Sunday, August 01, 2004

Baghdad Days and Nights


On the surface, life here seems improved since late March:

--More and more shops are open, including now pharmacies and some currency exchange. This is true not only along the high streets in Karrada, but now ever-more on lesser byways where the fare is less refrigerators and satellite dishes, and more plastic sundries, food stalls, and other dry goods. Those working are benefiting from higher salaries, which clearly are percolating through the consumer economy. Everyone is excited by the opening of a Chinese import emporium with dirt-cheap clothes.

--Transport and Construction: Road traffic is much heavier--often bumper-to-bumper--but now much better policed, and people have returned to following normal rules of the road. There's no longer any noticeable fuel (gasoline & propane) shortage--that is, I no longer see the long gas lines--but I have not really enquired.

Construction is booming, everywhere, and there's been a lot more cleanup of war rubble, but street cleaning seems to have fallen by the wayside--there are drifts of garbage and a dead dog even outside Neareasts' new offices. I get the impression that there's a strain on managerial capacity and skilled labor. There may be spare laborers about, but the country is running short on people to effectively direct, train, and supervise them.

--I am buffered from electricity outages here in offices & at a hotel with independent power generators, but everyone else suffers in this heat through 2-hour on, 4-hour off rolling blackouts. It is not that more capacity has not been brought online--it has--but power generation just cannot keep up with demand. The market is absorbing vast quantities of cheap refrigerators and air conditioners.

--Crime seems down, or at least less overtly violent. One no longer sees weapons openly carried on every street corner. Dozens or boxes of large appliances remain outside on the sidewalk overnight, with only a sleeping watchman to guard them. People report fewer random carjackings, but more robberies. No sounds of nearby or distant gunfire.

But all that's on the surface.

Despite all this, as compared to earlier this year, people themselves are grim and tense. The murder rate is extremely high. As more documents from the old regime are released and circulated, there are more revenge and reprisal killings. Our old hotel--with many apologies--will no longer accept Americans--they are just too afraid. Green Zone operations are retrenching, with offices moved into dug-in concrete shelters surrounded by blast barriers.

The second night here, at about 2 a.m., a man was gunned down across the street. Police sirens blared and flashed; he was taken away in the back of a police pickup truck. I could not tell if he was dead or alive, or whether he was a criminal shot by the police themselves. Everyone feels that the killings and kidnappings are being done by outsiders pouring in over the borders--from Iran, Syria, Jordan, who knows where--and nobody knows what to do about that. Everyone is nervous about standing in the shadow of foreigners, yet clearly they are grateful for the change and want to help as much as they can. A colleague’s wife gets very nervous when one of her sons, sent on a ministry mission, has not been heard from for several hours. Before, the risk was higher, but the actual danger lower. Now, the risk is lower, but the danger is higher and far more targeted. So what has happened is that Iraqis are just inured to the dangers and assert the right to act as if things were normal, while the Americans dig into their bunkers. Camouflage--blending in--is important.

I am living in a little safe-ish triangle between old offices, the hotel, and new offices, which are half a block away. The currency exchange, grocery, date shop, pharmacy, and stationers are all open, and the hotel food is excellent and cheap. It is several notches down from past accommodation, but the price is right, and I have a little suite with a kitchenette and even TV. The weather is Phoenix/Las Vagas-like, which feels right at home.

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