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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, November 2nd, 2003


 

Salam Pax: The Baghdad Blog

by Salam Pax

An Iraqi in cyberspace

A review by Toby Dodge

In the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, the major international news channels invested many millions of pounds to guarantee the quality of their coverage. Ambitious young journalists flocked to Iraq, to make their names by reporting the dramatic events in Baghdad. Yet it was a twenty-nine-year-old Iraqi architect, posting a weblog in English ("blogging") from a middle-class Baghdad suburb, who became one of the most authentic voices chronicling the build-up to war, the invasion and its chaotic aftermath. Salam Pax, in a witty, sometimes catty monologue, managed to do what the combined weight of the international media could not. Using a cheap computer and unreliable internet access, he documented the traumas and more importantly the opinions of Iraqis as they faced the uncertainty of violent regime change.

"Blogging" was once an obscure activity dominated by those with too much time on their hands and an unhealthy obsession with the internet. Computer geeks would write weblogs detailing the minutiae of their lives, their day-to-day activities and strident opinions. This was a closed, insular and self-referential world, largely concerned with the consumption of popular culture as seen from a darkened bedroom. This is how Salam Pax's own blog began -- as a letter to an absent friend. His early dispatches from Baghdad were dominated by his enthusiasm for obscure pop music and his personal trials and tribulations. But as the US invasion became imminent, the blog was transformed. Pax, increasingly angered by the presumption of Western media who professed to speak for Iraqi public opinion, converted his chronicle, detailing with skill and insight a Baghdad on the verge of war.

The Baghdad Blog then became a window on a population living under tyranny. Risking certain death if discovered, Pax describes the attitude of his friends and family towards the US but also to Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship. For those seeking to understand Iraq, Pax's narrative, straightforward and sincere, is revealing. If decision-makers in London and Washington had taken the time to consult Pax's musings before the war, their understanding about the country they are now failing to control would have been greatly enhanced. The dominant theme of the blog is mistrust of US motives. As early as October 2002, Pax berates his fellow bloggers outside Iraq who demand that he welcome the coming invasion.

Excuse me. But don't expect me to buy little American flags to welcome the new colonists . . . . how does it differ from Iraq and Britain circa 1920? The civilised world comes to give us, the barbaric nomadic Arabs, a lesson in better living and rid us of all evil (better still, get rid of us Arabs since we're all evil).

Having suffered American indifference in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf War, when George Bush Sr urged the population to rise up and then left them to their fate, Iraqis have little time for US claims of altruism.

Informing this cynicism is a tenacious Iraqi nationalism. In popular punditry Iraq is all too frequently described as hopelessly divided by race, religion and clan. Yet any visitor to the country over the past decade has been confronted by an active and pervasive nationalism. Born of the eight-year war of attrition against Iran, it was solidified during the impoverishment caused by sanctions that followed the invasion of Kuwait. Iraqis now take a militant pride that their country survived all that the international community could throw at it. Pax laments the betrayal of this nationalism and all who fought for it, first by Saddam Hussein and then by what he sees as the quasi-colonial invasion of US forces. In late March this year, as he and his family watch Iraqi troops surrender, they are caught between the shame of seeing their own troops give up and a relief that in doing so they managed to save their own lives. Ultimately Pax and his family want Saddam to be consigned to hell, but quickly to be followed by George Bush Jr.

This sense of nationalism, combined with a deep scepticism about American motives, has proved the pre-war predictions of Washington-based exiles to be inaccurate. US troops were not welcomed into Baghdad by hordes of flag-waving Iraqis, but instead by a sullen mistrustful population. Pax argued that "No one inside Iraq is for war (note I said 'war', not 'a change of regime')". And in a comment that must now resonate with Tony Blair, "I think that the coming war is not justified . . .. The excuses for it have been stretched to their limit, they will almost snap".

Explanations for the nationalism that has increasingly come to haunt the occupation are not hard to find. The Baghdad Blog is full of moving examples of the damage done to Iraqi society during the twelve years of sanctions. A young couple that Pax knows became engaged but were unable to get married for lack of money. Finally they each resorted to selling one of their kidneys to raise the $500 needed to build two extra rooms onto the paternal house. Pax goes on to detail the stupidity of sanctions. They "had no effect on Saddam and his power base, (instead) turning us into hostages in a political deadlock between the Iraqi government and the US government". The result was a population swept up by bitterness and poverty that increasingly turned to the certainties of Islam and the mosque.

The failure of Washington and London to appreciate the depth and nature of the damage done by sanctions is partly to blame for the civil and political chaos now sweeping Iraq. The use of a comparatively small number of troops to unseat Saddam was based on a false supposition. Once the initial opposition of the Iraqi military had been crushed and Baghdad seized, the plan was to leave the political institutions built by Saddam more or less intact, and use them to rule Iraq. Once order had been restored, the US occupation would focus on reforming the institutions it was ruling through.

But after twelve years of sanctions the fabric of Iraqi government had been stretched perilously thin. In 2003 the institutions of the Iraqi State faced a third war in twenty years. This, combined with the three weeks of looting and the general lawlessness that greeted liberation, meant that large numbers of civil servants simply went home and stayed there, opting to protect their families and property rather than come back to wrecked offices and work for US occupying forces. Instead of inheriting coherent governing structures, the invading forces found a collapsed State that they will have to spend many years and a great deal of money reconstituting.

The second misconception that undermined pre-war planning was in the choice of the interlocutors to communicate with Iraqi society. The long and close association between one of the exiled opposition parties, the Iraqi National Congress, and the neoconservatives in Washington, meant that excessively optimistic predictions about the influence of the INC in Iraq were taken at face value. With very few Arabic speakers on its staff, the coalition assumed the Iraqi exiles it was bringing back would provide its eyes and ears. This was not to be the case. Despite setting up numerous offices around Baghdad, publishing party newspapers and spending large sums of money, the two main exile groups, the INC and the Iraqi National Accord, have not put down roots in society. Pax treats the exiled opposition with disdain, ridiculing their grandiose meetings in the run-up to war as irrelevant. Once back in Baghdad in the aftermath of the ceasefire, his attitude to them hardens:

What is it with these foreign political parties who have suddenly invaded Baghdad? Do they have no respect for public property? Or since it is the "season of the loot" they think they can just camp out wherever they like and -- ahem "liberate" public buildings. Out! Out! Out! Liberate your own backyard. You have no right to sit in these buildings.

I found this disdain for the returnees confirmed during my own research in Iraq. In a series of interviews with a cross-section of Iraqis in Baghdad in May, rich and poor, religious and secular, I found at best indifference and more usually anger towards the returned exiles, especially the avowedly secular INC and INA. This included one Baghdadi who, under Saddam's rule, had worked secretly for one of the exiled groups. He was arrested and sentenced to death, a fate he only avoided, after nine months on death row in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, because the regime collapsed. When I asked about the party he nearly lost his life for, he replied: "I would have done anything to see the back of Saddam. But since the exiles have returned I have been disappointed, I do not trust them".

In a highly armed country, Pax describes the rioting and disorder that swept his home city:

To see your city destroyed before your own eyes is not a pain that can be described and put into words. It turns you sour (or is that bitter?). It makes something snap in you and you lose whatever hope you had. Undone by your own hands. Close your doors. Shut your eyes. Hope the black clouds of this ugliness do not reach you.

Pax laments the actions of his fellow Iraqis who steal or smash up public property, "destroying what is theirs". But he reserves his bitterest indictment for US troops, who stood by while this happened:

If I open the doors for you and watch you steal, am I not an accomplice? They did open the doors. Not to freedom, but to chaos, while they kept what they wanted closed. They decided to turn a blind eye. And systematically did not show up with their tanks until all was gone and there was nothing left.

Finally, by the middle of June, Pax is describing those events that have now come to dominate our television screens, the daily killing of US soldiers by the shadowy forces behind the insurgency. The attacks might be disorganized and sporadic but they achieve the desired result, making it nearly impossible for the American administration "to do anything good or to keep their promises or change people's sentiments. The 'coalition forces' don't feel safe and we don't feel safe either".

Since the publication of The Baghdad Blog, Pax has continued his intermittent chronicle of life in Baghdad under occupation on his own website (www.dear_raed.blogspot.com). As usual it is well written, highly informative and traces the themes that come to dominate coverage of Iraq. Salam Pax realistically concludes that US forces cannot now withdraw. His great fear is that, having made this mess, they will wash their hands of it prematurely, leaving Iraq to slide into further chaos: "What we all agree upon is that if the Americans pull out now, we will be eaten by the crazy mullahs and imams. G. has decided that this might be a good time to sell our souls to the (US) Devil". It is often said that journalists get the chance to write the first draft of history. In the US-led regime change in Iraq, the most insightful dispatches were not written by the crowds of well-resourced international journalists sitting in the air conditioned comfort of five-star hotels, but by a scared and irreverent middle-class Iraqi. He was communicating to the world from his bedroom, reporting the feelings of people just like him, Iraqis badly treated by their own government, the United States and the international community. Let us hope he has the chance to report better news in the future.

Toby Dodge is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation, University of Warwick. His book, Inventing Iraq: The failure of nation building and a history denied, is to be published at the end of October.



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