Journalist sees a different Baghdad behind a facade of sameness
BAGHDAD — Five years ago I covered political rallies in Baghdad where thousands of Iraqi Shiites chanted “leave, leave occupier.”
Last week, I made the rounds among lawmakers tied to the same political parties and heard a different complaint about America’s presence in their country.
They want more of it.
“We call on America as the builder of democracy to the defense of our country,” said one lawmaker from the Shiite Badr Bloc.
Yeah, I did a double take, too.
I arrived here a little more than a week ago from The News Tribune for a short assignment covering Baghdad as the U.S. steps up its footprint in Iraq more than two years after combat troops left the country.
It’s as a dire a situation as Iraq has ever faced. Islamic militants are at the gates of major cities. Sectarian militias have been let loose. More than 1.5 million Iraqis have fled their homes and have no idea if they’ll ever return. And Iraq has been unable to build a government that can muster a national response to the militants.
In the unrest and fear, I’m finding scenes at once familiar and new as Iraq faces its latest threat and moves into its next chapter.
Blast walls still ring entire neighborhoods. Security checkpoints sill choke traffic. Electricity still cuts out every few hours, bringing a moment of silence before a generator kicks in.
Car bombs explode every other day or so, infuriating Iraqis who’ve endured them far too long.
And the city's two main religious sects – Shi’a and Sunni Muslims – practically live in different worlds, just as they did when I last reported here for McClatchy Newspapers in 2009.
For the Sunnis in Baghdad, this is a time of retreat. They fear the Shiite militias that are working with the government to battle Sunni extremists outside of Baghdad. Moderate Sunnis get caught in the crossfire.
The Shi’a, meanwhile, walk tall believing they have the muscle to defend the city and protect their neighborhoods even as they mourn the soldiers and land they have lost to the Islamic State militants this year.
Every side wants American military assistance, as long as it’s used against someone else.
It’s a progression of the same trends that tore apart Iraq after the American invasion of 2003.
But Baghdad feels different, too.
New restaurants have sprouted all over central part of the city, some of them with knockoff American names such as Pizza Hat, Krunchy Fried Chicken and Burger Queen.
It’s easier to get around the city, as long as the government doesn’t shut a major road or bridge.
Commercial districts are packed with people buying nice clothes and showing them off on hot days.
One of my partners watched a stream of well-dressed and preening young people parade into the Mansour Mall last week. Women wore scarves of many colors and sparkly shirts that clung to their sides. Men showed off their biceps in tight-fitting shirts.
“I love Iraqi women. It’s like they live for the day,” my friend said, admiring the latest outfits.You wouldn’t know you were in a city that could ignite in a moment’s notice if not for the many times you’re frisked by a guard to see if you’re wearing a suicide vest as you walk into a business.
Today my friend and I were hungry for lunch. We walked outside my hotel, hailed a taxi and made our way to a tasty kebab restaurant near Iraq’s National Theater.
It’s not the kind of thing we did so casually the last time I was in Baghdad.
Back then, I did not leave my hotel without at least two of my Iraqi partners from the McClatchy Baghdad Bureau accompanying me. We did not take random taxis on the street; it was too risky in a city full of sectarian militias looking to send a message to the occupiers.
The occupiers are gone. The militias are still here. They’re just looking for different targets.