Slingshot interviewed Tristan Wingnut, a Berkeley-based wandering activist, after his return from a month-long trip to Iraq. He was there during February, 2004 .
Slingshot: What does the U.S. occupation of Iraq look like/feel like?
T. Wingnut: Well it’s hard to say. Everyday life goes on. Streets are full of people who shop or go to work if they have a job etc. The biggest problems I see in Iraq are economic. For instance, massive unemployment while the Occupation enforces Saddam’s anti-worker laws and passes more. If Iraqis can’t get jobs and all the ‘reconstruction’ work goes to foreigners and all the money leaves the country, then Iraq isn’t really reconstructed as an economically viable entity even if it has newly painted schools. Mostly reconstruction is just repainting rather than building.
SS: Were you able to have interactions with U.S. soldiers? Did you find them to frustrated/angry with the situation they are in or did they come off as patriotic and focused on controlling Iraqis?
TW: I’m not a great one to talk to soldiers but friends talked to them lots and sometimes I was there. It’s hard in the streets as the soldiers are afraid, pointing guns and zipping by on convoys. At the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters] and other places it’s easy. Almost all of the soldiers say they want to come home, for different reasons, mostly personal. Some fear death but also it’s boring and far from friends and parties etc. My friend handed out the Bring them Home post cards and the response was “Oh, I’m not allowed to take that” but no real hostility. One soldier said “I love being able to help the Iraqi people.” Basically they appear to think that they are doing a good thing by being in Iraq. Many soldiers have never left, for instance, The Green Zone, so their whole view of Iraq is from inside a military base. Patrolling is closer to Iraqis than many soldiers get. I saw a soldier pop his head out of a tank and take photos as he zipped down my street. I heard that there is plenty of hostility towards Iraqis, but I mostly missed it. Most soldiers are, like, 19 or 20 and I get the impression they are trying to “do the right thing” to help Iraq. I also spoke to Iraqis who had been in jail. They had plenty of terrible stories but also spoke very well of specific US soldiers who helped them and tried to do special things for them or treated them as human etc. I think those soldiers are trying to maintain their humanity in a bad situation.
SS: Is the presence of U.S./Foreign corporations noticeable and what is the opinion of the Iraqis about this?
TW: Iraqis aren’t stupid, and know they are being ripped off, but they desperately need jobs so they work for contractors — Bechtel or Stars and Stripes (army newspaper) or sell shish kababs in army bases. You see the corporate people zipping by in White SUVs with body guards and all. They waste a huge amount of money on this: overhead, executives, mercenaries and zipping about. They do tons of assessments but very little actual reconstruction. Most reconstruction is actually done by Iraqis, who aren’t afraid to work and will be there day after day and not hiding in US bases.
SS: What divisions did you observe in Iraqi society? What are the relations between regular Iraqis and Iraqi expatriates? Is there hope for Iraq working out its divisions?
TW: No one knows what will happen in Iraq. Some think civil war. Most people get along fine. People hate Ahmed Chalabi and his group and are mistrustful of many ex-patriots in politics. The return of so many Iraqis has made rents sky rocket in Baghdad, leading to tons of evictions, gentrification etc. There are thousands of squatters all over. Society is divided between Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and others. Race didn’t seem an important factor. Many people love Saddam. He was Iraq the way the US flag represents this country. Everywhere you see a flag here one used to see Saddam there. Others and especially Shiites hate Saddam and are so happy with the US for getting rid of him. Many people were happy to meet an Ameriki and praised George Bush. But I think patience is wearing thin. The Shiites want to run the country and soon.
SS: What did you see in regards to wimmins situations?
TW: Newspapers make it sound worse than it is. It is bad though. Under Saddam Iraq was reportedly relatively safe for women and they were able to move about. Now it’s much more dangerous and women fear strangers. Iraqis believe that the US created all these problems, either intentionally or not, and has no solutions. Iraq has become more and more Islamic in dress. Most women wear head scarves. Almost all Shiites and people from the south do. Many women wear a big black, all covering thing that I think is called an Abaya and it has to be held closed with one hand. Very male dominated society or men are the active ones and most of the workers but some women work too, you know paid employment.
SS: Did you find any other independent press or internationals?
TW: There are quite a few other Internationals such as the Christian Peacemaker Teams. There are a bunch of independent or leftish journalists too. Iraq has had an explosion of press — 200 some newspapers. I just heard the US shut one down. Cool Iraqis put out the independent Al Muajaha newspaper.
SS: What are the realities of people’s basic needs being met? Electricity, water, food, medical attention? Are there social divisions apparent where some people receive more of these resources?
TW: Baghdad has electricity for about 10 hours a day, people with money and stores have generators. Other cities have better or worse electricity. It goes out all the time with no warning. Gas station lines are down to about an hour. All stations are guarded by 4 guys with AK-47s and tons of barbed wire. Medical care is cheap or free but hard to get to for many and not high quality. The Oil for Food Program gives people the minimum food they need to get by. The port of Umm Qasr has no water. One guy told me “At least under Saddam we had running water twice a day for two hours.” Social divisions are the same as everywhere — the rich have generators, buy black market gas etc..