A Longing For Normalcy

Just six weeks before American occupation authorities are due to transfer sovereignty to Iraqi institutions, the killing of Ezzedine Salim has intensified a heated debate inside Iraq: just who is responsible for the country's escalating spiral of violence?

People knew him as Ezzedine Salim, but that was a pseudonym. His real name was Abdul Zahrah Othman and he was president of the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council (IGC), a position that rotated monthly among the IGC's 25 members. His death is emblematic of the campaign by anti-Coalition forces to threaten and kill Iraqis who aid the U.S. occupation. The bomber's red Volkswagen had sped up and then exploded close to Salim's five-vehicle convoy, killing nine people altogether and injuring 15. The attack took place just outside Baghdad's Checkpoint 12, which leads into the heavily fortified Green Zone where authorities of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority live and work.

The bombing that killed Salim is seen as an attack on all that is decent in Iraq. a Basra native who's spent two decades in exile, Salim headed a Shiite opposition party during Saddam's time; he was a newspaper editor, philosopher and religious scholar, as well as a likable man. "We lost one of Iraq's great men," said Interior Minister Samir al-Sumaidy, "he was an ordinary Iraqi but an exemplary man." One grass-roots Iraqi citizen, a taxi driver, put it this way: "We liked him. He was normal."

Normal is what most Iraqis fervently want to be. But Salim's killing has underscored how commonplace violence and lawlessness has become. It infuriated many Iraqis, who blame the United States for its inability to bring security to their war-torn country. "The whole world blames the U.S. for Iraq's lack of security," said Khedeir al-Lami, a member of the Baghdad Advisory council. "You know what's going on on the planet Mars, yet you don't know about a suicide bomb?"

Al-Lami represents Baghdad's impoverished Shiite community of Sadr City. There, militants who support renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have publicly warned Iraqis working for occupation authorities that they face a "death sentence." In the past three weeks alone, Sadr City's district council chief, a neighborhood council member, a member of the civil defense corps and four translators who worked for U.S. troops have been assassinated.

Nobody knew for sure who killed Salim, or even if he was the intended target. (Two other IGC members were reportedly near the checkpoint as well, but escaped unharmed). At a press conference on the day of the bombing, Coalition military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the attack bore classic "hallmarks" of the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. The bombing was suicidal, spectacular and symbolic--in fact it was doubly symbolic, killing the IGC head on the doorstep of Coalition headquarters.

Kimmitt acknowledged however that an obscure group calling itself the Arab Resistance Movement, unknown previously, had claimed responsibility for the attack in a Web-site posting that called Salim a "traitor and mercenary." The Web site is linked to the insurgency based in Iraq's violence-wracked Sunni Triangle, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi. The following day, Kimmitt said forensic investigation now suggested suspects other than Zarqawi. (The probe is headed by Iraqi police and supported by FBI forensic experts.)

The bombing also raised questions about the quality of security provided to Iraqi VIPs. CPA spokesman Dan Senor said that all IGC members and their private security details--known as PSDs--have been offered equipment, vehicles and training courses which include defensive driving and other VIP-protection techniques. About 200 security personnel assigned to IGC members have gone through initial training, and 40 have had refresher courses.

However for his own PSD, Salim chose to rely on "cousins and nephews, which was his choice," said Senor, and none of his PSD members took part in the training courses, "again, his choice." (Using relatives and clansmen as bodyguards is common among Iraqi notables.) "The security considerations given to the IGC are second to none," he declared.

Senor also announced the formation of a new government VIP-protection unit fashioned after the U.S. Secret Service. Al-Sumaidy, the interior minister, noted that Iraq already had some experts in VIP protection. "But most of them were very close to the previous regime, so we'll have to screen them very well. And if we go to the open market, so to speak, for security personnel, we'll have to train them very well. So it is a dilemma." And its just another reason why normalcy still feels a long way off for many Iraqis.