Baghdad is broken.
Broken is the national power grid, which provides no more than four hours of electricity to the city’s homes. Broken are the sewage pipes, which leak untreated waste into streets and squares.
Broken is the water supply network, which leaves entire neighborhoods without running water for days on end. Garbage is everywhere, because the citywide system of trash pickup is broken, too.
All of these services stopped working properly when the war began, so, on the surface, Baghdad looks a lot similar to the way it looked in 2006, during my previous trip here, except the garbage heaps now are more widespread and the pools of sewage are wider and deeper.
But something that is much harder to repair than basic infrastructure is broken now, too.
Mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods: vanished. Friendly public discussions about politics: no way, too dangerous. The neighborly trust that once allowed Sunnis and Shias share the same street is gone, flushed away in the wake of the vicious sectarian fighting that engulfed the city last year. Fear of reprisals is real: although there is little violence associated with Sunni insurgents in Baghdad, Shiite militias terrorize the population through extortion, kidnappings and extrajudicial killings.
“That sectarian cleansing is almost done with, but there is still a taste,” said Army Captain Sean Chase, a company commander in the 4-64 armor battalion of the Fourth Brigade, Third Infantry Division. Chase’s Bravo company is stationed in Risala, a once-mixed southwestern Baghdad neighborhood that is now pretty much entirely Shia. “Sunnis don’t really trust Shiites,” he sums up, “Shiites don’t really trust Sunnis.”
American civil affairs officers trying to figure out how to fix this broken city say rebuilding the infrastructure is key. Bring street lights to a neighborhood’s main drag, they say, and next thing you know, the sense of security is back, shops stay open later, people are chatting over flavored hookahs in coffee shops, and reconciliation is underway. But so far, the only things that have visibly improved in Iraq seem to be located inside military installations.
Camp Striker, the layover point for troops, diplomats, defense contractors and embedded journalists coming in and going from Iraq, has grown from a field of dusty tents and plastic porta-potties three years ago to a veritable city within a city. Now it has two chapels (one is under construction), air-conditioned living containers, real showers and flush-down toilets, Subway, Burger King, Pizza Hut and a 24-hour coffee shop that makes excellent lattes. New souvenir shops are peddling new souvenirs: the mugs inscribed with the words “Who’s your Baghdaddy?” (that’s so 2005!) are gone. The new popular mug reads, instead: “If you ain’t Sunni, you ain’t Shiite.”
I am waiting for a military flight to take me from Baghdad, where I spent the last two and a half weeks, to Amman, Jordan, from where I will go home. Outside the air-conditioned outbound passenger terminal, which in 2006 was a simple hangar and now occupies a vast pavilion with a comfortable sitting area, a VIP lounge, and a metal detector, I strike up a conversation with Eddie Bello, an Iraqi-born American who works in Iraq as a cultural advisor to US troops in Iraq. Bello, who left Iraq in 1976 and who has been working here for almost three years, offers a somber projection on how long it will take to heal the deep wounds caused by the sectarian violence.
“Maybe by the end of the century they’ll fix it,” he says.
“They may talk about reconciliation, but revenge is here, in their hearts,” Bello says, placing a hand on his chest. “In Iraq, the tribes say that if someone killed one of their members, they can (exact) revenge on that person’s tribe for forty years.”