The standard line of political bullshit from the Bush Administration and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill is that the situation is improving in Iraq. But journalists on the ground in Baghdad, the ones who aren’t brain dead from U.S. propaganda, report otherwise.
As I hung up the phone, I wondered if I would ever see my friend Ali alive again. Ali, The Times translator for the past three years, lives in west Baghdad, an area that is now in meltdown as a bitter civil war rages between Sunni insurgents and Shia militias. It is, quite simply, out of control.
I returned to Baghdad on Monday after a break of several months, during which I too was guilty of glazing over every time I read another story of Iraqi violence. But two nights on the telephone, listening to my lost and frightened Iraqi staff facing death at any moment, persuaded me that Baghdad is now verging on total collapse.
Those that can are leaving the country. At Baghdad airport, throngs of Iraqis jostle for places on the flights out — testimony to the breakdown in Iraqi society.
One woman said that she and her three children were fleeing Mansour, once the most stylish part of the capital. “Every day there is fighting and killing,” she said as she boarded a plane for Damascus in Syria to sit out the horrors of Baghdad.
A neurologist, who was heading to Jordan with his wife, said that he would seek work abroad and hoped that he would never have to return. “We were so happy on April 9, 2003 when the Americans came. But I’ve given up. Iraq isn’t ready for democracy,” he said, sitting in a chair with a view of the airport runway.
Fares al-Mufti, an official with the Iraqi Airways booking office, told The Times that the national carrier had had to lay on an extra flight a day, all fully booked. Flights to Damascus have gone up from three a week to eight to cope with the panicked exodus.
Muhammad al-Ani, who runs fleets of Suburban cars to Jordan, said that the service to Amman was so oversubscribed that that prices had rocketed from $200 (£108) to $750 per trip in the past two weeks.
Despite the huge risks of driving through the Sunni Triangle, the number of buses to Jordan has mushroomed from 2 a day to as many as 40 or 50.
Abu Ahmed, a Sunni who was leaving Ghazaliya with his family and belongings, said that he was ready to pay the exorbitant prices being charged because his wife had received a death threat at the hospital in a Shia area where she worked.
“We can’t cope, we have to take the children out for a while,” he said.
In one of the few comprehensive surveys of how many Iraqis have fled their country since the US invasion, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants said last month that there were 644,500 refugees in Syria and Jordan in 2005 — about 2.5 per cent of Iraq’s population. In total, 889,000 Iraqis had moved abroad, creating “the biggest new flow of refugees in the world”, according to Lavinia Limon, the committee’s president.
And the exodus may only just be starting.