Baghdad is a choked city. I had been told this a number of times but didn’t realise how pervasive the security measures were that it came as a shock to me when I saw it last week, for the first time in 7 years. The terrorist campaign to murder Iraqis still hadn’t started then, and Baghdad was actually quite a nice city. It is now extremely depressing, dull, dusty and dishevelled, despite a beautification campaign intended to spruce it up before the Arab League summit is held there next month. It took me over 3 hours to go from Adhamiya to the Reuters office in Abu Nawas and back because the road blocks every couple of metres choke traffic up so badly. The city is scarred; it looks like it has seen some terrible times, but the increased presence of security forces have had some very tangible results. I did not hear a single gun-shot or bombing during my stay there: they were far more frequent in 2003-04, when it would be ordinary to hear these things in the background. People go out more often too, I was slightly shocked when my cousin announced that we would be going to Karrada for dinner at 10pm.
There are a lot of grievances, legitimate ones, that form the backbone of discontent against the government. Electricity and poor services being at the forefront. Many of the people I spoke to understood why people would go out to protest- to put pressure on the government to improve services, but none told me that they wanted the overthrow of the system itself, noting that starting from scratch, like they did in 2003, is not the solution.
I didn’t stay long enough to get a feeling of the issue of sectarianism there. This said, what I did see is that the only thing more ubiquitous than the road blocks were the banners commemorating the Arbaeen, and posters depicting Imam Ali and Imam Hussein (AS). If the horrors of 2006-07 were indeed a civil war, and the Shia were the victors, what we see now looks an awful lot like a flaunting of that victory.
It wasn’t easy being back, but I am so glad I took the trip. A lot of neighbours were killed since I was last there, and it was difficult to hear the details of how some of them were murdered. But on the other hand, Baghdad still feels special, and I look forward to going back there soon.