Letter From Baghdad: At City's Checkpoints, a Scrawled Counterpoint to Reality

A sign at one checkpoint reads: "This Iraq is yours and mine. You are entrusted to protect it as we are. Iraq is my country. Pride and honor."
A sign at one checkpoint reads: "This Iraq is yours and mine. You are entrusted to protect it as we are. Iraq is my country. Pride and honor." (Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

B AGHDAD -- The writing on the walls of Baghdad's checkpoints have little to do with reality. Grim as life is here, with everything from buildings to desiccated orchards shaded in a dull ocher, no one needs testament to that. More often, the slogans penned in graceful Arabic say what leaders of a state threatening to fail want, or what they lack.

"No to terrorism," insists graffiti to a country still haunted by it. "Respect and be respected," declares a motto of Iraqi soldiers, who habitually complain of disrespect. "No one is above the law," intones a slogan to passersby, few of whom would concur.

No one disputes these days that the Americans are leaving Iraq, at least in their incarnation as an occupying power backed by more than 100,000 soldiers in a country that feels as wrecked today as it has at any time since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. But no one is quite sure what kind of state they will leave behind.

The slogans of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government give one sense, although they invariably speak with far more confidence than they inspire. Scrawled along the checkpoints, they are the words of authority. Law means obedience, as does patriotism. Allegiance is mentioned far more than democracy or freedom.

"Loyalty to the nation," one motto reads.

"Authority is most important. That's what safeguards the people. After that, you can talk about freedom," insisted Mohammed Salman, a sergeant at a checkpoint in Dora, once one of Baghdad's most dangerous locales. "If people are getting slaughtered in the streets, what does freedom matter?"

"God make this country safe," a saying appealed on the wall behind him.

Graffiti, slogans and the scrawl of free association have always told a story of Iraq. The sentiments spoke to the past and future, to aspirations and disappointments. "The mass graves are the living proof that Saddam and his collaborators are debauched infidels," one line of graffiti read in 2003. Another insisted, "No Sunni, no Shiite. All of us are under the banner: There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger."

Some seemed to taunt, as Iraq descended into a nihilistic spasm of carnage. One banner in those days promised "progress" and "prosperity" to a blood-soaked country on the brink of collapse. A few months later, a splash of black paint had blotted out half of each word. Underneath was a trash dump with a pile of rusted scrap metal at the side.

Some were simply sad. In the blood bath that ensued in 2006 and 2007, one poster almost mourned. "However strong the wind," the saying went, "it will pass."

These days, the slogans along checkpoints endeavor to engineer a loyalty to a state whose identity no one yet agrees on. "Long live Iraq," one slogan reads. "Iraq first," another declares. No one asks the question, though everyone seems to think it:

"Whose Iraq?"

There is a cinematic quality to Baghdad -- not the soaring vistas of David Lean, who directed "Lawrence of Arabia," but rather the dystopian panoramas of a post-apocalyptic film. Everything bears the tint of brown -- palm trees dusted by a desert wind, sheep that graze in soggy trash, a sky colored by dirt churned under the tires of trucks plowing through ubiquitous checkpoints.

"Baghdad welcomes you," one checkpoint reads on the city's outskirts.

Paintings now adorn many of the barricades. Their motifs are rarely Arab or Islamic. More often they draw on a Babylonian or Sumerian past. In that, they recall the ambitions of other ostensibly Arab states never quite at ease with being Arab -- a Lebanon that professes Phoenician roots, an Egypt that embraces its Pharaonic past. For Iraq, it is even more pronounced, given the tragedies Kurds have endured for generations here.

Maliki's true ambitions for this state remain as opaque as a sky buffeted by the capital's sandstorms. For years, he was seen as militantly sectarian, hailing from a party that helped give rise to politicized Shiite Islam. Today, he fashions himself a nationalist. In public at least, he wants to found a state built on law. The slogans, of course, comply.

"One hand builds, one hand fights," reads a slogan borrowed from Hussein's days. Police, one declares, are "a thorn in the eyes of the terrorist." The terms "law," "order" and "respect" wind themselves through other sayings. "Yes to national unity," one declares.

So far, the country falls short.

At one checkpoint, where feral dogs slept in sewage that seemed to offer a respite from the searing heat, policemen complained that in Hussein's day, a single officer could amble down the street and close it to traffic with no more than a few words.

Now, they said, they live in fear of the "red eye," a driver flashing a look at them that meant he would return, in the words of one, "with a gun or car bomb." At another, officers complained of disrespect, as traffic plowed unhindered past barricades bordered with chunks of concrete and topped with plastic flowers that managed to look withered.

"Freedom? We have the law of the jungle," said Mohammed Yusuf, a policeman.

"What we see on paper is beautiful. But you see nothing in reality," added a colleague, who identified himself as Abu Zeinab. "We can't do anything. We can't stop any vehicle. We stand here and it's like we're acting in a play. It's all theater."

"The sons of Iraq protect the nation," a slogan behind them read.

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