My 767 took a direct-line approach to landing at Baghdad International, setting down on the runway, pulling into the gate, and discharging us into the terminal in April as happens at a normal airport anywhere.
It was a great contrast to the last time I landed in Baghdad a decade ago. Then the only flight I could take was a 20-seat prop plane flown by a humanitarian group, and the only way the pilot could land it was to corkscrew in, avoiding anti-aircraft fire and missiles from militant insurgents.
But beyond my 2014 landing, little in Baghdad is straightforward 11 years after the fall of Saddam. April 9 marked that anniversary, and only a few days before I tagged along with Canon Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad’s St. George’s Church, on a round of visits to poor families to deliver food aid.
Like many neighborhoods worn down by war and continued insurgency, Baghdad Al-Jadida (“New Baghdad”) is a slightly more dusty, dilapidated, and impoverished version of itself since about 500 U.S. troops took charge of it in 2007 and 2008. They were part of the surge effort led by Gen. David Petraeus. Besides patrolling the district, they worked to set up a new market—hoping to secure better public spaces to make it possible for more residents to set up shop and stay safe while doing it.
Today that market has mostly lapsed back to its old way, arrayed beneath heavy canvas tarps held up by poles, a dense labyrinth for vendors and one hard to patrol. It was busy with shoppers on the Friday afternoon I was there, and nearby flocks of fattened sheep grazed on garbage in vacant lots. Security, though, remains elusive, and every side street—as in much of Baghdad—is barricaded with concrete blast walls. In the last year the area has seen a return to car bombings, including one in Baghdad Al-Jadida in January that left five dead and 12 wounded. Another on the April 9 anniversary killed two residents and wounded 25.
White’s SUV was full of food packages for delivery, but police halted his progress after visiting only one home. Five kidnappings had taken place that day, they reported, Iraqis yanked from their homes by criminals, and White could be a target as well. Even the army security that had accompanied him into the neighborhood said he had to leave (well known for his tenacity, White persuaded officials to permit one more visit that included serving communion to some homebound, disabled parishioners).
What’s new about the old war in Iraq is the proximity of al-Qaeda–linked fighters known as ISIL, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The group took control of Fallujah in January, and in recent weeks moved on Ramadi, only 80 miles west of Baghdad. “It’s a slaughterhouse,” one Ramadi resident reached by phone told me. These fighters are blamed for the worsening situation that threatens the capital. Since the beginning of this year, over 2,000 Iraqis have been killed in terrorist-related violence.
Like it or not, most Iraqis also blame the United States. They blame the United States for the overall uptick in violence and the lack of improvements, and for propping up a corrupt government they say has done virtually nothing to repair the country’s broken infrastructure. Nearly every Iraqi I spoke to wanted to talk about it, each careful to say they don’t blame the American people but do blame the U.S. government.
In the mind of most Iraqis, says White, “The Americans came and they liberated them but didn’t see through any of the change. The country fell into chaos, violence, and poverty, and then the Americans left.”
Americans are likely to believe this turned out to be an internal war, a war between Sunnis and Shiites the United States ultimately could do little about. We forget: In Iraq we were the ones who started it, who disbanded one government yet failed to charter another successfully. And untamed terrorist winds from there are blowing.