Baghdad Then (2005) and Now

Reporter returns to Baghdad to find it far different – and worse off
By Hannah Allam
McClatchy Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The tiny, dusty shops of Kadhemiya are treasure chests filled with agate, turquoise, coral and amber. I used to spend hours in this colorful Baghdad market district, haggling over prices for semi-precious stones etched with prayers in Arabic calligraphy.

That was just before I left Iraq in 2005, when rings from Kadhemiya were simply sentimental reminders of a two-year assignment here. When I returned to Baghdad last month, however, I found a city so dramatically polarized that sectarian identity now extends to your fingers. Slipping on a turquoise ring is no longer an afterthought, but a carefully deliberated security precaution.

A certain color of stone worn a certain way is just one of the dozens of superficial clues – like dialect, style of beard, how you pin a veil – that indicate whether you’re Sunni or Shiite. These little signs increasingly mean the difference between life and death at the terrifying illegal checkpoints that surround the districts of Baghdad. In a surprise reversal, Shiite militiamen have usurped Sunni insurgents as the most feared force on the streets.

When I was last here in 2005, it took guts and guards, but you could still travel to most anywhere in the capital. Now, there are few true neighborhoods left. They’re mostly just cordoned-off enclaves in various stages of deadly sectarian cleansing. Moving trucks piled high with furniture weave through traffic, evidence of an unfolding humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced Iraqis.

The Sunni-Shiite segregation is the starkest change of all, but nowadays it seems like everything in Baghdad hinges on separation. There’s the Green Zone to guard the unpopular government from its suffering people, U.S. military bases where Iraqis aren’t allowed to work, armored sedans to shield VIPs from the explosions that kill workaday civilians, different TV channels and newspapers for each political party, an unwritten citywide dress code to keep women from the eyes of men.

Attempts to bring people together have failed miserably. I attended a symposium called “How to Solve Iraq’s Militia Problem,” but the main militia representatives never showed up and those of us who did were stuck inside for hours while a robot disabled a car bomb in the parking lot.

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