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Archive: December, 2008

POSTED: Monday, December 29, 2008, 11:55 PM
Ask questions, and Trudy Rubin will answer live Tuesday, Dec. 30 at noon.
POSTED: Friday, December 26, 2008, 3:24 PM
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Haji Mohammed

For decades, Mutanabi Street in Baghdad was the place where bibliophiles went to get their fix on Fridays. Bookstores line this street in an old quarter of the city, and browsers could also pour over tables full of books lined up in front of the sidewalks - religious books, old English paperbacks, dictionaries, atlases, histories of Iraq, and textbooks.

In a part of the world where books are rarely found in homes, there is a saying: books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq. That's why it was so shocking to Iraqis when Mutanabi St. was hit by a suicide bomber a year ago, killing dozens and destroying cafes and bookstores.

So it was moving to revisit Mutanabi St. and see that it has been rebuilt, including the historic Shabander Cafe where writers and poets have been hanging out for fifty years. But there is a sadness here. Although the cafe has been restored, with government funds, and photos from the 1920s and 1930s still hang on the wall, Haji Mohammed, the owner, gazes over at five photos hung on the wall near the entry - the portraits of his four sons and a nephew who were killed by the bomb.

POSTED: Thursday, December 25, 2008, 6:12 AM
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I attended 8:30 a.m. Christmas mass at a Chaldean Christian church in the Karradah district of Baghdad. Many Chaldeans have been targetted in recent years by Islamic fundamentalists because Christians used to run liquor stores in the city, some of which were bombed. So were several churches. Many Christians have fled abroad, with thousands leaving northern Iraq where the situation is even dicier. Outside the Church of the Virgin Mary, there were two police vans for protection, along with a line of national police.

But in Karradah. Christians feel pretty safe and the church was full, with young women dressed in high heels and fancy boots and knee length skirts or fancy jeans, while their some of their mothers wore lace mantillas on their hair. A choir sang in the front near a Christmas tree, and there were several local TV cameras present; the Iraqi government has made Christmas an official holiday. When I exited the church, I saw a procession of cars passing by heading for the compound of the Shiite cleric Abdel Aziz Hakim, with his turbaned photo pasted on their hoods.  

POSTED: Thursday, December 25, 2008, 4:40 PM

The Karradah district of Baghdad is where locals come to buy appliances like heaters, refrigerators, furniture, and small generators (electricity is still off for much of the day in Baghdad.) The main shopping street never closed down, but I haven't seen it booming like this since right after the fall of Saddam. When I asked one merchant why sales were so good, he explained: Iraqis are returning to homes they fled during the sectarian killing, and their homes have been looted, so they have to replace what was stolen. And the government is giving a stipend to returnees. What's that they say about every tragedy having a silver lining....

Abu Nawas Street which runs along the Tigris River used to be famous for its fish restaurants which were long closed but now have been refurbished. But the green strip along the river was once an hangout for unsavory types. Now it has been totally redone as a park with shrub-lined walkways, benches, tables and several mini-playgrounds with swings and slides. On Christmas Day, which was a national holiday here, the park was full of families sitting on blankets, walking by the river, and pushing kids on swings. It was such a normal scene that it nearly made me cry, and it definitely made me fearful that a crazed suicide bomber might take advantage of the crowd. I also wondered whether the government will maintain the greenery, and collect garbage (no waste barrels were in evidence). But as a step forward towards a semi-normal city this park is a great start!

POSTED: Tuesday, December 23, 2008, 3:13 PM

What has been astonishing about this visit to Baghdad is the psychological shift in officials and ordinary people.

The future  is still uncertain, electricity in Baghdad neighborhoods varies from a couple of hours a day to 12 hours at best, jobs are scarce, suicide bombs still go off. Government corruption is rife and essential services absent. 

But Iraqis seem to be getting back a sense of their "Iraqi-ness." Nationalism is in the air. The security forces finally have a country to defend, instead of focusing their loyalties on sect and religion.

POSTED: Monday, December 22, 2008, 4:42 PM

Went to the Iraqi parliament today. The parliament meets in a dim, grim convention center in the Green Zone where Saddam once held pro forma government meetings. It used to be possible to shmooze with members in the cafeteria, until a bomb went off there over a year and a half ago, killing a member.

Since then security has been tight and an elaborate, uncomputerized system of permits and bodychecks is required to get in. Kurdish pesh merga troops guard the place - everyone seems to think Kurds are the most professional, even though other Iraqi factions get annoyed at what they claim is Kurdish overreach on territory in the north of Iraq.

Today the debate was over whether to kick out the speaker, who is a hot-tempered rabble rouser, and over how to regularize the presence of other foreign troops who aren't covered by the status of forces agreement signed between Iraq and the United States. But I went to talk with some of the most interesting members, like Shaikh Humam Humoudi. He's a turbaned cleric, and member of the Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq. He also helped draft Iraq's constitution, is a gold mine of information on Shiite politics, and where Iraq's political relationship with America is likely to go in the future, and has a son in Pittsburgh. 

POSTED: Sunday, December 21, 2008, 3:32 PM
      Today I visited a Baghdad neighborhood that used to be the heartland of Al Qaeda, and Sunni insurgents. Ameriyah was a war zone, from which Shiite residents and many decent Sunnis were driven out, and car bombs directed outwards, often directly onto the airport road which runs alongside the neighborhood. This place was once so dangerous, that, even on my last trip a year ago when much in Baghdad had improved, I was cautioned not to go there. Even this time, I walked accompanied at a distance by three U.S. soldiers. But I got the feeling that I would be safe coming back on my own.
     The change is incredible. Shops have reopened, vendors of toys, clothing and kebobs line the sidewalks, the streets are full, and I even saw a couple of women without headscarfs. Shoppers and vendors were willing to talk to me on the street, even with U.S. soldiers standing a few yards away. Some, not all, were willing to give their names. Iraqi soldiers and police now man checkpoints instead of Americans, who will be moving out of the district by next June 30.  Shiite families are still reluctant to move back, I was told by one relative of some who fled to save their lives. But everyone with whom I spoke emphasized that they thought the civil war was over, and they just wanted to get on with their lives.  Interestingly, some said they wished the US soldiers weren't leaving. They told me that, although they didn't like a foreign presence, they needed the Americans as protection against the feared influence of Iran and the Shiite militias sponsored by Tehran. 
POSTED: Saturday, December 20, 2008, 1:37 PM
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Baghdad Santa
Christians in Baghdad have had a rough time in the last three years, their churches bombed, and women forced to veil by religious fanatics. Many have fled. So it was rather bizarre to see a Christmas scene, complete with Santa Claus set up on a stage in the neighborhood of Karrada, known for strong Shiite Muslim, as well as a Christian population base. In the audience were senior commanders and a middling official from the Interior Ministery and the National police, beefy guys in camoflage and black berets, along with a smattering of Christian clerics, and an aging but famous national soccer coach who happened to be Christian.  On the stage was a masked Santa and kids in Claus dress-up, helped to line up  by Muslim ladies in full black abaya who came from the local branch of the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The Prime minister and Interior Minister were scheduled to make a showing but never turned up.
Why the mix of Santa Claus, Christians and the Interior Ministry, which runs the police and intelligence agencies and was just accused by the Maliki government of fostering a coup plot? Maybe the government wanted to rally Christian votes for coming elections. Or maybe it wanted to show its warm fuzzy side after the coup arrests, which many thought was nasty political theatre. The 35 alleged coupsters were released by week's end, and the Interior Minister decried the charges as a big mistake. 
About this blog

Trudy Rubin’s Worldview column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. In 2009-2011 she has made four lengthy trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the past seven years, she visited Iraq eleven times, and also wrote from Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, China, and South Korea.

She is the author of Willful Blindness: the Bush Administration and Iraq, a book of her columns from 2002-2004. In 2001 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary and in 2008 she was awarded the Edward Weintal prize for international reporting. In 2010 she won the Arthur Ross award for international commentary from the Academy of American Diplomacy.

Reach Trudy at trubin@phillynews.com.

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