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Meanwhile, back at the other war…

July 14, 2006

I can’t process the horror unfolding from Beirut to Gaza City. I’ve read a dozen commentators, left and right, and still can’t imagine what kind of game plan, if any, Ehud Olmert is pursuing, or whether he is a pawn caught up in a self-sustaining maelstrom. Nor can I fathom why Washington has settled on a policy of sitting back to watch while the theater of war enlarges – unless the powers that be have subscribed to the Ledeen vision of some cleansing apocalypse that will dismantle all the region’s unsavory regimes at once.

Back in Baghdad, an older, more familiar horror is expanding. American media continue to shield us Yanks from the true state of things on the ground. But the Internet gives access to eyewitnesses who won’t make it onto Tim Russert’s show.

Riverbend, the young Iraqi woman who blogs at Baghdad burning, lost a friend this week in one of those neighborhood sweeps by the ethnic cleansers.

He usually left the house at 7 am to avoid the morning traffic jams and the heat. Yesterday, he decided to stay at home because he’d promised his mother he would bring Abu Kamal by the house to fix the generator which had suddenly died on them the night before. His parents say that T. was making his way out of the area on foot when the attack occurred and he got two bullets to the head. His brother could only identify him by the blood-stained t-shirt he was wearing.

People are staying in their homes in the area and no one dares enter it so the wakes for the people who were massacred haven’t begun yet. I haven’t seen his family yet and I’m not sure I have the courage or the energy to give condolences. I feel like I’ve given the traditional words of condolences a thousand times these last few months, “Baqiya ib hayatkum… Akhir il ahzan…” or “May this be the last of your sorrows.” Except they are empty words because even as we say them, we know that in today’s Iraq any sorrow- no matter how great- will not be the last.

I’ve been following her intense, humane, ground-level blog for two years now. Like thousands around the world, I’ve come to feel that I know her. And for the first time, I am worried that she will disappear without a trace. The violence, the torture, the men and children turning up at the morgues in batches, with electric drill holes through their bodies, are spiralling out of control. The west of the city is the worst, but there’s no safety anywhere.

Here’s the testimony of James Hider, the Baghdad correspondent for the London Times, a paper which leans center right. (Shorter James Hider: the war in Iraq is over, and chaos won.)

Baghdad starts to collapse as its people flee a life of death
By James Hider, of The Times, from Baghdad

As I hung up the phone, I wondered if I would ever see my friend Ali alive again. Ali, The Times translator for the past three years, lives in west Baghdad, an area that is now in meltdown as a bitter civil war rages between Sunni insurgents and Shia militias. It is, quite simply, out of control.

I returned to Baghdad on Monday after a break of several months, during which I too was guilty of glazing over every time I read another story of Iraqi violence. But two nights on the telephone, listening to my lost and frightened Iraqi staff facing death at any moment, persuaded me that Baghdad is now verging on total collapse.

Ali phoned me on Tuesday night, about 10.30pm. There were cars full of gunmen prowling his mixed neighbourhood, he said. He and his neighbours were frantically exchanging information, trying to identify the gunmen.

Were they the Mahdi Army, the Shia militia blamed for drilling holes in their victims’ eyes and limbs before executing them by the dozen? Or were they Sunni insurgents hunting down Shias to avenge last Sunday’s massacre, when Shia gunmen rampaged through an area called Jihad, pulling people from their cars and homes and shooting them in the streets?

Hider quotes sources who say that over 800,000 Iraqis have given up and fled the country, flooding Syria and Jordan, but the exodus is only just beginning:

Fares al-Mufti, an official with the Iraqi Airways booking office, told The Times that the national carrier had had to lay on an extra flight a day, all fully booked. Flights to Damascus have gone up from three a week to eight to cope with the panicked exodus.

Muhammad al-Ani, who runs fleets of Suburban cars to Jordan, said that the service to Amman was so oversubscribed that that prices had rocketed from $200 (£108) to $750 per trip in the past two weeks.

Despite the huge risks of driving through the Sunni Triangle, the number of buses to Jordan has mushroomed from 2 a day to as many as 40 or 50.

And what is the American army doing to stem these waves of killing? Sitting tight in “Emerald City”, waiting for Iraqi police to call them in. But the police have stopped bothering to call.

I’ve dithered some, but so far mostly I’ve agreed with the Pottery Barn crowd. Yes, conditions for ordinary Iraqis are horrific; yes, they’re only going to get worse; yes, the presence of our troops pours oil on the fires. But if the U.S. pulls out, the bloodshed could turn still worse by orders of magnitude. Does that line of thought makes sense, when we are do nothing about the rising tide of blood anyway, except to observe it? I’m beginning to lose sight of the relevancy of the Pottery Barn argument.

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