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29 September 2003

Beyond Castle Bremer’s walls

Inside the Baghdad "bubble", Americans stay optimistic. They should get out more

By Peter Beaumont

Two ex-Gurkhas working for a private military corporation stand guard at the entrance to the former Republican Palace in Baghdad, the headquarters and inner sanctuary of Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq. Beyond them, in a cool, marbled hall that inhabitants call “the rotunda”, men in T-shirts and jeans with fetish-black sidearms strapped to pumped-up thighs mingle with US military guards. More ex-Gurkhas in blue boiler suits and baseball caps stand guard at the security door leading to Bremer’s office. It flashes gaudily if your pass is good.

Bremer’s palace stands in “the green zone”, an island of barriers and patrols, blast-proof concrete walls, searchlights and tanks. Those outside call it “the bubble”. Some call it “Castle Bremer”. It has a cinema, a petrol station for the vast unarmoured 4x4s that are never allowed to leave the zone, and a shuttle bus service that takes you between the different palaces, offices and hotels if you have the right pass. Its residents, some of whom seldom leave the zone, have a canteen, church, hospital, swimming pool and watered lawns. Men and women jog. US troops patrol.

Castle Bremer is a brimming repository of optimism in the face of the noise, bustle and danger beyond. Outside is a place of devastating bombs, murder, nightly gunfire and dozens of carjackings each day.

Baghdad is a short drive from the Sunni triangle and its festering and lethal guerrilla campaign against US forces, but bad news doesn’t penetrate the bubble, with its special invigorating air. When you come to pay a visit, you feel you are bringing something dirty on your shoes.

I feel this when I meet Bremer’s spokesman, Charles Heatley, a young Foreign Office official, much admired by his contemporaries (“funky”, a risk-taker and a gifted Arabist), seconded to Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority. One of the first officials into the country in the smouldering aftermath of war, he knows a lot about Iraq and the Arab world. But he sticks to the bubble’s infuriating optimism. The official line is that Iraqi resistance to the US-led occupation is the work of “dead-enders”, “thugs” and “criminal elements” who have nothing to gain from an improved Iraq. Crucially, the argument continues, their actions have no resonance with a wider population.

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Though Iraqis are glad Saddam has gone, Castle Bremer has got it wrong. Even for those who, like my driver, are making good money from foreigners, the resistance resonates. When we see US troops, his view is forcefully expressed: “Fuck the Americans.” My friend Wael, a computer engineer, explains it in more measured language. He describes a deep suspicion of US and British intentions that, despite some improvements in the quality of life since the fall of Saddam Hussein, will not go away. He fears that the invasion’s ultimate end will be an assault upon Islam, and that its function, in any case, was to secure the further safety of Israel. I hear this again and again from Iraqis, educated and uneducated, sometimes told as Wael tells it, sometimes spun with conspiracy theories, thick with anti-Semitism.

There is another area of dissonance – about the nature of the democratic project in Iraq. It is summed up by the comments of the visiting US secretary of state, Colin Powell, speaking at a press conference with Bremer by his side. Powell speaks the language of the bubble, chiding the media for reporting only bad news. The “good news” we should be reporting is, for example, the setting up of parent-teacher associations,with $500 for each participating Iraqi school. This, he says, is the beginning of “grass-roots democracy”.

He is not talking to Iraqis but to the suburbs of the United States, the suburbs that are sending their young men and women to die or be wounded in Iraq. Against a rising death toll, it hints at the normalisation of Iraq in America’s image: a hymn to American optimism, for surely, if they have PTAs, then the rest will follow.

Except you won’t see soccer moms soon in Najaf or Karbala or Fallujah or Tikrit. You won’t see any moms at all engaged in grass-roots democracy in a country where, outside Baghdad, women’s rights are severely circumscribed.

Powell’s words delineate where Castle Bremer is most distanced from reality: in the conviction that it won’t take much or very long to turn Iraq into a newly minted democratic state.

But when Iraqis speak of “Iraq”, they are talking about communities of self-interest. The Iraq they describe is an Iraq where negotiations of influence are conducted through families and tribes as well as through competing religious leaders, and where the nascent parties are as much about associations of personal interest as ideas. It is an Iraq where leaders, even at the most local level, are still preoccu-pied with accumulating and using, not distributing, power.

When I ask Iraqis how they would vote in elections, they tell me they will vote the way they are told to by their sheikh or their mosque. For many Iraqis of the Shia majority, the American ideal of political governance is wholly alien to their belief that they are moving towards an Islamic state of grace where a hidden leader will finally be revealed to them.

The American ideal is equally alien to the Sunni minority, who believe that the exercise of power by Saddam was their guarantor of the imperfect and brutal unity which protected their rights.

And depressingly – as inhabitants of the bubble should take note – the only thing that most Iraqis can agree on is that they do not trust or like you very much.

Peter Beaumont is foreign affairs editor of the Observer

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