Military history

CHAPTER 8

A Disease

THE CHINOOK LUMBERED across the sweltering sky as benignly as a blimp. It seemed to float on the heat rising from the plains. Inside the helicopter was Paul “Jerry” Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. His aides were crowded into the back. I was riding in a second Chinook, on one of the canvas seats. I turned to the person next to me.

“So what were you doing before the war?” I asked.

“The 2000 campaign,” he said.

It was Chris Harvin, office of strategic communications—Stratcomm for short. It was the public relations outfit Bremer set up at the Coalition Provisional Authority, the formal name of the occupation authority. For this trip, Harvin was Bremer’s advance man. In the United States, the advance man is crucial to political campaigns; he’s the guy who visits the site before the candidate does, to make sure, for instance, that the television cameras capture the candidate in front of the most picturesque backdrop. Or to make sure the locals chosen to greet the candidate say positive things.

“What did you do in the campaign?” I asked Harvin.

“South Carolina primary,” Harvin said.

“That was the nasty one,” I offered.

“Yeah,” Harvin said, nodding.

I asked Harvin, Isn’t that the primary where a telephone bank put out the rumor that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate child? I didn’t say it was the Bush campaign that had done this to McCain.

Harvin broke into a wide smile.

“We kicked their ass,” he said.

The Chinooks landed and Bremer climbed out and stepped into the heat. Despite the temperature, he wore a red tie and a blue suit with a pressed white handkerchief tucked into his front coat pocket, set off by a pair of tan army-issue boots. Bremer’s chin jutted confidently; he looked like he had come from a lunch in Hyannisport.

We had come to the Mubarqa Maternity Hospital in Diwaniya, a mostly Shiite city in southern Iraq. Bremer had been invited there by Raja Khuzai, a witty and pro-American obstetrician and member of the Iraqi Governing Council, the pseudo–Iraqi cabinet the Americans had set up in Baghdad. The council had no real power, except to tell Bremer what they thought. Bremer followed Khuzai into a room off the lobby. It had been decorated with purple and orange streamers celebrating his arrival and filled with men in kafiyas and mustaches. An Iraqi girl handed Bremer a bouquet of roses. He picked up a microphone.

Bremer began his visit, as he often did, by congratulating the United States.

“We of the coalition are glad that we were able to provide you with your freedom from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein,” Bremer said. “You now have that freedom, and you now have a better hope for the future.”

In English, Bremer loosed a stream of statistics suggesting that conditions in Iraq had improved.

“There is eleven times more electricity now than before the war,” Bremer told the Iraqis. “All of Iraq’s 240 hospitals are now open…. In May, when I arrived, 500 tons of drugs were shipped in. Last month, we shipped 3, 500 tons—a 700 percent increase in shipments in three months.”

The hospital staff gave Bremer a round of warm applause, and then they lined up with requests.

“The electricity plant is damaged,” a man who identified himself as “Sheikh al-Khuzai” told Bremer. He was the head of the province’s biggest tribe. “The police station has to be up as soon as possible. We need security here. We lack a proper water system.”

Others stood in line behind him. “There is no justice in the salary system,” another man said.

Bremer listened for a while, then moved upstairs through the hospital’s wards, with a retinue of aides and gunmen trailing behind. When he arrived, one of the Americans handed Bremer a clutch of stuffed animals to give to the children. And so Bremer did, taking the animals and touring the hot and stale rooms, handing out fuzzy pink animals to babies and mystified mothers still lying in their beds.

Bremer moved to the ward for premature babies. The newborns were skeletal and malnourished, lying in rows. A baby of about three days sagged incoherently in his mother’s arms. A shriveled infant lay motionless on its back, wrapped in red, gazing at nothing. One of the Iraqi doctors smiled and motioned to Bremer, suggesting he give one of the stuffed animals to one of the lifeless babies. Bremer grimaced. “I don’t like seeing this at all,” he said.

One of the doctors whispered in my ear. “Four babies died in one week.”

I broke away from Bremer’s entourage and walked downstairs, where I fell into a conversation with some young Iraqi doctors. There had been no electricity in more than a week; it was only running, the doctors said, because Bremer was here. This had not been the case before the war, the doctors said. During the invasion, Mubarqa Maternity Hospital had stayed open continuously. The lack of electricity was killing the babies, the doctors said. Without the electricity the incubators were going cold and, after a time, the babies were going cold, too. The vaccines in the refrigerator were spoiling. So were the bacterial cultures. So was the blood.

As the doctors spoke, Harvin, the advance man, broke in.

“Are you happy that Saddam is gone?” Harvin asked. “Things are better now?”

“Yes,” Dr. Kassim al-Janaby said, smiling wanly. “Yes.”

“What’s the best thing about Saddam being gone?” Harvin asked. He was on his toes now.

“Only one—I think only one,” Dr. Mohamed Jasim said.

“Only the free talking. Only only only. But no doing. No doing.”

“Do you think over time it gets much better?”

“Yes, we are thinking the next time it gets better,” Jasim said.

“Patience, yeah?”

“We need continuous electricity,” Dr. al-Janaby said, his smile gone now. “Continuous security. Security in our city also is not until now. That’s it. Also the salary.”

“But don’t you think with time it will get better?” Harvin asked. “What do you think? What can we do?”

“Security,” one of the doctors said.

A FEW DAYS LATER, I went back to Mubarqa by myself. Roaming its halls, I stepped into a bare room where I found Hassan Naji, the hospital record keeper. The room was dark from the lack of electricity. Naji was seated at a metal desk, surrounded by piles of paper. A file cabinet stood behind him, all of its drawers opened. I asked him about infant deaths.

“Yes, yes, babies are dying,” he said, looking up. Naji’s face was drawn but his eyes locked on me in a flash. “Under Saddam, this did not happen. Not like this.”

I asked Naji if he could be more specific—if he could show me statistics on recent infant deaths.

Naji dropped whatever it was he had been working on and began sifting through the piles on his desk. It was covered with stray notes, jottings and calculations. He produced a gigantic ledger, an ancient thing filled with numbers and names. He got up and walked to the file cabinet and rifled through it but found nothing. This, too, was different from Saddam’s time, Naji said.

“Democracy has ruined this hospital,” Naji said. “Democracy has made everyone incompetent. We used to have standards here. In the past, people really worked at their jobs, if only because they were terrified of their supervisors. They worked late. We kept the most accurate records. We had weekly meetings on the worst cases. When a child died, we had a meeting and we really studied it.

“Now, with all this freedom, no one cares anymore,” Naji said. “We don’t keep records anymore. We don’t even have death certificates. We don’t have birth certificates. Look at the files: elementary statistics we don’t have. The department’s work is not getting done. Files and paper are piling up. The whole hospital is this way.”

Naji stared into the ledger again.

“Most deaths are in the operating room now,” he said. “The sterile ward has collapsed. They used to have their own nurse there. They used to take care of the ward; they kept it clean. The babies would go immediately to the sterile ward. Now it’s unsterile. And we don’t have any oxygen. If we go on like this we will have a catastrophe. We have babies who gasp. So the babies that are premature go right to the operating room. They die in the operating room.

“Come with me,” he said. We walked down the hall and up the stairs, the route Bremer had walked a few days before. We stopped at a bed. A tiny baby breathed from a tube. Naji picked up the chart and read it aloud.

“Mother, Wafa Abid. Baby boy, Hassan.”

Naji looked at the gauge on the oxygen bottle next to the bed.

“The tank is empty,” Naji said. “Do we have any oxygen? No, we don’t.”

He put the chart down and started down the stairs again. Records, I told Naji. Records of deaths. Help me show how this has happened.

Naji reentered the office and picked up another ledger at his desk. It was filled with a sheaf of pink papers, forms filled with names and addresses and birth dates and birth weights. He threw it back down on the desk.

“Before the war, you would have the full address written here,” he said, pointing. “Everything. But when the war came the printing press was looted. We don’t have any forms. This is what we are using, just these.” He held up a scrap of paper. “We just write down whatever now, Hamsa District, Nahinder District. I don’t know where these families even live. I don’t know how the babies died. Look at this. This family came in three weeks ago. The mother doesn’t even have a medical chart.”

I looked around Naji’s office. There were a couple of shriveled plants in the window.

“After the war, with the new regime, everything became a mess,” Naji said. “People used to work so they could forget themselves. Now they don’t care anymore. People don’t use the freedom they have correctly.

“Personally, I’d give them a beating,” Naji said. “But it’s not my decision.”

So you miss Saddam? I asked Naji. You sound like you miss him.

“Never,” Naji said, shaking his head. “Never. The Americans did a great thing when they got rid of that tyrant. Things could even get worse here and I would still feel that way. Believe me,” Naji said, standing up to see me out, “most of the people in Diwaniya would feel that way.”

THE SUN BEAT on the tarmac as Bremer climbed aboard his helicopter and lifted off. We were at Landing Zone Washington, inside the Green Zone, in Baghdad. This time, Bremer was in a Black Hawk, one of three, a soldier manning a heavy machine gun on each door and a pair of Apache attack helicopters flying escort. The Black Hawks did not lumber like the Chinooks that had gone to Diwaniya seven months before; they rocketed out of the Green Zone, dipping and weaving over the rooftops at 140 mph, leaping over the telephone wires. Bremer had overseen the creation of a new Iraqi government; he’d laid out a schedule for democratic elections and he was traveling the country to say goodbye. It was March 2004; in three months he would be gone. Insurgents were everywhere, hence the speed.

The helicopters slowed at their destination, Al-Kut, a provincial capital sixty miles south of Baghdad in the Shiite heartland. Within a few minutes Bremer was sitting at a folding table across from the local officials of the Wasit government. Al-Kut was famous as the place where during the First World War the British lost thirty thousand men trying to lift a siege by the Ottoman Turks. Bremer wore the same outfit as he had in Diwaniya: a blue suit, a red tie, a pressed handkerchief and a pair of army-issue desert boots.

First came the governor, Nema Sultan Bash Aga, who told Bremer that everything in Wasit was running smoothly indeed. “Our situation is not bad at all,” Aga told Bremer. “Praise be to God our situation is the most quiet in all of Iraq.” His main problem, Aga said, was unemployment; there were too many young men with too little to do. “If we gave people jobs, we would have an end to terrorism,” he said. Bremer listened and offered an occasional response. “It looks to us that unemployment in the country has come down quite a bit,” he said.

Bremer stood up and the men shook hands and the governor left the room.

Next came Abdul Salaam al-Safaar, the chief of the provincial council. He shook Bremer’s hand firmly as he sat down but didn’t smile.

“I have a list of issues that I would like to talk to you about,” Safaar said.

“Okay,” Bremer said. “Please go ahead.”

“The main issue is security,” Safaar said. “We are on a collision course with the Ministry of Interior, which set up our police force in an arbitrary way. There are many thieves in the police force, there are many terrorists.”

Bremer sat motionless in his chair, listening.

Safaar told Bremer he wanted to set up an independent police unit with expanded powers, for which local leaders like him could choose their own men. The ministry in Baghdad was opposed to this, he said.

“After June 30, when the CPA leaves, the police cannot guarantee security,” Safaar said. “They cannot.”

Safaar stared intently at Bremer. Then he went to the next item on his list, the border with Iran. Many members of the local political parties and police, Safaar said, maintained extensive links with the Iranian government.

“We have evidence that members of the Iranian secret police are working with local political parties here,” Safaar said. “This is not healthy for a stable society.”

At the heart of the problem, Safaar told Bremer, was Wasit’s hundred miles of unguarded border with Iran. “You can cross the border anywhere you want,” he said.

Bremer nodded and said nothing.

Safaar pressed on. The political parties were acting in their own narrow interests, he said—so narrow that they threatened the fledgling democratic experiment in Wasit Province. Some of the parties, like the Supreme Council, were allied to Iran, he said. Others, like Muqtada al-Sadr’s, maintained their own militias, which were more powerful than the police.

“All of these parties have militias,” Safaar told Bremer. “Even God cannot make decisions unless he receives the approval of the political parties. If he does not have their approval, even he will be attacked. As an Iraqi I would like to see democracy in my country, but what we have cannot be called a democracy. Democracy as we know it is a disease.”

Bremer finally spoke.

“We understand,” he said. “There are problems with the police in many places in many countries. The problem is that we had to call up a police force very quickly. We had to vet these people as they came into the forces. It has been an imperfect process.”

Bremer spoke some more and suggested that the meeting was over. But Safaar kept talking. He did not appear angry or agitated. His greatest fear, he told Bremer, was that the Iraqi government, to which the United States was preparing to return full power in less than three months, was not ready for the task. And the Iraqi people would not be ready for the elections Bremer had scheduled.

“Three months is a very short time to ensure that the political process will be good,” Safaar said to Bremer. “People need time, they need experience in these things before they just go to the polls. We have to have a longer period.”

“People are going to have to learn faster,” Bremer said, shaking his head. “Most Iraqis don’t want the elections to be delayed.”

He stood up.

“Thank you for letting me bring up these issues with you,” Safaar said.

And the meeting ended and Bremer flew away.

A month later, al-Sadr launched an uprising against the Americans and the nascent Iraqi government across southern Iraq. The government building in Al-Kut fell to the rebels. Across Wasit Province, across southern Iraq, government buildings, police stations, civil defense garrisons and other installations set up by the Americans were sacked and overrun. Overnight, the Iraqi police, the Iraqi national guard and the Iraqi army disappeared.

An American official in southern Iraq summed up the situation a few days after the uprising began.

“Six months of work is completely gone,” he said. “There is nothing to show for it.”

The View from the Air

THE BLACK HAWK skirted the date palms and the mud-colored roofs, the altitude and the movement of the helicopter offering a cubist view of the world below. Green rectangles of farmland shifted as if in a mirror then flattened as they fell into the horizon. The anarchy of the streets carried no sound so high; every haphazardness of the place, the trash, the goats, the fields of junk, seemed, from the distance, planned and carefully measured, like a city by L’Enfant. A farmer stopped his work, cupped his hand over his eyes and waved. Under the spell of the whirring motor I felt suddenly hopeful for the country below. I looked down at the tiny people and imagined them going about their days just as any of us would up here, with fears and desires no greater or lesser than our own, or which, in any case, were not so different that they couldn’t be reconciled. It was useful to fly in helicopters for this reason, I thought to myself, useful to think this way, to take a wider view of the world. Too much detail, too much death, clouded the mind.

Not long before I’d been to the scene of a car bombing, stood amid the screaming mothers and the flesh with dirt, and I had thought that this was all there was. In the Black Hawk I wondered whether I needed to stand back, to take a longer view. Perhaps in the hideous present some larger good was being born, struggling painfully and awfully, but coming into the world just the same. And perhaps this new world might one day justify the death and suffering unfolding below, just as the Americans in the Green Zone and the angry bloggers told me back home. Sometimes even Iraqis told me that. Once I sat with an Iraqi nuclear scientist, Ibrahim al-Shakarchy. We had tea in his office. He’d lived through three decades of Saddam and the Baath and the terror, was living through the occupation and the insurgency, and he told me with conviction that I needed to take a more abstract look at the world around me.

“Napoleon’s invasion changed Egypt in ways that never would have been possible,” Shakarchy said to me. He seemed sure of himself. He was wearing a cardigan sweater. “Sometimes you need to impose new ideas by force. Sometimes there is no other way.”

I thought these things in the Black Hawk, looking down on the world.

We were over the capital. Rows and rows of houses, low-slung and the color of sand, spread far and wide. Beds on rooftops. Goats on rooftops. Children kicking a football. The cobalt-blue globes of the Monument of Martyrs shimmering in the white noon. The Black Hawk banked over the Tigris and began to circle the landing area inside the Green Zone. The tidy two-bedroom trailers that housed the Americans were arrayed around Saddam’s sandstone palace. Off-duty soldiers laughed and dove in the palace’s pool. The Black Hawk came in fast, dropping its tail like an animal, the pitch of its engine falling as it scraped the cement. A marine stood to the side directing the landing with precise movements of his hands. He was shouting something over the whine of the engine that I could not hear. I unhooked my shoulder straps and stepped onto the pavement. Back on the ground.

LEAVING WAS the only time I got the measure of the place. Coming in was too depressing, too intense. There was so much anticipation and so much regret. On the plane in, the pilot, always a South African, would come onto the loudspeaker and get everyone ready. There was never a gradual descent; the jet, a Royal Jordanian Fokker, would fly above the clouds until it was directly over Baghdad International and then drop like a piano, like a dive bomber, not really descending in a corkscrew like the pilot said but falling in long vertical strokes. The dive was designed to protect us from ground fire. The jet would drop straight onto the runway, pulling up at the last second and slamming down hard and fast before coming to a stop. As I got off, the stewardess, also South African, would smile and say, “Did you see they were shooting at us?” And then I’d meet the Iraqi immigration officers, sullen and corrupt with their thick Saddam mustaches, same guys as before, making a fuss about letting me in, as if anyone would come in if he didn’t have to. When I stepped from the terminal, the armed guards would be waiting for me, as would Waleed, my driver and friend, smiling with a hug, and we’d get in the armored car and set out on the airport road, where convoys got hit every day. We’d pass the carcasses of the cars, the sawed-down date palms where the Americans tried to deny the guerrillas cover, the fences and the blast walls. Driving in was an upper and a downer at once, like putting a bullet in the chamber.

No, it was in the leaving that I felt the essence of the place. As much as I hated arriving, I hated leaving more. After so long I’d become part of the place, part of the despair, part of the death and the bad food and the heat and the sandy-colored brown of it. I felt I understood its complications and its paradoxes and even its humor, felt a jealous brotherhood with everyone who was trying to keep it from sinking even deeper. I hugged the Iraqis who worked with me as I climbed into the armored car, letting them lift my bags into the trunk. I saw the envious looks they threw me for leaving. As we pulled out of the compound the guards switched the safeties off their guns. And when the car hit the long flat stretch of airport road my stomach tightened, not from the danger of the place but from the anticipation. From the thought of leaving the world, the big, wide, only world, and moving to the next one. The two worlds. There was nothing in between, no way station, no purgatory, only this world and the other.

The Royal Jordanian plane lifted off and I could see the others on board felt the same. Diplomats, reporters, contractors, guards: tightened mouths and grim faces, nobody smiling and nobody whooping for finally getting out. We’d become Iraq, become the unhappy land, become so much a part of it that we worried about our place in the other world to which we were now returning. And from which we were now so estranged.

And then the plane lifted off, reversing its downward spiral with an upward one, flying as steeply upward into the sky as it had descended, circling the airport in wide arcs as it pulled us higher up. And as I looked down, the view never changed. We were moving higher and higher but not away; it was the same world, brown and flat and dead and hot, growing wider and wider as we turned. It was as if we weren’t moving at all, it was as if we were stuck, as if the place below would never change and we would never leave.

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