Baghdad fumes as the Americans seek safety in 'tombstone' forts

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

12 June 2004

Independent

The US army is paralysing the heart of Baghdad as it builds ever more elaborate fortifications to protect its bases against suicide bombers.

"Do not enter or you will be shot," reads an abrupt notice attached to some razor wire blocking a roundabout at what used to be the entrance to the 14 July bridge over the Tigris. Only vehicles with permission to enter the Green Zone, where the occupation authorities have their headquarters, can now use it. Iraqis who want to cross the river must fight their way to another bridge through horrendous traffic jams.

Gigantic concrete slabs, like enormous grey tombstones, now block many roads in Baghdad. They are about 12 feet high and three feet across and for many Iraqis have become the unloved symbol of the occupation. Standing side by side, they form walls around the Green Zone and other US bases, with notices saying it is illegal to stop beside them.

It is the ever-expanding US bases and the increasing difficulties and dangers of their daily lives which make ordinary Iraqis dismiss declarations by President George Bush about transferring power to a sovereign Iraqi government as meaningless. As Mr Bush and Tony Blair were speaking this week about a new beginning for Iraq, the supply of electricity in the country has fallen from 12 hours a day to six hours. On Canal Street yesterday, close to the bombed-out UN headquarters, there was a two-mile long queue of cars waiting to buy petrol.

Salahudin Mohammed al-Rawi, an engineer, dismisses the diplomatic manoeuvres over Iraq at the UN in New York and the G8 meeting in Georgia as an irrelevant charade. He said: "At the end of the day they cannot cheat the Iraqi people because the Iraqis are in touch with the real situation on the ground."

For many people in Baghdad the real situation is very grim. Twenty years ago Abu Nawas Street on the Tigris used to be filled with restaurants serving mazgouf, a river fish grilled over an open wood fire and a traditional Baghdadi delicacy. These days Abu Nawas is largely deserted and is used mainly by American armoured vehicles thundering down the road.

Shahab al-Obeidi is the manager of the Shatt al-Arab restaurant, where dark grey fish swim in a circular pond decorated with blue tiles. They may survive a long time. Mr Obeidi confesses that business is not good. These days Abu Nawas can only be entered from one direction and culminates in an American checkpoint.

We asked to see the owner of the restaurant and Mr Obeidi explained that he "fled to Syria 40 days ago after his son was kidnapped and he had to pay $20,000 to get him back". A problem, frequently mentioned by Iraqis, is that US security measures appear to be solely directed at providing security for Americans. For Iraqis, life in Baghdad is still very dangerous.

Mr Obeidi said that "in the past 75 per cent of our business was in the evening". Now he closes the Shatt al-Arab at 6pm and goes home. One night he stayed open a little later for some customers who were having a good time, but when he presented the bill they responded by pulling out their pistols and firing volleys of shots into the ceiling and through the windows. Mr Obeidi pointed to numerous bullet holes still awaiting repair.

The reason why Abu Nawas is sealed off is that at the end of the street are the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, where many foreign company employees as well as journalists stay. A few hundred yards away is Sadoun Street, once a main four-lane artery in central Baghdad, but now reduced to two lanes opposite a side street leading to the Baghdad Hotel. This was attacked by a suicide bomber last year, without much damage to the hotel, which was universally believed by Iraqi taxi drivers to be a centre for the CIA. About 30 shops within the cordon sanitaire around the hotel now face ruin. Nadim al-Hussaini, who has a shop selling large air conditioners, says: "My business has completely disappeared, first 30 to 40 per cent when they put up a concrete barrier and 100 per cent when they closed the road." In theory he should get compensation from the Coalition Provisional Authority, but so far he has seen no sign of it.

Next door, Zuhaar Tuma owns a café which is not so badly affected because he still has his regular customers, smoking hubble-bubble pipes and playing dominoes. He was a little more understanding about why the road had been closed, saying: "I don't want to get blown up any more than the Americans do. But the real solution is simply for the Americans staying at the hotel to leave it."

The same could be said of the thousands of other American officials and soldiers in central Baghdad. Had they based themselves on the outskirts of the capital they would have been far less visible. But, cut off as they are in their compounds from real Iraqi life, they probably do not know and may not care about the sea of resentment that surrounds them.