After a twenty-three year exile, I returned to Iraq in June 2003. When filming a home video outside Baghdad museum, I was shot in the back by United States troops.
Six months later, I crossed the border again.
As I approached the Jordanian side of the frontier, it was clear that there were fewer US soldiers. I saw only two sitting by themselves. This time, there were more Iraqi border guards.
We drove through the monotonous desert and were stopped several times by Iraqi highway police, another innovation since the summer. Their checkpoints try to deter the many cases of car-jackings taking place in parts of the Sunni triangle Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit, as well as Mosul and certain areas of Baghdad.
We stopped several times to refill at the petrol black market: basically a few people standing on the side of the road selling petrol in jerry cans, at ten times the usual price. At every filling station, long queues stretched into the horizon; people join the queue one night and reach the pump the following night. The petrol shortage, ironic for a country possessing the worlds second largest oil reserves, is due to an influx of imported cars as well as the terrorist attacks on oil installations and pipelines.
An unforgettable moment
I arrived in Baghdad on 13 December 2003, and slept heavily after the gruelling journey. The next day, I awoke to the sound of extremely loud, close gunfire from every direction. I was completely dazed; for a moment, I thought the house was under attack. Then I heard the sounds of women ululating and children screaming in the streets. I ran to the living room, where my aunt was in tears and my mother had the widest grin on her face. The al-Jazeera television presenter was broadcasting the rumour that Saddam had been captured.
I could not believe it, I thought it was a false alarm even when Paul Bremers press conference began. Then, completely unexpected, the picture of Saddam being medically examined by a soldier appeared on the screen. The reality hit me. I cried uncontrollable tears of joy; my body shook with excitement.
Baghdad erupted at the news. People were excited, buzzing with energy, congratulating each other in the streets and by telephone, throwing sweets at passing cars and pedestrians. The sound of celebratory gunfire continued the whole day. The joy was even more unconfined in the southern Iraqi cities, where the security situation is better and people more confident to gather in large numbers. By contrast, the mood in the Sunni triangle areas still loyal to the ex-dictator was sullen and bitter.
All new: cars, money, mobiles demos
In Baghdad, I was again most struck by the paucity of US soldiers patrolling the streets although my run of bad luck with them continued when, on my second day there, the car I was in was rear-ended by a Humvee. Far more numerous are the new Iraqi police with their uniforms and cars, traffic wardens at major intersections, and a drastic increase of gleaming vehicles imported from Iraqs neighbours and from Europe.
There is still a huge problem with electricity supply. The telephone lines in some areas of Baghdad are still not working, though mobile phones are spreading. The shops are full of goods never seen or permitted under the Saddam regime, like satellite dishes. The latest household appliances can be found everywhere. Salaries have increased drastically. A primary school teacher now earns $50 a month rather than the pre-war $3; doctors earn over $300, rather than $4, a month.
Dozens of newspapers have appeared, covering every aspect of politics and free from censorship. There is also an influx of international newspapers and magazines. People can criticise the government without fear of being tortured and killed. Demonstrations and strikes are routine. During my stay, the students of Baghdad University demonstrated against a rise in fees; for a second, I thought I was back in Englands Cambridge University!
The new Iraqi money has hit the street to replace the impractical and easily forged Saddam dinar. Before the war, everything was bought with the 250-dinar note ($0.15); a restaurant bill for a family might be 40,000 dinar, requiring two sackfuls of money to be taken from the car boot and given to the waiter. The new money is beautifully printed by an English company the original printer of Iraqi money and comes in denominations of 50, 250, 1000, 5000, 10,000 and 25,000 dinar.
Not resistance, but terrorism
Serious crimes like theft, rape, hijacking and murder have decreased since summer 2003, although terrorism has increased. The terrorists who previously attacked US soldiers are now targeting civilians and spreading fear. No one knows where or when the next assault might come.
I stayed in the wealthy area of Kerada next to the green zone, near the presidential palace, in the most secure area of Baghdad. During my twenty-five days there I heard thirteen explosions close by. Two were roadside bombs which killed innocent civilians and shopkeepers.
The terrorists wanted to cause chaos and instability during the Christmas and New Year period especially, although many Christian Baghdadis bravely attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve in the many churches in Baghdad. Young armed Iraqis guarded the buildings.
At this time, American forces were engaged in a heavy military operation against a terrorist faction known to be operating in Doura, fairly close to where I was staying. One night, on the brink of sleep around 1am, I heard the reverberating noise of jet fighter planes punctuated by heavy explosions and other weapons I could not recognise. The strangeness and randomness was nerve-racking. I feared for my mother who was sleeping upstairs.
On the morning of 31 December, a relative invited me to a New Years Eve dinner with his pregnant wife and another couple at a restaurant in Arasat al-Hindiya, an upmarket area near Kerada. I declined the invitation, citing safety reasons and urging him also to stay indoors. He dismissed my fears: There are so many restaurants in Baghdad, even if an attack is going to happen what is the likelihood of this restaurant being attacked?
That evening, I celebrated the arrival of 2004 with many other relatives. I remember looking at the clock when my mother was talking on the phone to my sister in London. It was exactly 10pm. A second later, a huge explosion shook the house and cracked the kitchen windows. My heart skipped a beat. Everyone in the room froze.
I ran to the door and onto the street, looking for the source of a huge plume of smoke. It came from the direction of Arasat, but from where I was standing, it seemed to start further away. Police cars and fire fighters were already hurtling towards the scene.
It was only the next day that the news was confirmed. My relative, his pregnant wife and the other couple were killed in their car as they were parking outside the restaurant.
This is not resistance. To call it so is to insult the Iraqi people. How can people resist occupation by killing their own people and detonating roadside bombs, bombs outside mosques, bombs that destroy United Nations and Red Cross personnel? A true resistance by the Iraqi people would not be conducted in this cowardly and pathetic way.