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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 December 2006, 13:04 GMT
Baghdad diary: Another planet
Andrew North
By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

ON ANOTHER PLANET

Tony Blair came to Baghdad at the weekend, to show support for the Iraqi government.

I covered the UK prime minister's last visit in late May, when Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was putting the finishing touches to a government of national unity. The situation was bad, but there was hope it might start to turn things round.

A helicopter brings UK PM Tony Blair into the Green Zone in central Baghdad
A helicopter brings Tony Blair into the strange world of Baghdad's Green Zone

Six months on, with possibly as many as 18,000 more Iraqis dead, it is hard to find many optimists now.

Both leaders looked like they were on auto-pilot, saying much the same things they've said before.

But as on previous trips, Mr Blair did not really visit Baghdad. He stopped off for three hours on another planet called the Green Zone, the sprawling fortress housing the US and British embassies and most Iraqi government ministries.

Even in this maze of razor wire and concrete-walled compounds, it is not totally safe. Mortars often rain down.

Mr Maliki's residence is ringed by 20ft-high blast barriers and gun towers. Mr Blair arrived with an impressive army of gun-toting bodyguards in armoured vehicles bristling with hi-tech electronic equipment.

But life in the Green Zone bears no relation to the unpredictable chaos of Baghdad beyond - the Red Zone as it is known by Green Zone residents.

Everything depends on security. I am not worrying about democracy, about the economy. The security comes first, and we've lost that
Baghdad resident

As the two prime ministers met, 30 people were being kidnapped from a Red Crescent office just across the river - by gunmen in police uniforms. Based on many previous incidents like this, chances are they really were the police.

But what is important, Mr Blair told the news conference afterwards, is that Iraq now has a democracy.

The words of a pharmacist I know in east Baghdad came to mind as I listened - someone who welcomed Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

It is best I do not use her name. Any Iraqi known to have contact with foreigners is at risk. And security is the only issue that matters now, she says.

"Everything depends on it. I am not worrying about democracy, about the economy. The security comes first, and we've lost that."

I also thought of an academic. Again I cannot name her. Many of her colleagues have fled - part of a rising brain drain. She would like to as well, but it gets ever harder for Iraqi passport holders to secure visas.

There are clashes almost every day in her area.

"I've become a prisoner in my home - I haven't left for two weeks."

A body was left outside her front gate the other day, she told me - almost certainly a sectarian murder victim. Eventually, the police took it away around nightfall.

These are Tony Blair's natural supporters here - the well-educated and better-off. They wanted to believe the invasion would mean a new future. Now democracy seems irrelevant.

As we drove away from the Green Zone and back to our office in the city, there was a body lying in the road.

CITIES WITHIN CITIES

Driving around Baghdad now, Iraqis have to think as if you are crossing borders between warring states. Show the wrong ID card at the wrong checkpoint - run by a Sunni vigilante group or a Shia militia - and you could be pulled from your vehicle and never seen again.

My Iraqi colleagues take long detours getting into work to avoid certain districts.

The main frontier is the River Tigris, dividing the mainly-Shia east from the mainly-Sunni west of Baghdad.

It is more complex than that though. In some ways, the city is becoming a collection of fiefdoms or statelets, with the Green Zone separate from them all.

Many majority Sunni-neighbourhoods in west Baghdad are guarded by local vigilante forces.

Iraqi police at the scene of a bombing
Iraqi police carry on despite the terrible risks and conditions
Their chief goal is to keep out Shia militias and the Shia-dominated police force - which many Sunnis see as one and the same thing, because it has been implicated in so many sectarian attacks.

In east Baghdad, neighbourhoods are split into spheres of influence between the Badr Brigades and Mehdi army militias, linked respectively to the two largest parties in the governing coalition.

The biggest statelet of all is Sadr City, in northeast Baghdad, which is under the sway of the Mehdi army.

This vast, run-down area is home to perhaps a third of the city's population, the majority of them Shia.

We went up there the other day to film. Only with the Mehdi army's say-so could we enter.

As I interviewed people in the street, several bearded men with radios kept watch.

But local residents look to them for protection. "The Mehdi army will be dissolved if there is security," Khadim, a labourer, told me.

Of course, he was hardly going to criticise the militia with its followers so close by. But it is not just about security, said a school teacher.

"They provide gasoline and cooking gas to us and other services".

It is one of the poorest parts of Baghdad and like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Mehdi army has broadened its support base by trying to address such needs. And at the moment, the government cannot compete.

DARK POLICE STATION

There is no getting away from the fact that the Iraqi police have a terrible reputation, especially in Baghdad.

However, there are still police trying to do their job, while facing appalling risks.

On average 200 are killed every month in bombings and shootings.

We went to film at a police station last week. But once we got past all the usual blast barriers surrounding the building and the security checks, we thought we had arrived too late.

The station was in darkness. It seemed as though everyone had gone home.

But, peering through the gloom, it was clear there were still people around.

Although what they could achieve when they could barely see what they were doing was not clear.

The reason, an embarrassed police officer explained to me, was that they could not afford the fuel to keep the generator running.

So, not only were rows of new computers donated by the Americans and British sitting there lifeless, but every room was cold too. All the police officers had thick coats and scarves on.

This was one of the main police stations in east Baghdad.


Previous Baghdad diaries:


Your comments:

Although I loathe the invasion of Iraq, this is getting out of hand. I've never believed the expression 'might is right'... but in this case, a whole heap of heavy handed tactics by the foreign troops in Iraq would quell the entire country. Helping the non-combatants with things like food, electricity, groceries etc, and executing all captured al-Qaeda and their supporters would solve the problem extremely quickly.
Ryan Paul, Kenora, Ontario

The whole purpose of democracy is for people to choose what happens to them. This clearly cannot happen within the current atmosphere in Iraq where evil men with guns and bombs rule first, and the law later. The problem is not the Americans, the excuse is the Americans. What we have at the moment in Iraq is organised chaos used to foster political and religious idealogies (much like the cold war).
Oladapo, Maputo, Mozambique

Tony Blair says Iraq has democracy (may be he is referring to the puppet PM of Iraq as democratically elected PM). Tony will never say Lebanon, Gaza or Iran are democratic countries. Even when the elections were open and transparent and opponents freely paticipate and WIN (as in the recent election in in Iran). What has this so-called democracy brought to Iraq? Is such enormous human and economic cost worth this so-called democracy?
Sadi Toro, Toronto, Canada

Through your diaries we still get to hear what life is really like in Iraq, I am becoming concerned that the real news is getting buried behind other articles as if the bombings and murders are "just an every day" occurrence. Let's not allow the thousands of innocent people that have lost there lives be forgotten as well as our troops on the ground .
Tony Miller, Aberdeenshire UK

It's better to hand the power back to Saddam and ask him to bring an end to the insurgency. After all more Iraqis now have died under coalition forces than under Saddam's regime. I think the West now knows why Saddam was so brutal? That was to contain killings we see in Iraq today.
Hussain Solih, Male', Maldives

Andrew, thank you so much for your insights into the devastating war. I feel hopeless at this point, and being a US citizen makes it that much harder. I don't understand why the concept of democracy exceeds that of security. Democracy is a gradual process that requires the will of the people, and it is clear that it cannot be put in place by anyone other than the people themselves. What is it that is so difficult to understand?
Jill, New York City, United States

Churchill consolidated one more of the many mistakes made by the colonial powers: the creation of Iraq. Now, no one can deny that the medicine - the foreign intervention led by the US and the UK - for the Saddam-dominated country has proved to be a poison. What will Bush and Blair do next? Whatever they do, the hell they have unleashed will always come to haunt them.
Josť Ramos de Almeida, Campo Grande

Looking back over the decades and decades of western interventions in all the other countries, I am disheartened by our endless ignorance and excuses. During our grandfathers' generation the British and Europe assumed to lord it over the stolen world. Now America does the same, always for a mix of reasons. Pushing opium unto the Chin, Stealing gold and land from the Afrikaners. Now oil from Arabia.
Ron Burke, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Where is all the oil? Gas? How can the police/public not have access to cheap fuel? Maybe we should give Iraq a nuclear reactor and make money that way?
London UK

It's depressing to read so many stories of death and destruction. But if coalition forces leave, things will only get worse and the international community despite its differences in 2003 must come togther and achieve peace and stability. The US should not pull out. Neither should any other country.
New Zealand



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