The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Baghdad stews in poison of self-hatred
- A capital in ruins, caught between America and Alibabas

Baghdad, April 20: Television will show what the camera can see. Words can describe all that is in the line of vision. Only the mind can try to grasp 4,000 sq. km of this city.

Between the Furat (Euphrates) and the Dijla (Tigris), Baghdad has another name: Devastation.

The Tigris and the Euphrates are closest in Baghdad. The Tigris flows through it. The Euphrates is just beyond its eastern outskirt.

What is devastation' Hiroshima' Nagasaki' A fireball has not swept through Baghdad. By that standard, Baghdad is doing fine.

But let’s take Delhi, for instance.

Rashtrapati Bhavan: bombed; Connaught Place: bombed; Parliament House: bombed; Race Course Road: bombed; Nehru Place: bombed.

Would you say Delhi is devastated' Probably.

By the same token, Baghdad is in ruins.

It isn’t over yet. Columns of smoke rise from the east bank and the west bank of the Tigris. The supermarket at 28 Nisan is smouldering. Not from the bombing; from the looting and the pillaging. In Karada Tamarian, traffic was passing through in the morning. Two hours later, the road is blocked. Doctors and mortuary staff are digging up the big garden by which the road passes. They are exhuming bodies. Days ago, some 15 youths of the Saddam Fidayeen were buried here. Now their families want their bodies.

At Yarmoukh General Teaching Hospital in Al-Mansour district, the biggest hospital west of the Tigris, the casualty ward is overflowing with patients. “When we came here four days back, there were bodies on the floor, I would say at least 25,” says senior surgeon Mohammed Sultan.

“Just look out the window, into the garden.”

There is a lawn in the centre of the hospital. All the wards on the upper storeys overlook it. It’s where more bodies have been buried.

“They were burnt, charred, impossible to recognise. That is where the stench is coming from. We lifted the bodies. I lifted the bodies and buried them so that we could work here.”

Sultan went to Meridien Hotel and met the American major-general.

“I told him: ‘You attacked our country, shot our people. Now give us medicines. Give us protection. We don’t have benzene for our ambulances. Medicines — we are working with what we had stored. The hospital is looted.’ I think the Americans incited the looters to make us go to them and plead ‘please protect me’, to show to the world that Iraqis are thieves.”

Self-hatred sweeps through the citizenry. Hatred for what has been done to Baghdad and hatred for not being able to stop it.

Eleven bridges span the Tigris in Baghdad. They are all intact. There was no real prolonged battle in Baghdad itself after Saddam International Airport.

In Khillannee Square, the building housing the ministry of trade is smouldering. The ministry of youth in Abu Nwase street is bombed. The Shorjaa Shopping Centre is bombed and burnt.

Inside the mohallas, residents have put up barricades — not to fight the Americans but to deter looters. “Alibabas,” says Jamal, the driver. “Alibaba” is the word for ‘looter’. Alibabas set fire to the Mustansiriya Shopping Centre, raided the Al Qindi Hospital.

Alibabas are carting away loot from the debris of the Iraq Olympic Association building. Just opposite is the garden called Al Jundial Majhool, now an American military encampment.

Baghdad has wide streets. It is easy to drive around the city and its people have given it fond names, like Al Firdaus, the Square of Paradise — a permanent feature on television screens during the war.

In sprawling Baghdad University, students and teachers cannot enter, let alone outsiders. The campus is on the west bank of the Tigris, along the river. Huge gates, square buildings, lawns, laboratories, Abrams tanks, armoured personnel carriers, Bradley fighting vehicles, gun positions, American soldiers, photograph and you risk being shot by a sniper.

“Hulaku”, says Jamal, the driver shaking his head. He has not travelled through the city in weeks, having stayed indoors.


Chengiz Khan’s grandson, Hulagu, sacked the city of peace built by the Abbasid Caliphs. Baghdad is 1241 years old, built a 1000 years before the USA was created; 950 years ago Scheherazade spun the Arabian Nights for Haroun al-Rashid in celebration of the Caliph of Baghdad.

Rusafah, the district on the east bank of the Tigris, has taken the worst of the bombing. The district on the west is Kharkh. From the hotels Palestine and Sheraton in Kharkh, journalists watched the Americans rolling in from the far bank. When the regime abandoned Baghdad, the war machines rolled into Kharkh, to the Al Firdaus square.

Then they brought down Saddam Hussein’s statue for a Hollywood-style climax to television’s biggest reality show.

Baghdad is not pretty. It is beautiful, like Chandni Chowk, Delhi, is beautiful, like Hazratgunj, Lucknow, is. Its buildings are in colours of the desert. Most doors are arched and pointed at the pinnacles. The Al Mustansirya University by the Tigris — entry forbidden, again — is a shairi in sandstone.

And Baghdad is about people. More than five million of them, crazed, driven into frenzy, numbed by shock through decades of a pulverising regime, by years of sanctions, by weeks of bombing, days of pillaging.

All because of one man who was everywhere a few days ago and is now nowhere.

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