Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sadr City: My fall-back date to the prom

After being stuck in the Green Zone press room for more than a week, I was starting to feel like a real wallflower. Nobody loves me! But when the Iraqi Army boldly asked me out to the Red Zone prom, you can imagine how I felt! At last! A chance to get dressed up in my very best Kevlar! And maybe even get driven in a chauffeured limo Humvee!

But then I got stood up.

No tour of Baghdad for me. No going to the Red Zone accompanied by the most popular date in town. Rats. And the Iraqi Army didn’t even call me back with some lame excuse. Not even, “My mother needs me to help her with the housework.” Humph.

So I called up everybody I knew of any influence over here and begged them to get me to the Red Zone. I tried to call General Petraeus but his line was busy. I even called CNN. “Sorry, Jane. No tour of the Baghdad hot spots for you.” And there are LOTS of hot spots in Baghdad right now. Lots of action. And here I am stuck in the press room in my nightgown and bunny slippers.

So I pouted and moped around the press room and made everybody around me so totally miserable that I finally decided to go for a walk. And guess what? The freaking Iraqi parliament was meeting right next door. Forget about my prom date! This story was hot!

“Pardon me, do you speak English,” I asked two female parliamentarians who were sitting around the cafeteria during a lunch break. They did. One was an attorney and the other was a university professor. And they were ready, willing and able to talk!

“The main thing we want right now is security," said the lawyer. “Right now there are no jobs, our schools are weak and there are military in the roads. Our lives have been stopped. We want to be able to safely walk on our streets without the presence everywhere of tanks and the military -- like any other community would want.”

“At first, when the Americans first arrived,” said the professor, “we had hope. Now there are no hopes.” She couldn’t understand why the Americans invaded. “For money and power?” In the beginning thetwo parliamentarians had been against Saddam. “But now we prefer him to America, who caused this terror. They are the invisible hand behind the terrorists. They pushed the terrorists to do it. However, now we cannot tell the Americans to go away until they help to subdue the Al Qaeda, terrorists and Baathists that the Americans caused as a reaction from the occupation.”

“I want the American people to know the truth,” said the lawyer. “You cannot believe what the media says. Most of them lie. There have been many more than 3,200 soldiers killed here – because they do not count the..." Her English faltered here and she stretched to try to find the right words. "...mercenaries.” Hummm. “In Basra, Americans released criminals from the jails.” "Over a million Iraqis have been killed. And there are three million refugees."

“We want the government to be strong, not weak,” said the professor. “The presence of U.S. soldiers here weakens the government. Maliki is okay – but he hasn’t any real authority." Then a debate ensued between the two parliamentarians regarding whether U.S. troops should stay and help the government or get out now. “All the problems come from them. Maliki doesn’t have any real authority.” Both agreed on this point. “Americans put their noses into everything here. They claim this is a democracy but it is not.”

“Tell me about the status of women now,” I asked. Both women were wearing black abayas over their clothes.

“It is the same for women now as then.” The lawyer shrugged. “They need to pump money into the schools, electricity, hospitals and roads.”

I also asked the parliamentarians about Islam. “Muslims have big hearts," the professor replied. "They have good manners, character and patience.”

“Americans in America can’t understand what has happened here because they do not understand the culture of our community. We have endured four wars and they have hurt the country. All of them were caused by the Americans. Iraqis are cleaver and understand what is going on. They know who is responsible. Bush needs to stop being crazy.”

I asked the parliamentarians if they personally had been affected by the invasion and occupation. They had. “Six members of my neighbor’s family were killed and my daughter was injured in an explosion. What America is doing is against the UN. And the UN is supposed to defend any country that is occupied. Why are they not defending us!”

“They recently killed a ten-year-old boy who was throwing stones,” added the professor. "Fallugah was destroyed. And Najaf and Sadr City. They were attacked for no reason.”

Regarding the terrorists, both parliamentarians agreed that, “Everyone knows that with their high technology, Americans could stop the terrorists – but they don’t.”

At this point I told the parliamentarians about how I was having so much trouble getting out of the Green Zone. “No problem,” said the professor. “Leave it to us. We will ask the [city council?] if you can come with us and we will give you a tour of Sadr City.” Really? Fabulous! Let’s go right now! “Sorry. We cannot go right now. There is a parliament meeting!” Oh. Right. I forgot. But can we go tomorrow?

PS: Last night I gave up my seat on the "Rhino" armored bus to the Baghdad airport because the Iraqi Army had sweet-talked me again. "We will embed you tomorrow," they said. Ha! Stood up once more.

PPS: At a press conference yesterday, an American general actually said with his mouth, "Death and violence is bad enough in Iraq without outside influences." During the Q&A, I asked him about this again, just to make sure that I had actually gotten the quote right. He said that I had. However, I think that HE was referring to Syria and Iran.