop lights, divided highways, the distinction between on-ramps and off-ramps, all are ignored at will. Mix in tanks blocking off a few major roads, military checkpoints and troop convoys on every highway, and it's a mess. The other day at a flyover intersection of two highways in the Kadhimiyah neighborhood, an escaped psychiatric patient, still in his purple and white striped uniform, was directing traffic, frenetically dashing to and fro. It wasn't clear if he made it better, or worse.

Traffic jams are just a minor annoyance compared to the looting problem. A month into the occupation, looters are still rampant nearly everywhere there isn't a soldier. Key institutions like banks and palaces, water and electric facilities, are guarded by tanks. But even with 12,000 troops in the city, and 4,000 more on the way, there just aren't enough to go around. The Iraqi police were more numerous than that, but they've yet to go back on duty. Even many major ministry buildings are unguarded, except by random American patrols. Most of the best goodies were taken long ago; now the looters are going in and stripping wiring and light switches, tearing wood off the floors, taking down the acoustic ceiling tiles. Often they set fires to illuminate the scene while they work, or maybe just for the hell of it. "They'd steal the ashes if they could," said Pvt. Marshall Kemper of Cocoa, Fla.

The soldiers call the looters Ali Babas--a term that bridges the language gap, but helps make it a grim game. "Ali Baba, Ali Baba," people shout, and point to looters making off with their booty. The soldiers chase them and take them down, often roughly, cuff them with plastic cable ties, search them for guns--and release them. Often they scream in their faces first: "You Ali Baba!" and "No Ali Baba!" It's pretty low-grade psy-ops. "If we tried to arrest everyone looting, by the end of the day we'd have thousands of prisoners," says Sgt. Jonathan Lustig, on duty guarding a central Baghdad bank. "As it is, our platoon takes in a hundred a day. Most of them get released, and an hour later they're back at it."

Listen to the Iraqis, though, and this is entirely the fault of the Americans. "They promised us security, where is it? They promised us humanitarian aid, where is it?" said an engineer named Khalid Taleb. "They promised us electricity, where is it? They promised us jobs, where are they? All they ever say is 'tomorrow, tomorrow'." Most of those promises, actually, were never made. It is true that humanitarian aid is slow in coming, mainly due to safety. But even the United Nation's humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, last week said there isn't a critical humanitarian crisis as yet. No one is dying of thirst or starving to death. Army engineers have restored half of the city's electric service, but that means half the people don't have air conditioning or refrigeration. With high temperatures already more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, that's enough to get anyone hot under the collar.

The Americans say the Iraqis need to take a little more responsibility for their own problems. "Looting?" says Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the Third Infantry Division commander whose troops keep the peace in Baghdad. "Don't forget, it was the Iraqi people who did it, not the Americans." But Iraqis often respond, as a television station manager, Ahmed Abdel Wahab did, that "the Americans are the real Ali Babas, they're only here for the oil." The busiest market in town is at the East Gate, where looters unload their merchandise, everything from guns to hospital equipment. The Americans don't bust it, but it's the Iraqis who patronize it. Most of the looters aren't armed, so "why don't the Iraqis try to stop them?" wonders an American officer. "They expect us to do everything for them." Then again, some are armed--and Coalition forces, with a few exceptions, are the only ones allowed to use guns. On the streets just today, there are two dead horses, one near the Palestine Hotel, where most journalists stay, and the other in an alley just off Sadoun Street, a major shopping thoroughfare. They've been there for days, legs sticking out with rigor mortis. The Iraqis say why don't the Americans take them away; the Americans say why don't the Iraqis?

The NRA would love this place. Every Iraqi has an AK-47 in his home now; looted from arms caches, they sell for less than $50 on the street. Many just want to defend their homes and persons. But others are angry enough about the Americans to want to settle scores. One man with an AK-47 on an overpass sprayed two Humvees stuck in traffic below him last week, wounding four Americans, one critically. On Thursday, an Iraqi with a pistol walked up to an American soldier at a checkpoint and shot him dead. Random searches, cache finds and car stops net so many guns that the Third Infantry Division took 50 truckloads of weaponry a day out of the city last week. Outside an office building in downtown Baghdad, Cpl. Richard MacDougal, 28, of Rochester, N.Y., says that two days in a row, a car drove by and a man inside fired a pistol at his tank crew. He missed. "He comes around today, we're taking him out. It's a white car, and we're waiting for him." Good luck. Probably half the cars in Baghdad are white.

Small wonder all American troops are still required to wear their body armor and helmets, which experts say raises the perceived temperature a good 10 degrees. If Iraqis are sweltering with an unaccustomed lack of air conditioning, the Americans are even hotter out on the streets. Come summer, temperatures will be topping 120 degrees. At the Republican Palace, where Garner's crew is in residence, the soldiers at the gate face an endless stream of beseeching Iraqis. For a while they held job fairs there to hire Iraqi workers, but had to cancel them after several turned into nasty little riots. Civil-military affairs Maj. Eric Peterson, 36, a cop from Durham, N.C., called up on active duty, took assistance request applications at the gate two days ago from walk-ups until his supply of forms ran out. "It's just putting a finger in the dyke," he says, trying to get away from a gaggle of people looking for jobs, a compensation payment, replacement houses, lost relatives or a new air conditioner. They try to follow him and soldiers struggle to hold them back. "I feel like a pile of s--t with a bunch of flies following me," he said.

That day at the palace the Iraqis' frustrated expectations morphed into a peaceful demonstration with a quixotic variety of signs and slogans, most in poor English, scrawled on scraps of cardboard. SECURITY NOW. WHO IS CARE? WE WANT JOBS.

Capt. Phil Wolford, of Fort Stewart, Ga., walked over to warn not to block the road. He spotted a sign that read FREEDOM OR RANDOM! "Look, buddy," he told the author, "I respect your right to your opinion, but that doesn't make any sense." The Iraqi took immediate umbrage. "I have free speech. I say what I want. Freedom or Random!"

"Whatever," the captain said, shaking his head. So here's the long-range forecast for Baghdad and vicinity as of May 9, 2003: Highs in the low 100s and steadily rising, barometric pressure unchanged at 1004mm, zero percent chance of precipitation, no sign of relief until at least September.