New Iraq sometimes feels like Woolworths Christmas sales. I met an American guy the other day who called himself the ‘only true carpet bagger in Iraq’. The American had been here over a year and lives in a dangerous part of Baghdad, he touts work trying to win the many lucrative contracts. This guy is on commission only and hasn’t made a buck in a year. If he does win one of the many lucrative contracts he stands to become a millionaire over night.
But the risks are great. I always look out for people like him when I turn on the news each day to see who has been kidnapped or beheaded in the ritual slaughter that takes place here every day. Of course only westerners make international news. I met an Iraqi girl yesterday who has been working as a translator with a US company for 6 months. She hasn’t seen her Iraqi driver for 5 days now. He was kidnapped and no news has emerged. But there is little ransom on his head. The truth is that they are simply waiting for his body to be found in the gutters soon. He will be dragged into the hospital fridge waiting for identification from his family.
Like the only time I visited the hospital with a French journalist friend after a suicide bomber had killed scores outside Samir’s music school. Then, a man in his early 30’s was dragged in from the street with a single bullet to the back of his head. He’d come to find work from outside of Baghdad – to support his family. As we went through his belongings we found pictures of his young children, a boy and girl that didn’t yet know their father was dead. He had been killed for working with the Americans. A simple crime in country where the only source of work – real work, is with the Americans.
So it is a tough choice here; to work and be killed for $1000 a month, or work in safer jobs, like the swimming pool attendant at my hotel who is married with a child and earns a meagre $20 a week. My swim costs me $5 a day, my favourite pizza $4. But here in Iraq most families are spending that in one week. They eat basic simple food, just enough to get by. They drive clapped out cars, queue for miles for fuel in the raging heat, get home to find they have no electricity for air coolers or money to feed the family. All this in a country built on oil, where a litre of petrol is cheaper to buy than a litre of water.
‘Blame Saddam, blame Saddam!’ Yes.. but it’s over a year now since ‘the liberation’ of this land, with no hope in sight, people are looking back to Saddam. ‘Remember the ‘good old days’ under Saddam, when you could go out at night without fear of being killed robbed or kidnapped… the days when you didn’t have to camp outside school all day in raging heat waiting for your children in fear that they are kidnapped. Even Samir has started looking back to the days when ‘we had fun with fear.. but at least we had fun’. Now my Iraqi friends tell me to be careful on the streets with my camera. The microphone looks like a rocket propelled grenade. ‘Be careful please Mr Sean.. the Americans will kill you without question…they think later..’ All Iraqi’s know that the Americans ‘deal’ to remain here after the handover of power is that they cannot be prosecuted for killing people. But of course the more people they kill the more the resentment rages, the longer they stay the more animosity builds. Iraqis have had years of war and oppression and see this American occupation as just one more. There will be no peace in this land until America leaves. There will be no rebuilding until they realise, as Samir says, “Only Iraqi’s can rebuild Iraq.”
So where is there hope in Iraq today? I look around the pool at the reporters drinking beers, the mercenaries sitting with the contractors responsible for rebuilding Iraq. I wonder if they know what is actually going on here. They are part of the ‘rebuilding process’. I want someone tell me where the rebuilding is going on. I want to be able tell the many Iraqi’s that ask me day after day. “What are all these people doing here? We haven’t seen anything in over a year..” My clever answer used to be ‘these things take time.. have patience..’ but now having been here and seen Iraq in the hands of the Americans, I am less clever, more real, more cynical. How much longer can people wait? In true American style Iraq is a catastrophe that is only getting worse. I met a French Businessman who has come here to win a contract. He wants to earn some ‘good money’ before he retires. He visited the Coalition Provisional Authority to see how he could tender a competitive bid, but he wasn’t allowed. The ‘sale’ was closed. The selected companies were chosen. The American’s only deal out the contracts to their friends. They decide who gets what in the Great Iraqi Sale.
But the French man has hope. He is giving himself 5 years here to make friends with the right people, he is hopeful of getting a contract and securing his pension back in France. Lets hope he makes it through the stormy days ahead, for the sooner the Americans distribute their contracts and leave this land, the sooner there will be hope for ordinary Iraqi’s to have a peaceful normal life.