Life after the Americans
Uncertainty Reigns as Baghdad Enters New Era
By Alexander Smoltczyk in Baghdad
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Baghdad is still a city in a state of emergency. The first street-sweeping vehicle only recently came into service. The roads are still littered with the burned-out remains of wrecked cars, and every 50 meters (160 feet) or so there are heavily-armed guards sitting on old office chairs, in tanks or under makeshift shelters. In the wealthy district of Mansur, the ruins of a car bomb are being cleared up. A few blocks further on, a man is polishing the windows of the new Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler showroom.
While the exodus from the Christian quarters continues unabated, sidewalks are piled high with cardboard boxes that once contained fridges, cooling fans, boilers and flatscreen TVs. And because there's not enough electricity to meet the growing demand, privately-run diesel generators take up the slack. The operators of these deafening machines have grown rich selling electricity. Hundreds of wires snake out from fuse boxes to surrounding windows and are tied to palm trees and streetlamps, tangled up in one another and thus as hopelessly interwoven as Iraqi politics itself. And yet the system works -- better than the public network.
Nobody leaves their car unattended. The fear of so-called sticky bombs is too great. Al-Qaida has taken to fastening magnetic explosive devices to parked cars and later detonating them remotely when the vehicle stops at a checkpoint. It saves on suicide bombers.
The danger has become more discreet and thus even more treacherous than before. And people have once again taken to sending home text messages every hour saying, "Everything is OK. I'm having something to eat. I'll be right back."
The city is still encircled by a ring of bomb-proof walls up to 5 meters high. Every district is a fortress with checkpoints guarding the entrance and exit. The walls impose their own rules on the city. Anyone who approaches a ministry, an official building or a barracks is treated with utmost suspicion and kept at arm's length, as if they themselves were highly explosive. Mercenaries, often hired in Latin America or the Caucasus, direct visitors past 2-foot thick concrete walls, entry-control zones and metal detectors.
The American flag has disappeared from fashion, just as it has from the streets of Baghdad. Even the Dodge showroom refrains from flying the Stars & Stripes. It is almost as if the Americans had never been there. Their presence can only be felt at the checkpoints, where security personnel are omnipresent. They have new uniforms and drive powerful "super duty" Ford pickups. The Americans left their Humvees and helicopters, their maze of blast walls and the table-football tables in their barracks. The guards at the checkpoints imitate their trainers. They pose with the same nonchalance, chew gum and wear pirate headscarves and sunglasses.
Everyone, not just the Americans, has withdrawn. Young people have withdrawn to their online chat rooms, businessmen are focusing on their companies, university professors are looking after their institutes. Everyone is concentrating on what's most important, expecting nothing from the government, and hoping there will not be a civil war.