My friend from Baquba visited me yesterday. He brought the usual giant lunch of home-cooked food he always brings when he comes to see me. I’m still eating it, actually. I had it again for dinner tonight. Ah, the typical Iraqi meal.
He owns four large tents, and rents them to people in his city to use at funeral wakes, marriage parties, tribal negotiation meetings, and to cover gardens, among other things.
During the Anglo-American invasion of his country back in the spring of 2003, when refugees from Baghdad sought shelter from the falling bombs, many of the families inundated his city. After his house was filled with refugees, he let others use his tents, for free of course.
Refugees from Fallujah are using them now.
At least 35 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq today. Thirty-one of them died when a Chinook went down near the Jordanian border. At least four others died in clashes in the al-Anbar province. A patrol on the airport road was bombed, destroying at least one military vehicle. The military hasn’t released any casualty figures on that one yet.
“Bring ’em on,” said George Bush quite some time ago, when the Iraqi resistance had begun to pick up the pace.
Today during a press conference, he spoke about the upcoming elections in Iraq.
“Clearly there are some who are intimidated,” he said, “I urge all people to vote.”
Let me describe the scene on the ground here in “liberated” Iraq.
With the “elections” just three days away, people are terrified. Families are fleeing Baghdad much as they did prior to the invasion of the country. Seeking refuge from what everyone fears to be a massive onslaught of violence in the capital city, huge lines of cars are stacked up at checkpoints on the outer edges of the city.
Policemen and Iraqi soldiers are trying to convince people to stay in the city and vote.
Nobody is listening to them.
Whereas Baghdad is filled with Fallujah refugees, now villages and smaller cities on the outskirts of Baghdad are filling up with election refugees.
Yet these places aren’t safe either. In Baquba, attacks on polling stations are a near daily occurrence. Mortar attacks are common on polling stations even as far south as Basra. A truck bomb struck a Kurdish political party headquarters in a small town near Mosul, killing 15 people, wounding twice that many. A string of car bombs detonated at polling stations in Kirkuk, which was already under an 8 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew, killing 10 Iraqis.
Here in Baghdad, although the High Commission for Elections in Iraq has yet to announce their locations, schools that are being converted into polling stations are already being attacked.
Iraqis who live near these schools are terrorized at the prospect.
“They can block the whole city and people cannot move,” says a man speaking to me on condition of anonymity. “The city is dead, the people are dead. For what? For these forced elections!”
He is angry and frustrated because his street is now blocked as he lives near a small yellow middle school that is going to be used as a polling station.
Nearby some US soldiers are occupying a police station, as usual. One of them saw me taking photos and tried to confiscate my camera.
It didn’t matter that I showed him my press badge. After some talking he let me delete the photos and move on, camera in hand.
Sand barriers block the end of a street, the school where the insides are already in disrepair sits just behind them.
At least 90 streets in Baghdad are now closed down by huge sand and/or concrete barriers and razor wire. The number is growing daily.
“Now I’m afraid mortars will hit my home if the polling station is attacked,” he adds. He’ll be moving across town to stay at a relative’s house, which is not near one of the dreaded polling stations.
An owner of a small grocery shop nearby is just as concerned. He had to negotiate with soldiers to have them leave an opening on the end of the barrier so people could access his place of business.
“I’m already living off my food ration, and have little business,” he says while pointing at the deserted street, “Now who wants to come near my shop? All of us are afraid, and all of us are suffering now.”
A tired-looking guard standing nearby named Salman chimes in on the conversation. “I would be crazy to vote, it’s so dangerous now,” he says with a cigarette dangling from his hand, “Besides, why vote? Of course Allawi will stay in. The Americans will make it so.”
A contact of mine just returned from spending a week in Fallujah. We shared some of the food brought from my friend in Baquba.
“I’d been in Fallujah for a week and all I’d seen was tough military tactics,” he tells me. “They are arresting people and putting them in these trucks, blindfolded and tied up. Everywhere I looked all I saw was utter devastation.”
He spoke with many families who told him one horror story after another, death after death after death.
“Then today, the military brings in a dozen Humvees and ground troops to basically seal off a small area near a market,” he continues. “In the middle of them is a CNN camera crew filming troops throwing candy to kids and these guys in orange vests start cleaning the streets around them.”
He laughs while holding up his arms and says, “I’d never seen those guys anywhere in the city before. I don’t know where they came from.”
After a pause to take a drink of soda, he adds, “I’d never seen any boots on the ground at all, and all of the sudden there are all these Marines standing around like everything was OK. It was the first time I’d seen any soldier not in a Humvee or a Bradley. I was really surprised.”
“All of it was 100 percent staged. Good PR before the election,” he says. Then in a reference to mainstream America, he adds, “Fallujah is fine, now go back to sleep.”