- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 17 (UPI) — The waiter in this small hotel by the Tigris has been kind to me, finding me tea when there is none and a bowl of soup after it is all gone. He is a dignified man, 53, once an engineer, with a trim mustache, wire eyeglasses and a gentle manner.

It is not easy in the hotel, packed with journalists, peace activists, homeless Iraqi families, working without electricity, walking miles to work and facing a complete body search by U.S. Marines each time he comes to work or leaves. Early Thursday morning he looks stricken and I ask him what is wrong. "My country," he says, "it has been destroyed. It is no more."

Perhaps, perhaps not. But certainly he and his country and its people are the victims of our time, able to vie now for misery with the Cambodians after the Khmer Rouge or Sarajevans after the siege.

They survived a relentless medieval war with Iran in the 1980s in which thousands of their sons died in hopeless battle and thousands have never been found. They have been bombed in the 1991 Gulf War and trodden down by a decade of sanctions that embargoed not only arms for Saddam Hussein, but a million necessities from drugs to surgical supplies. One French surgeon who came here, and stayed during the bombing, said instruments and clothes in his hospital were so worn and damaged from overuse that he wondered if they had been through all the wars.

In late March and April they were subject to a bombing perhaps as surgical as the coalition forces could make it but with enough collateral damages to kill and injure still uncounted numbers of people and traumatize a generation of children. Baghdad and other major cities may have been conquered with what counts as ease in the annals of war, but it was not easy if you were lying in the darkness, covering your child's body and praying to Allah that the crossfire would not rip your family to shreds — as it all too often did.

They were conquered by a force too limited to quickly enforce order and so for weeks the conquered cities have been ripped apart by civil chaos, still more people killed by looters or looters killed by people defending their homes and shops. If you drive around Baghdad in any direction, you realize that terrible final indignity of anarchy was more damaging than the bombing.

Hospitals, museums, shops and homes have been looted. If the looters took nothing, they destroyed anything else they found, mindlessly tearing apart both the history of one of the first great civilizations on the earth and the history of individuals families. In the litter of looting you persistently find family photos, a child's toy, a music school's violin, a family antique.

Animals, some family pets, run wild throughout the city, crazed by fear and hunger. Along the Tigris banks at night packs of literally dozens of dogs race crazily about, howling for hours in a search for food. Others find food in cemeteries, angrily growling at interlopers who come to search gravestones. After one of Saddam's son's homes was searched by Marines this week, they found an Arabian stallion racing loose and a family of tigers. At the city's zoo, animals were not so lucky and many died of thirst or starvation locked in their cages when zoo workers fled, according to Iraqis who finally broke the zoo's gates.

As late as Tuesday, human bodies were still unburied on downtown streets.

It was Wednesday before any firefighters in Baghdad returned to work and until then the hundreds of fires set by the looters or by exploding ordinance simply burned out of control.

It was also Wednesday that Baghdad police began trickling back to duty, but any notion of order suggested by the television pictures of a few men getting back into their cars is likely premature. Before the war this city of 4.5 million people was policed by a force of 40,000 men — but it is a relatively painstaking job for the Marines to cull out the ones who handled the squalid tasks of Saddam's repression from the ones who were enforcing law and order. By Thursday morning there were less than 200 men actually on duty.

Streets are literally awash with raw sewage and garbage quickly attacked at night by rats. Until late this week thousands of workers in different jobs here were afraid to come to work so nothing is cleaned, little is washed and if it is it was washed with dirty water. Insects abound, crawling over the garbage and up the walls of houses.

On Saturday the coalition command began to try to get the water department, electric department and sanitation employees back to work. Perhaps their work is more crucial than that of the police. It is hard to say which of those services is the most vital.

Water certainly is vital. Thousands of families having been drawing their water from outside pipes and not all of it is drinkable. Electricity is the second most vital for it operates machines that can purify the water, light hospital treatment rooms, run fire alarms. By Wednesday night several grids in central Baghdad had light but much of the city seen from the 16th floor of one hotel was dark.

Medical services are crippled, not only in the near future, but in the longer term. On the immediate level there is no electricity, several major hospitals were stripped by looters and there is no clean water — a fundamental element in medical care. Important drugs were in barely sufficient supply during the war, according to a team from the charity Doctors Without Borders, who were here to assist in medical care and remained throughout the bombing, but now medicine is running short. One visiting surgeon, Dr. Mario Del Vecchis of Bologna, Italy, said in a sense the whole system is breaking down.

"Iraq has many well-trained doctors, but many of them are afraid to come to hospitals because revenge for being favored by the Saddam Hussein regime, others are afraid of harm, others no longer can get to work," he told United Press International. But others he said are "simply at a loss" what to do. "This was a rigid system run by the government, they have never administered a hospital, or decided what to do." He said the administrators, often appointed by the regime, are gone and "a whole new structure will have to be formed," deciding who runs hospitals, where doctors should work and what types of patients should be served. In addition to seven major hospitals, Baghdad was served with 40 smaller ones that must be reorganized, he said.

Communications or the lack of them is another perhaps little-noticed factor of this chaos. There are no telephones, either local, long distance or international lines. Thousands of people in Baghdad seek out anyone who has a satellite telephone begging for a just a minute to reassure a loved that they are safe. Sometimes they can cadge a call from a sympathetic news reporter or international worker, but it has also given rise to a cruel escalating sales game where a few seconds can be bought for $20 — a small fortune in Iraq, where the local currency is being devalued by the hour.

There is no Iraqi television left and so unless a Baghdad family has a satellite dish, which is unlikely, the only television they can pick up is Iranian one that has news broadcast that every half hour runs several minutes of photos of Iraqi children injured by bombs and coalition soldiers.

The question is not the coalition forces on duty in Baghdad. In center city they are primarily young Marines who have been carrying out a Herculean task with enormous patience, good humor and judgment. They body search literally thousands of human beings everyday, as demeaning a function for searcher as for the searched. One young private jokes with English-speaking people that is the cheapest massage in town, but it's no laughing matter in a nation where people's bodies and the exposure of its women to a male outside the family can be an explosive issue. Day or night they have to guess the intentions of the drivers as cars full of people hurtle towards checkpoints, wondering whether the passengers are among the 10,000 alleged terrorist and dangerous elements the coalition says are left in Baghdad or simply a family trying to get to a hospital.

Meanwhile they search for ammunition dumps, brave occasional gunfire exchanges, and shepherd important Iraqis who might help the new government through sometimes hostile crowds. They live for days as they did in the field — in their armored vehicles with no more water or comfort than many in Baghdad.

The Bush administration has persisted in blaming Saddam's repressive regime for most of these woes, but in Baghdad these past weeks that explanation sounded trite. Persistently people ask an American reporter: why did you come and do this to us?

So whether Bush is right is becoming immaterial. Saddam has disappeared and the object of blame for all misfortune is fast becoming the United States.

The incoherence of doctors who cannot function without an authoritarian regime is a metaphor for the whole country. Iraq is no Afghanistan, Iraqis tell you. It has a well-educated cadre of engineers, doctors, lawyers, and government administrators. It had an art and music community of some world note and cultured upper middle class. But tribal loyalties are still strong and the country is deeply divided by religious and ethnic differences.

Revenge killings, coalition forces report, are on the rise, but many cultured Arabs will tell you that that is not simply a function of the freedom of repression from Saddam, but something still deeply ingrained in the tribalism of the region. There is public justice and there is family justice — even in the orderliness of nearby Jordan a man who kills someone who has defiled his daughter can still escape a Jordanian court.

All kinds of international and coalition spokesman assure reporters in Baghdad and abroad that help is on the way, but Iraqis quickly notice that it is not coming as fast the bombers did. It was only Thursday that the first major World Food Program convoy from Amman came to Baghdad and there is still so much else that needs to be done.

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