Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

A tale of two cities: Baghdad

It was the best of times (for war profiteers), it was the worst of times ….

Inside the Green Zone, the caricatures of American consumptive popular culture are on display while ordinary Iraqis are dying and enduring untold suffering under occupation.

One third of Iraqis are now reported to be living in poverty, clean drinking water is becoming scarce, and the lack of effective policing is necessitating vigilante patrols. Last month alone, 2000 people died in Iraq.

Haven’t these people suffered enough? Iraqis want US troops out. A majority of Americans now want the same. Liberation? Security? Don’t make me laugh. This is all about keeping Iraq safe for the war profiteers, and to maintain Israel’s monstrous regional hegemony. This is the awful (rather than the lawful) reality. Appalled? Disgusted? You bet.

This is far from the Democratic Reformation touted in official rhetoric, it is (and has been from the outset) an outright Democratic Deformation. It is a continuation of the policymaking that the US neocons have hijacked and distorted into their depraved nihilistic war crimes. Sadly, this only draws upon a substantial section of bellicose popular culture that is devolving into an apparently more decadent and degenerate psychopathology, as Justin Raimondo opines.

In disgraceful contrast to the poverty and suffering of most of the Iraqi population who were promised liberation and a functioning political economy rather than outright theft of its resources, take a look at life inside the Green Zone and the largest US embassy in the world.

Herein lies an abominable band-aid of crass cultural comfort and vulgar profligacy from the war profiteering corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton (where even the bars are named after the corporations), in return for ever increasing numbers of Americans troops and stomach-churning high numbers of Iraqis sacrificed for these odious war profiteers and the unsustainable “American way of life”. Even the water is shipped in.

The Guardian (19 Feb) features the first of three extracts from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

A US soldier jumps from a platform as he enjoys Saddam Hussein's swimming pool at the Republican Palace

A US soldier jumps from a platform as he enjoys Saddam Hussein’s swimming pool at the Republican Palace. Photograph: Marco Di Lauro/Getty

Unlike almost anywhere else in Baghdad, you could dine at the cafeteria in the Republican Palace in the heart of the Green Zone for six months and never eat hummus, flatbread, or a lamb kebab. The palace was the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American occupation administration in Iraq, and the food was always American … A buffet featured grits, cornbread and a bottomless barrel of pork: sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. The cafeteria was all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comfort food.

None of the succulent tomatoes or crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it into the salad bar. US government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations. Milk and bread were trucked in from Kuwait, as were tinned peas and carrots. The breakfast cereal was flown in from the US.

…The Green Zone also provided its own good time. The CPA had a “morale officer” who organised salsa dancing lessons, yoga classes and movie screenings in the palace theatre. There was a gym with the same treadmills and exercise machines you would find in any high-end health club in America.

Even in the first months after the fall of Saddam’s government, Schroeder was incredulous when I told him that I lived in what he and others called the Red Zone, that I drove around without a security detail, that I ate at local restaurants, that I visited Iraqis in their homes. “What’s it like out there?” he asked.

I described the pleasure of walking through al-Shorja market, and of having tea in cafes in the old quarter. I spoke about discussions of Iraqi culture and history that occurred when I went to the homes of my Iraqi friends for lunch. The more I talked, the more I felt like an extraterrestrial describing life on another planet.

From inside the Green Zone, the real Baghdad – the checkpoints, the bombed-out buildings, the paralysing traffic jams – could have been a world away. The horns, the gunshots, the muezzin’s call to prayer, never drifted over the walls. The fear on the faces of US troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the palace. The acrid smoke of a detonated car bomb didn’t fill the air. The sub-Saharan privation and wild-west lawlessness that gripped one of the world’s most ancient cities swirled around the walls, but on the inside, the calm sterility of a US subdivision prevailed.

One morning, as a throng of Shia pilgrims jostled their way inside the Imam Kadhim shrine in northern Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt. A second bomber waited round the corner and set off his belt when survivors ran away from the first blast. Then a third bomber blew himself up. And a fourth. The courtyard of the shrine filled with smoke and the screams of the dying. Blood pooled on the concrete floor. Dazed young men staggered about seeking help. Other survivors stacked the maimed on to wooden carts and pushed them toward wailing ambulances.

When I arrived at the scene an hour later, I saw corpses covered with white sheets. Arms and fingers had been blown onto third-story balconies. Piles of shoes belonging to the dead dotted the floor. Later, I saw dozens of bodies piled outside the morgue, covered with blue sheets, rotting under the sun.

That evening, I met a group of CPA staffers for dinner in the palace. Nobody mentioned the bombings. The shrine was just a few miles north of the Green Zone, no more than a 10-minute drive away. Had they heard about what had happened? Did they know dozens had died? “Yeah, I saw something about it on the office television,” said the man to my right. “But I didn’t watch the full report. I was too busy working on my democracy project”

Party on the tigris: sports bars, disco balls and sexual tension

General Order 1 prohibited military personnel from consuming alcohol in Iraq, but it did not apply to CPA staffers.

Drinking quickly became the most popular after-work activity. The Green Zone had no fewer than seven watering holes: the Halliburton-run sports bar in the basement of the al-Rasheed hotel, which had a big-screen television along with its Foosball table; the CIA’s rattan-furnished bar – by invitation only – which had a mirrored disco ball and a games room; the pub in the British housing complex where the beer was served warm and graffiti mocked the Americans; the rooftop bar for General Electric contractors; a trailer tavern operated by Bechtel, the engineering firm; the Green Zone cafe, where you could smoke a water pipe and listen to a live Arab drummer as you drank; and the al-Rasheed’s disco, which was the place to be seen on Thursday nights. A sign at the door requested patrons not to bring firearms inside. Scores of CPA staffers, including women who had had the foresight to pack hot pants and four-inch heels, danced on an illuminated Ba’ath party star embedded in the floor.

The atmosphere was thick with sexual tension. At the bar, there were usually 10 men to every woman. With tours of duty that sometimes stretched to six months without a home leave, some with wedding rings began to refer to themselves as “operationally single.”

· This week in G2 More extracts from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book: Tomorrow: Why a 24-year-old estate agent was hired to restructure Iraq’s stock exchange And on Wednesday: How the CPA left Iraq – with a poolside barbecue to say farewell

2 comments on “A tale of two cities: Baghdad

  1. Curtis
    20 February, 2007

    It is indeed stunning, the rapidity and surreptitiousness with which what are indeed war crimes are shrouded in fairy tale. ‘Occupation’ becomes ‘liberation,’ ‘menace’ becomes ‘sacrifice.’

    And ‘terror’ becomes ‘freedom’ in this strange war of the words.

  2. peoplesgeography
    21 February, 2007

    Well put. Its times like this when I eschew any veneer of scholarly calm and just let loose with venting about the consequences of Bushzarro world! I can not pretend to find this Bush-Cheney neocon cabal anything other than contemptible. I know they do not represent you guys. We’re wrestling with our own creeping fascist measures and neocon quarters. I won’t lie to you, Curt, I’m worried about the darkness in America’s collective psyche and the havoc the warlords of Washington are wreaking, and their pimping for more war-porn.

    As Justin Raimondo puts it,

    No one is killing people faster, and with more cruelty and indifference, than the warlords of Washington. The temptation is to turn away in disgust and resign oneself to the degeneration of Jefferson’s benevolent legacy into a maelstrom of malevolence worthy of Caligula.

    Yet the triumph of domination as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy is not inevitable, or irreversible. Its overthrow, however, requires a moral reawakening. By this, I don’t mean a return to religion, although – unlike all too many libertarians – I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. This moral revolution, in any case, will be born in an instinctive revulsion against what is depicted in the video links above, married to an unwillingness to let such evil continue for a moment longer.

    Sooner or later, the American people must be made to understand that the choice is between noninterventionism and barbarism. Americans are naïve: they believe in the myth of automatic progress, the illusion of history as an ever ascending stairway to higher levels of civilization, but the truth is far grimmer. Empires rise – and fall. Dark ages follow. The kind of degeneracy we are now seeing acted out in Iraq promises a fall that will plumb new depths of darkness.

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"