Mr Blush And The Bombs Of Democracy
In her third dispatch back from the Iraqi capital, Jo Wilding witnesses the preparations under way for another bout of bombing.
21st February 2003
I wish you could see what I can see. From my window there is a sculpture of a magic carpet, with two people kneeling on it, leaning forward, looking up, taking to the air. To the east there is a mosque with an ornate blue mosaic dome and minaret, behind which the sun rises, and from which the muezzin calls five times a day, blending with the ubiquitous car horns, the sirens and, after dusk, the wild drumbeats and trumpeting of bus-borne wedding parties. To the south and west is the Tigris, calm, enormous and reflective. Palm trees rise along every street. The moon is waxed to half, fading out across a diagonal.
British and US citizens have been advised to leave Iraq. Those on non-essential business have been advised to leave Kuwait, Israel and Palestine as well, because of increasing tension in Iraq. Radio Five Live rang us at midnight to ask for a comment on the "unrest".
Why the concern for a few British citizens? Who will warn the nearly 25 million Iraqi citizens to leave because of the rising tensions; to leave unless their lives here are essential. And where would they go? Our friend Ghazwan was upset because it's the clearest indication that an attack is imminent; more imminent than usual, that is. As Odai told us, they've been about to be attacked for about as long as he can remember. He was 11 in the first gulf war.
They took us to a residential area where sewage pipes are being laid. During the last Gulf war, the electricity generating plants were destroyed. Since then there has been a deficit of about 2300 megawatts in electricity supply (UNICEF Iraq Situation Analysis 2002). When the electricity cuts out, sewage pumping stops. The pipes get blocked. In some cases the pipes have ruptured. In others, sewage has backed up, overflowing through inspection covers and flooding the streets. As of 2002, half a million tons of raw sewage are dumped into fresh water bodies every day (UNICEF, as above). The system couldn't be repaired without excavations and replacements.
Replacement pipes were blocked for a long time by the sanctions committee of the Security Council. They stacked up in the central reservation in the road. They are almost as wide in diameter - about a metre and a half - as I am tall. I've lived in smaller places. The Sanctions Committee doesn't have to give reasons for its refusals so I've no idea what the perceived military use of sewage pipes was: surely not a "Supergun" - you couldn't fire anything but shit out of a pipe like that.
To install them involves excavating a pit. Because the water table in Baghdad, or at least in that part, is quite high because of the river nearby, they have to constantly pump out the water as they go. They lay concrete at the bottom and water carries on seeping up, so the pumping has to carry on all the while the concrete is slowly drying. It's taken months to lay a two-kilometre stretch to link the area to the main sewer. Now and then it hits me as strange to see so much building and renovation going on in a city which is likely soon to be rubble.
The new pipes are metal, whereas the old ones were concrete, and much smaller in diameter: they are piled across the road among the excavation rubble. Even so it's doubtful whether the piping will survive the bombing, never mind the power generation plants, so people will be without sewage disposal again.
Water pipes, too, are being laid all over the city. Lack of clean water has created a plague of gastrointestinal diseases - UNICEF states that 70% of infant and under-five mortality is caused by preventable respiratory infections and diarrhoea. The water picks up contamination as it flows through corroded or broken pipes. When the electricity cuts out it flows back down, then back up, and so on, until it reaches families unsafe for drinking.
There is little doubt among people I've spoken to that the power plants will be destroyed. Back up generators are in place but will not provide the power needed to get water through to homes.
Wells have been dug around the city, at mosques and churches, hospitals, schools, colleges, on streets and in gardens, for emergency use. We went to see a well on a bit of waste ground at the end of a residential street. It consists of a chunky engine, a pump and a load of pipes. The water will still need boiling or chemical treatment before use, so those who can are buying gas cylinders to boil water on. Even so, the UN estimates that just 39% of Iraqi people will have access - albeit rationed - to water in the event of a war (see www.casi.org.uk).
The food ration has been distributed for April and May already. In the next few days the 40,000 ration shops will be receiving the distribution for June and July. In the last war the food warehouses were destroyed. If they're hit this time the plan is that they'll be empty, and that people will have a stockpile for as long as possible.
In the back of the shop, three men were weighing out bags of rice containing one, two or three people's shares for a month. Sugar, tea, lentils, beans and detergent are stacked in similar piles. People have to bring their own containers for vegetable oil or ghee. Soap and powdered milk are pre-packed. For children under five there are also cans of baby milk. A man came in with his ration book. There is a coupon for each month and the agent tore out the two for March and April. There are no vegetables, fruit or animal products because they cannot be distributed on a monthly basis, never mind in February for July. Micronutrient deficiencies are the result, according to the UNICEF situation analysis.
Some people talk about going out to the country when the war starts, where the bombing may well be less intense. Others say they will stay and defend their city. What I haven't heard anyone say, even in private, is that they're looking forward to their "liberation" by the US. Ghazwan points out that the British and US governments are putting pressure on the Turkish government to join the war, despite the overwhelming opposition (about 90%) of the Turkish people. They're subverting Turkey's democracy even as the EU demands greater democracy as a condition of Turkey's EU entry.
He refers to Bush and Blair as a single entity - Mr Blush. Blush is pushing for war despite the objections of his people. Both countries now lock people up indefinitely without trial, or even interview. Britain's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2001, the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 and Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 combine to allow retention and disclosure of a wide swathe of communications data and personal information, as well as the taking of fingerprints for an array of reasons unrelated to crime and maintenance of those prints permanently, where before they were destroyed if no conviction was made. Ghazwan thinks it's a bit ironic that such a country calls itself a democracy.
"What kind of democracy is it you are going to bring us with your bombs."