Coastal Post Online


December, 2003

A Wind of Panic Blows Through Baghdad
By Renaud Girard


Le Figaro
Saturday 01 November 2003: Right now the Americans have no luck in Iraq. They'd like to see the number of western humanitarian organizations working here increase and the number of American and European journalists who daily testify to the aggravation of the security situation decrease. Now, however, exactly the reverse situation obtains. Humanitarian organizations' personnel are leaving the country and journalists continue to arrive.
This new exodus, which recalls the one that followed the August attack on UN headquarters, was provoked by the booby-trapped car attack last Monday on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation that left 12 dead, all Iraqi.
The 30 expatriates still in place who worked for the UN or its specialized agencies left Iraq, waiting for New York to make a final decision. Doctors Without Borders also recalled their international personnel. The ICRC delegates in Iraq left for Amman, where they must meet with officials from Geneva headquarters to evaluate the risks and design the contours of their action on the ground in the coming months. The ICRC announced that it would reduce its expatriate personnel, but had no intention of closing down its presence in Iraq.
Situated right in center city, not far from the old Jewish Quarter of Batawin (the quasi-totality of Iraqi Jews were driven from the country in 1948), the ICRC Baghdad headquarters offers up a face of desolation. This vast villa from the fifties' facade has been ravaged by the car bomb explosion, which was heard throughout the capital. But the famous flag imprinted with the Red Cross still flies above the debris. A huge hole the size of a small swimming pool filled with water marks the spot in the parking lot where the booby-trapped ambulance exploded.
In Baghdad, the symbolic weight of the attack against the ICRC-for Iraqis as well as the foreign community-was enormous. This organization, which has never departed from its political neutrality, has always worked in Iraq. Whether during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), the first Gulf War (1991), or this most recent American intervention, the ICRC has always stayed to help Iraqi families, notably to give them information about prisoners of war.
In a country where occupation forces have still not succeeded in pacification, organizations like the ICRC find themselves confronted with a dilemma. If they protect themselves and live "bunkerized" like the Americans of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority), they cut themselves off from the population and cannot, therefore, fulfill their humanitarian mission. But if they give up trying to protect themselves, they expose their Iraqi and foreign personnel to the risks of terrorist attacks.
Whether they come from former Ba'athists or militant international Islamists infiltrated from abroad, the attacks against American forces have grown in intensity during recent days. They presently exceed thirty a day.
The Iraqi population is the first victim of the growing insecurity in the country. Thursday night, two buildings burned at the intersection of Rachid St. (the most famous in the old city) and Al-Mutanabi St., where an open-air book fair, one of the last cultural events remaining in Baghdad, takes place every Friday (a holiday in Iraq). The architecture of the two burnt-out houses dates back to the Ottoman Empire. They served as warehouses for many small amateur book sellers. At the scene, an Iraqi police officer explained that it was a bombing "undoubtedly committed by foreigners."
No doubt afraid to move around at night in the narrow and tortuous alleys of old Baghdad, American forces were absent from the scene of the tragedy. Commented an Iraqi student come to watch the Baghdad firemen: "The Americans are scared stiff to come out here, into the center of a capital they're supposed to be administering. They let Iraq burn like the pages of these books."
Friday morning, faces were somber on Al-Mutanabi Street, at the Shabandar cafe. With its fans from beyond time, its photographs yellowing on the wall, its collection of old scoffers, the Shabandar is a mythic institution of Old Baghdad, the capital's principal literary cafe. Writers, painters, and poets liked to meet there, even during Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
The cafe's owner had decided to open as a form of protest. In fact, because of Ramadan, he doesn't serve anything to drink, which even in normal times boils down to a more or less sweetened tea. The shaky wooden banquettes were full of "patrons," all men, of course. In Baghdad, one does not see any women in public.
"This criminal arson is a deliberate attack against culture," the man next to us, the painter Mohammed Rasim, confided. "We've been liberated from Saddam, but our society's liberation from the religious pall that weighs on us is not happening any time soon. Here, Americans are like princes living in an ivory tower. We can't count on them to bring any progress to our backward society."
One thing particularly preoccupied the painter: his nephews weren't going to school Saturday since the day had been declared a "day of vengeance" by Islamic militants opposed to the American presence.
This order, calling for a dead city operation, was promulgated by the substitute imam at the Albaya Shi'ite mosque in his Friday sermon. (The titular imam has been imprisoned for two months by the Americans.)
A wind of panic blew yesterday evening through the El Hamra Hotel, where many businessmen and journalists stay. Fed by the American NBC channel, a rumor maintained that the hotel would be a target during the night for a heavy mortar attack. The NBC team, followed by numerous American patrons, left the hotel in haste.
Collective panic is a rather current phenomenon. But at this time, it's not the problem of American governor Paul Bremer, who never stops asking for a little more time to succeed.
: t r u t h o u t 2003



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