Baghdad diary: Life after Saddam Hussein

Corey Levine, IANS

Baghdad : The day Saddam Hussein was executed in Baghdad was one of those rare days when the weather seemed to encapsulate the political currents. There was a strange red and grey pallor in the sky as if the sun had awakened, didn’t like what it saw and attempted to go back to bed.

Support TwoCircles

Saturday Dec 30, 2006, was the start of an important holiday for Muslims – Eid ul Adha – which celebrates Ibrahim’s (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son to god. Although the final appeal in Saddam’s trial had been rendered a few days previously, clearing the way for his execution, no one had seriously expected it to happen before the end of the holidays. However, the current Iraqi leadership, with American acquiescence, was anxious to put the whole Saddam sideshow to rest and he was executed at 6 a.m. before the official start of the holiday at noon.

I had spent the night in the Green Zone. By the time my bodyguards and I pulled into the parking lot of the dining facility of one of the many American military bases that dot the Green Zone for breakfast at 7 a.m., the din in the mess hall overwhelmed the TVs in the huge dining room, all blaring CNN’s coverage of the execution.

The cheers and backslapping over the demise of America’s public enemy number 1 was to be expected from a country where a significant percentage of its citizens still think that Saddam was responsible for 9/11. What was surprising was the reaction from many of my Iraqi Shia colleagues.

In a country where tribal and sectarian favouritism had long played a significant role in the lives of its people, the Shia majority had spent most of Saddam’s 25-year dictatorship oppressed and brutalized by Saddam’s Sunni cronies. Although the vast majority of Shias was initially elated at his toppling, three-and-a-half years into the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, the cruelty and brutality that marked Saddam’s regime was all but intact, albeit under a different guise.

On average, approximately 200 Iraqis die every day from conflict related violence, 1,000 are displaced, and many more are kidnapped, injured or tortured to death. During one memorable week, one of my Iraqi colleagues had his house destroyed by a stray mortar just as he was sitting down to breakfast with his family. One of his brothers was killed and another seriously wounded.

A day later, an uncle of one of my staff was kidnapped and she and her family spent the rest of the week trying to scrounge the $50,000 ransom that was being demanded. Then an Iraqi I had recently hired disappeared before he started work. He surfaced a week later in Tunisia. It turns out that his family had received a death threat and he managed them out of the country a day later. But for that week we assumed he had been kidnapped.

Normal life for all intents and purposes has ceased to exist. People are held captive in their homes, afraid of what the streets of Baghdad have to offer – militia checkpoints where having the ‘wrong’ name can get you immediately killed and where an off-hand remark to a relative about the international organisation you work for can get you targeted by insurgents. No meeting friends for coffee, browsing in the market (a popular target for suicide bombers) or checking out the latest film. It can be many months before family and friends living blocks away from each other are able to meet in person.

It is hardly surprising then that approximately 50,000 Iraqis are fleeing the country every month although it is becoming harder for Iraqis to leave. Jordan and Syria – the two largest recipient countries – have effectively closed their borders to Iraqis. Sweden is one of the few countries with a liberal policy toward Iraqi asylum seekers but the cost to smugglers to get there (some $25,000 per person) is prohibitive.

But what of my Shia colleagues and Saddam’s execution? While they initially felt that justice had been served, on closer scrutiny, it turned out that there was a collective nostalgia for a time past when the restaurants were full and no one was afraid of going to the market. By and large Iraqis feel that a strong authoritarian hand is needed if Iraq is to find its way out of its current morass and survive as a unitary country; that is why many Iraqis are viewing the days of Saddam through sepia tones.

In the intermediate aftermath of his execution it didn’t take long for the jokes to go around: “Got some Saddam Hussein T-shirts for sale. A bit tight around the neck, but hang well!” “Saddam says he can’t make it to your New Year’s party. He’s hung over from last night.”

My colleagues eagerly exchanged videos of the execution they had downloaded on their mobile phones. But after the three-day nation-wide curfew had been lifted and the parked cars began to explode once again, many Iraqis, Shia, Sunni, non-Muslims, put on their rose-tinted glasses and went back to the business of longing for a safer, more innocent past.

(Corey Levine is a consultant on peace building and human rights in conflict areas. She has worked in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Palestine and Afghanistan. She can be reached at [email protected])