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Leila Fadel, Baghdad Bureau Chief of McClatchy Newspapers discusses how the layers of graffiti on the segregation walls of Iraq explain the US invasion and the ongoing devastation. The layers tell the stories of militias that have come and gone and the changing leaders that have taken and lost power in Iraq. Fadel says the latest layer on the walls is the plenitude of political posters of hundreds of competing politicians running in the upcoming provincial elections.

Story Transcript

The walls of Iraq

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from the McClatchy Newspaper offices in Washington, DC. And we’re now joined by Leila Fadel, coming from Baghdad. She’s the head of McClatchy Newspaper, Baghdad bureau. Thanks for joining us, Leila.


JAY: So, Leila, you’re in the midst of writing an article about the walls of Baghdad. Tell us what that’s about.

FADEL: Basically, Iraq is a maze of walls now, the blast walls that have come up through this war to divide and protect, those that divide the government from the population, the population from each other, and the foreigners from the population. But there are also the walls that have always been here, and those walls, really, are like a story of the six years of this war, because in every phase there’s a layer of graffiti that tells that story, whether it be about “Long live al-Qaeda, down live the American occupation,” whether it be “Maliki the disgrace” when he was attacking the Mahdi Army. If it’s about the Peshmerga coming into Baghdad and being put on the sectarian front lines, there’s graffiti that says, “No, no,” to the Peshmerga. So there’s these layers that really tell a story of these six years. And the final layer, for now, are the campaign posters that are indicative of the language they use about what the future will be and what they’re trying to tell people the future will be, about construction and services and a better future and “We are with you.” And so I took a wall and I basically analyzed the layers of that graffiti.

JAY: The walls in Sadr City, what do they tell you about what’s happened to Sadr City? There was essentially a mini-war in Sadr City not that long ago. What is the situation there now?

FADEL: Well, to be honest, I didn’t use a wall out of Sadr City. I did use a wall out of [inaudible], which is very much like Sadr City. It was controlled by the Mahdi Army. There was a sectarian war there where almost every Sunni was pushed out of the neighborhood, except for one small group of the [inaudible] tribe in a corner of that town. And you go there, and you still see the pictures of Muqtada al-Sadr praying with his hands open, and the dead of the Jaish al Mahdi, the Mahdi Army, and they call them “happy martyrs.” And then you go to the walls, and you see [inaudible] you know, the nights of Sadr, the Sadr falcons. You still see the fading graffiti of the militia that no longer is powerful and has faded just like that graffiti has. So it’s a very poor Shia area, and on the top now people are whiting out over that history and writing things like “The national police were heroes.” The checkpoints have changed from the plain clothes of the militants that once manned those checkpoints to the police, the national police, now. And so you see a real transformation in that neighborhood that is in some ways superficial and in other ways real. I mean, you still have a presence of the Sadr movement, but that Sadr movement may be transforming as well. You also see the posters of one of the parties that they’ve endorsed that’s called the Independent Free Men, and it’s two hands shackled with the Iraqi flag coming down, because they see themselves as always the fighters of oppression.

JAY: One of the things, I think, that doesn’t get talked about very much about Iraq is the extent to which most of the people are living in terrible poverty. We talk about the violence, but there’s not a lot of talk about the poverty and daily living conditions. Maybe a little bit about electricity being on and off. But to what extent is Iraq divided, just in perhaps a new type of division, between rich and poor?

FADEL: Well, I mean, unemployment is extremely high here. The average salary here is maybe $200 a month. But living costs are going up, you know, with this new democracy or this new freedom that we say we brought Iraqis. There’s also it’s so much more expensive for people. Many are squatting in government buildings [inaudible] paid to live in government buildings that are now being taken back, and they go out to look for a home, and they just can’t afford it any longer. There are so many orphans here orphaned by this war, there are so many widows here, widowed by this war, who have to figure out how to figure out how to support their families. And you see that poverty in the street.

JAY: What’s happened to the millions of refugees? Are people coming back? And if they are, is there any place to go? Or are refugees staying abroad in camps?

FADEL: Some are coming back, but, again, it’s a trickle, not a flow. You don’t see the four million displaced and refuged Iraqis returning. But some have come back, yes.

JAY: And do you have a sense of what’s happening to the refugees that are still in refugee camps?

FADEL: I can talk from inside Iraq. I haven’t done much outside on the refugee crisis. But inside Iraq, the displacement camps are never something that people remain in. A lot of people see that as shameful. And so, generally, when they get displaced, if they can’t find a family member in another province or outside the country, or, you know, they live—there was a lot of house-swapping at one point, where, like, a Sunni person in a Shia neighborhood would switch with a Shia person in a Sunni neighborhood, and they would swap a home. And so that’s the type of displacement you’ll see more often than the camps. I haven’t visited the displacement camps in awhile, but I did go out a couple of months ago. There’s still a lot of fear. And people, even if you tell them it’s better, it’s not that easy to go back when you’ve lost family members and you’ve seen people killed in front of your eyes, because it wasn’t okay. And so it’s not easy to convince people that everything’s going to be fine.

JAY: The talk of getting out within 16 months and when to get out and how quickly to get out, but getting out isn’t going to do much about changing the wellbeing of the Iraqi people. And is there any kind of plan in place, either from the Iraqi government or else-wise, that might actually show a significant change in people’s wellbeing?

FADEL: I don’t know. I mean, they talk about plans, and they talk about committees, and they talk about this and that, but it’s unclear. I mean, the welfare system here seems to be broken, and the money that does come from the government is very difficult to get and isn’t always constant. And so I can’t really answer that question easily. I can tell you that the talk about when we’ll leave is important, and I think the way we exit this war is a really important time in history. And, you know, the ambassador gave a briefing to reporters yesterday, and he said that the greatest mistake America could make was to leave too quickly, because they don’t want to lose any semblance of progress that they have had. And so there is a concern that the new administration will just sort of leave. And not everything has been solved. The political problems remain. You know, a lot of the campaign right now is based on the idea of tribes. And you talk to some people, and they think that’s just as bad as the sectarian and ethnic voting that was going on before, voting based on a tribal structure. Yes, Iraq has a tribal structure, but the tribal structure is about blood money and revenge and, you know, that type of thing, which is a very old-school form of governance. And is that what you want for the future of Iraq? Are the democratic institutions ingrained in Iraq and it will stay that way? Or is it going to be warlords who rule from province to province?

JAY: But in terms of popular opinion, is popular opinion is that Americans should get out as soon as possible and Iraqis will sort all this out?

FADEL: Most people will tell you that. Most people will tell you that when you talk to people on the street. But I think there’s also a fear because the Americans are in the middle of all of this. They are the people that brought the Sons of Iraq. They funded those militias that are now coming into the political fold and running in these campaigns, and they all start coming into the government, and everything is very new, and the trust is still not there. The relationship between the prime minister in Baghdad and the president in Kurdistan is horrible. And that decision on how regions are going to work, compared to what type of power the federal government is going to have, that’s all unresolved, and those are all things that could lead to violent actions or, you know, a new type of not very democratic rulership.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Leila Fadel is the chief of the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She has covered the war in Iraq for Knight Ridder and now McClatchy on and off since June 2005, as well as the 34-day war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006. Prior to joining the McClatchy team she worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a crime and higher education reporter.

Fadel graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in 2004 and has lived in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. She speaks conversational Arabic. She was named print journalist of the year by the Houston Press Club for her work in 2005 and won a Katie Award from the Dallas Press Club in 2006 for her portfolio of work.

Her Iraq reporting won her Print Journalist of the Year honors from the Houston Press Club citing her work from "Bedford (Texas) to Baghdad."