Life in Baghdad These Days

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To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A Report From Baghdad Betty

Those of you who have been getting these missives for some time
will recall me posting memos about “Baghdad Betty,” the nickname
I gave to a 24-year-old Iraqi girl who lives in Baghdad. She has
a “blogsite” called “Riverbend
where she writes what it’s like to be living in the midst of the
chaos all around her. In my
last posting, May 8
, I incorrectly stated that she had worked
in one of Saddam’s ministries in information technology, which is
how she acquired computer skills. She said she actually worked in
a Baghdad computer shop and never worked for the government. Her
blogs used to come almost daily, but there have been fewer in recent
months with power shortages getting worse. I checked this week and
found she was able to post on Sunday. This is not the kind of news
you’ll get in our major media.

December 12, 2004

It has been a sad few weeks.

The situation seems to be deteriorating daily. To brief you on a
few things: Electricity is lousy. Many areas are on the damned 2
hours by 4 hours schedule and there are other areas that are completely
in the dark – like A’adhamiya. The problem is that we’re not
getting much generator electricity because fuel has become such
a big problem. People have to wait in line overnight now to fill
up the car. It’s a mystery. It really is. There was never such a
gasoline crisis as the one we’re facing now. We’re an oil country
and yet there isn’t enough gasoline to go around…

Oh don’t get me wrong – the governmental people have gasoline
(they have special gas stations where there aren’t all these annoying
people, rubbing their hands with cold and cursing the Americans
to the skies)… The Americans have gasoline. The militias get gasoline.
It’s the people who don’t have it. We can sometimes get black-market
gasoline but the liter costs around 1250 Iraqi dinars which is almost
$1 – compare this to the old price of around 5 cents. It costs
almost 50,000 Iraqi dinars to fill up the generator so that it works
for a few hours and then the cost isn’t so much the problem as just
getting decent gasoline is. So we have to do without electricity
most of the day.

Cooking gas has also become a problem. The guy who sells us the
gas cylinders isn’t coming around because apparently he can’t get
the used cylinders exchanged for full ones. People are saying that
it costs around 10,000 Iraqi dinars to buy one on the street and
then, as usual, you risk getting one that might explode in the kitchen
or be full of water. We’re trying to do more and more of our ‘cooking’
on the kerosene heater. The faucet water is cold, cold, cold. We
can’t turn on the water heater because there just isn’t enough electricity.
We installed a kerosene water heater some time last year but that
has also been off because there’s a kerosene shortage and we need
that for the heaters.

I took my turn at ‘gasoline duty’ a couple of weeks ago. E. and
my cousin were going to go wait for gasoline so I decided I’d join
them and keep them company. We left the house at around 5 a.m. and
it was dark and extremely cold. I thought for sure we’d be the first
at the station but I discovered the line was about a kilometer long
with dozens and dozens of cars lined up around the block. My heart
sank at the discouraging sight but E. and the cousin looked optimistic,
“We just might be able to fill up before evening this time!” E.

I spent the first hour jabbering away and trying to determine whether
or not gasoline was actually being sold at the station. E. and the
cousin were silent – they had set up a routine. One of them
would doze while the other watched in case a miracle occurred and
the line actually started moving. The second hour I spent trying
to sleep with my neck at an uncomfortable angle on the back head
rest. The third hour I enthusiastically tried to get up a game of
“memorize the license plate." The fourth hour I fiddled with
the radio and tried to sing along to every song being played on
air. (It should be mentioned that at this point E. and the cousin
threatened to throw Riverbend out of the car).

All in all, it took E. and the cousin 13 hours to fill the car.
I say E. and the cousin because I demanded to be taken home in a
taxi after the first six hours and E. agreed to escort me with the
condition that I would make sandwiches for him to take back to the
cousin. In the end, half of the tank of gasoline was kept inside
of the car (for emergencies) and the other half was sucked out for
the neighborhood generator.

People are wondering how America and gang (i.e. Iyad Allawi, etc.)
are going to implement democracy in all of this chaos when they
can’t seem to get the gasoline flowing in a country that virtually
swims in oil. There’s a rumor that this gasoline crisis has been
concocted on purpose in order to keep a minimum of cars on the streets.
Others claim that this whole situation is a form of collective punishment
because things are really out of control in so many areas in Baghdad
– especially the suburbs. The third theory is that this being
done purposely so that the Iraq government can amazingly bring the
electricity, gasoline, kerosene and cooking gas back in January
before the elections and make themselves look like heroes.

We’re also watching the election lists closely. Most people I’ve
talked to aren’t going to go to elections. It’s simply too dangerous
and there’s a sense that nothing is going to be achieved anyway.
The lists are more or less composed of people affiliated with the
very same political parties whose leaders rode in on American tanks.
Then you have a handful of tribal sheikhs. Yes – tribal sheikhs.
Our country is going to be led by members of religious parties and
tribal sheikhs – can anyone say Afghanistan? What’s even more
irritating is that election lists have to be checked and confirmed
by none other than Sistani!! Sistani – the Iranian religious
cleric. So basically, this war helped us make a transition from
a secular country being run by a dictator to a chaotic country being
run by a group of religious clerics. Now, can anyone say ‘theocracy
in sheep’s clothing’?

Ahmad Chalabi is at the head of one of those lists – who would
join a list with Ahmad Chalabi at its head?

The borders are in an interesting state. Now this is something even
Saddam didn’t do: Iraqi men under the age of 50 aren’t being let
into the country. A friend of ours who was coming to visit was turned
back at the Iraqi border. It was useless for him to try to explain
that he had been outside of the country for 10 years and was coming
back to visit his family. He was 47 and that meant he, in his expensive
business suit, shining leather shoes, and impressive Samsonite baggage,
might be a ‘Jihadist’. Silly Iraqis – Iraqi men under 50 are
a sure threat to the security of their country. American men with
guns and tanks are, on the other hand, necessary to the welfare
of the country. Lebanese, Kuwaitis and men of other nationalities
being hired as mercenaries are vital to the security of said country.
Iranian men coming to visit the shrines in the south are all welcome…
but Iraqi men? Maybe they should head for Afghanistan.

The assault on Falloojeh and other areas is continuing. There are
rumors of awful weapons being used in Falloojeh. The city has literally
been burnt and bombed to the ground. Many of the people displaced
from the city are asking to be let back in, in spite of everything.
I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be for the refugees.
It’s like we’ve turned into another Palestine – occupation,
bombings, refugees, death. Sometimes I’ll be watching the news and
the volume will be really low. The scene will be of a man, woman
or child, wailing in front of the camera; crying at the fate of
a body lying bloodily, stiffly on the ground – a demolished
building in the background and it will take me a few moments to
decide the location of this tragedy – Falloojeh? Gaza? Baghdad?

16, 2004

Wanniski [send him mail]
runs the financial/political advisory service
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