“What else can we do?”

(Junge Welt, March 10, 2003)
Impressions of a city with a sentence of war hanging over it
A letter from Baghdad

By Karin Leukefeld

“You are like a beacon for me,” an Iraqi colleague said to me in the press center in Baghdad a few weeks ago, “as long as you are still here, there will not be war.” My stay in Baghdad, long compared to that of most Western journalists, was enough reason for this man to see something special in it.
The Iraqis seem to grasp every available straw to keep them from having to give up all hope that the situation, which in the international media peddles as the “Iraq crisis,” will still have a peaceful ending. At the same time, deep down inside they are more than ready for war. For too long now the news has been bad, the troop deployment surrounding their country too great for them not to count on the worst happening.

“It is better if you leave,” an old acquaintance who manages a gallery in Baghdad and who experienced the last war in this country told me. “And leave soon,” she added. “We have been through a lot, but what’s coming next will be frightful.” She wants to stay home with her family. Her daughter-in-law, in her seventh month of pregnancy, is fearful. Her neighbor has become a grandmother for the fifth time, my acquaintance told me, the baby is only a few weeks old.
“We will all stay home,” said a colleague in the press center. “What else should we do?” Said always with a shrug of the shoulders, that is the most common expression used to end a conversation over the present conditions: “What should we do?” And many add to that, “Our fate is in the hands of god.”
The foreign observers are also sensing signs of nervousness. Ten thousand police and special troops from the Ministry of the Interior marched a few weeks ago in a parade, which was meant more as a sign to the Western journalists than to the population of Baghdad. The world should see that Iraq will not be conquered so easily.

On the same day police units were clearly more in view than before. At important traffic junctions like bridges, crossings and traffic circles Toyota vans with machineguns mounted on them were parked, and near them their partly armed squads. Other units secured crossing areas of the streets and patrolled the sidewalks. Civilian vehicles were standing by as were still shiny new Nissan police cars. Apparently in case of a military attack important junctions in the city would be occupied and civilian traffic stopped. In the event it really happens Western observers in Baghdad expect a complete closing of all exits.
One after the other the diplomatic staffs are leaving the Iraqi capital. A hilarious Karaoke-evening, still celebrated in the Philippines Embassy, was an absurdly marginal note. The Turkish embassy staff left just as the Spanish and Portuguese did. The Russian staff sent the dependents of their colleagues out of the country, hundreds of Russian technical workers also flew out. The French, German and Italian embassies were still open, but there too the remaining citizens of their countries were ordered to prepare to leave.
After everyone became aware of a U.S. “target list,” a list with targets that would be wiped out in the first 48 hours of the air attack, the journalists were also uneasy. The press center in the Iraqi Information Ministry was on the list as was the Rashid Hotel, in which many journalists were staying. The luxury hotel is on the edge of the government quarter of Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris River, not far from the Presidential Palace. U.S. President Bush warned the journalists that they should “leave the country,” along with the staff of the NGOs: “When we cut loose, disappear.”

Last Wednesday for many Muslim believers the new Islamic year began. According to old Islamic tradition, Its first month Muharram is dedicated to peace, friendship and love. During that time every Muslim should be friendly and helpful to relatives, neighbors and everyone whom he meets. In Muharram war and strife, greed and envy, lying and treachery are forbidden. Muharram requires reflection and heartfelt prayer from believers. This time has great meaning especially for the Shiite Muslims. On the 10th of Muharram, they celebrate “Ashura,” a voluntary fast day, upon which the murder of Hussein, the son of Ali, is contemplated. The Shiites venerate Ali as the righteous follower of Mohammad.
On the evening of “Ashura,” after sunset, the people will bring their dinner out to the street and invite everyone to dine with them as a sign of friendship and peace. This year Ashura will fall on March 14. According to a report in the British Daily Mirror the air attack on Baghdad is planned for mid-March, with 3,000 targets destroyed in the first 48 hours, according to U.S. military plans. That means on the evening of Ashura large sections of Baghdad could already lie in ashes and rubble.
When it happens makes little difference: The war seems to have been already decided on by the gentlemen with collars and ties, who for months have repeated in the same exact voice and without human feeling the same exact phrases, as they sent one army unit after the other into the Gulf region. But it isn’t only the gentlemen, also the ladies with their valuable jewelry and expensive name-brand clothing are part of the mix. Did any of them ever set their foot on Iraqi soil, to learn in friendship something about this country and its people? About their sorrows, their dreams?
Baghdad on the evening of March 8. Beams from a sickle-shaped moon light up the Iraqi capital. The golden-yellow lights on the banks of the Tigris bathe the stream in a soft, warm light. The date palms rustle in a light wind. Somewhere on the bank a man is playing the Oud and singing a love song. “When the moon shines and we sit together at the river, then at last I’ll speak to thee,” the lyrics floated to us out of the darkness. The black shadows of the buildings on the other bank of the river projected their silhouettes into the night sky.
Pure greed and lust for power threaten to annihilate the Iraqi population’s exemplary will to survive, their unbroken dignity despite all humiliations. The war that draws ever closer to this country is as obscene as those who prosecute it.