Night Checkpoint in Baghdad. Painting by Steve Mumford Of things that go bump in the night. by PJM Baghdad Editor Omar Fahdil of Iraq the Model Last night was a sleepless one for me. It dragged on until around 4 in the morning and though exhausted I couldn't sleep. I've come to actually like these times because at this hour 99% of Baghdad's private generators are shut down and the city becomes, for a brief period, enjoyably silent.
It was dark in my room except for a pale ray of moonlight coming through the window. Suddenly the floor began to tremble and a loud roaring sound broke the silence “What the…!” I thought. Then something really creepy happened. That pale ray of moonlight vanished leaving me in total darkness.
“First an earthquake and now the moon has vanished. Is this the end of the universe?”
Not a pleasant thought for a very secular person like myself.
I finally found the courage to get up and look out through my window. Two meters from me was a line of Stryker Armored Combat Vehicles that for some reason had pulled over in our street.
“Phew! Not the end of the universe yet!”
After some time, the convoy moved off, their engines fading slowly as the streets swallowed them up. I stood for a moment thinking about the men in those vehicles who stay up at night patrolling the dangerous streets of Baghdad to protect the few insomniacs like myself, and the millions of other sleeping Baghdadis. I said a prayer (in my own way) for their safety and went back to toss and turn in my bed.
* * * *
Baghdad is still enjoying some days of relative calm interrupted only with minor sporadic incidents. In general there’s a feeling that these days are better than almost any other time in months. This is more evident in the eastern side of Baghdad than the western part, because the former part has received more US and Iraqi military reinforcements than the latter.
Checkpoints in Baghdad are becoming more abundant, with more attention paid to the exits and entrances of the city. I’m also hearing that those checkpoints have been reinforced with more soldiers and equipment.
Politically, today president Talbani visited Maliki in his office “to express support for Maliki’s security plan”. Maliki said after the meeting that operations would quickly gain momentum in the coming days, and that the troops will make efforts help displaced citizens return to their homes.
Signs of such efforts can already be seen on the streets, through political work instead of military. Yesterday the “popular support” committee headed by Ahmed Chalabi succeeded in reopening a Sunni mosque in Sadr city, returning control of the mosque to the Sunni endowment department after it was occupied by Sadr’s office personnel last year. The mosque was reopened with a celebration where Sunnis and Shia prayed together behind a Sunni cleric. Before the ceremony Shia volunteers cleaned up the area around the mosque from garbage and fixed the sign that carried the name of the mosque.
Still, I don’t expect much from politicians who are behind this. They are only trying to repair their damaged reputations. I do trust the cheering crowd; the average people who are weary of the violence. They clearly expressed their desire to see sectarian portioning reversed because they have seen what forced displacement has wrought upon civilians. Those people were not thinking of the motivations of politicians or clerics. They were speaking from their hearts.
Today I heard unconfirmed news about plans to return the remaining 9 Sunni mosques to the Sunni endowment department. I hope this gesture be met with a similar move on the Sunni end in areas where Shia are minority.
In other encouraging news, I saw on the local Baghdad news that US and Iraqi soldiers have discovered about 60 weapon caches since the beginning of this month, and detained more than 140 suspects during the same period.
Other incidents that indicate a positive change in Maliki’s policy are the arrest of deputy minister of health Hakim al-Zamili, and the deployment of IA soldiers to provide security for hospitals in Baghdad instead of the FPS.
The FPS, or the “Facility Protection Service,” is widely accused of being affiliated with death squads. Members of the FPS were recruited directly by ministries through contracts not overseen by the interior or defense ministries. The loyalty of FPS personnel is believed to be toward the political faction controlling any given ministry instead of the country as a whole.
The arrest of al-Zamili indicates that the new plan will not hesitate to target leaders of militant groups no matter what their position in the government was. The Sadr movement responded to the arrest only by saying that it was an insult to all Iraqis. One of their spokesmen said, in a clear sign of helplessness, “If one from our movement is to be arrested, then others from other factions should be arrested as well”.
I don’t know whether this current attitude of submission is going to last when more senior members are arrested. Still, I like the idea of arresting senior bad guys from both sects. This both satisfies public opinion, and gives credibility to the announced plans of the government to deal equally with all regardless of sect or background.