'Freed' Iraqis still waiting for the wind of change

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The gale tore into Baghdad yesterday, stripping the walls of election posters, sending miniature whirlwinds between the shuttered shops of Rashid Street, giving new meaning to the black hoods and masks worn by the policemen at Tahrir Square.

The gale tore into Baghdad yesterday, stripping the walls of election posters, sending miniature whirlwinds between the shuttered shops of Rashid Street, giving new meaning to the black hoods and masks worn by the policemen at Tahrir Square.

Tahrir - "independence" - is a word which a lot of people voted for on Sunday; not for "democracy" as the Western media would have it, but for freedom; freedom to speak, freedom to vote, freedom from the Americans.

They were in Baghdad, too, yesterday, driving their Humvees through Karada, circling the city in their Apaches and their little bee-like Sioux spotter helicopters.

For days we will have to wait for the election results. A spokesman for the Shia Muslim Iraqi National Alliance is quoted in The New York Times as saying that the Americans and British say his party might have won more than 50 per cent of the vote - the Shia Republic has come of age! - and it's all the talk of Baghdad when the people hear it in Arabic on their own networks from the Gulf. But how could the Americans know now that the INA has won more than half the votes?

At the end of Jumhuriya Street, a squad of cops in plain clothes stands on a pick-up truck, rifles pointing at us, some of them hooded. At midday, it's still supposed to be the curfew.

The houses are boarded up, the shops closed. It's as if, after voting, the Shias are waiting for the political equivalent of a tsunami punishment, the Sunnis merely biding their time.

The shish kebab in my least-favourite Baghdad restaurant tastes like cardboard. No wonder my friend Haidar says that the only decent food we get nowadays is at funerals.

In Nidhal Street, I find a "haj" [pilgrimage] bus trailing our car. It has an Iraqi flag on the front and its destination, Mecca, written in bold black paint across a banner on the front. Held up by the election curfews, the pilgrims were off on their long drive south.

Against this insurgency, this election, the eternal, hopeless optimism of Messrs Bush and Blair, the much more eternal ritual of Muslim faith and prayer goes on.

My Lebanese travel agent was on the haj and I called him from Baghdad to ensure he was safely home - pilgrims have a disturbing habit of being crushed to death - and I realised at once what it must be like for Iraqis, trapped in their country, to make a call abroad.

Only a few days in the claustrophobia of Baghdad and an international call is like an oxygen bottle. Yes, says Ahmed, the weather in Beirut is cold, there is snow on the mountains, my cleaning lady has closed the shutters and he's safe back from the haj.

The television flickers in my room. The ex-CIA man and "interim" Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, - possibly the next "interim" Prime Minister as well - is telling Iraqis that their vote on Sunday means that "the terrorists have been defeated".

Flak jackets on, I say to myself. Why do these people - the British were the same in Northern Ireland - invite further attack? This is the same Allawi who, from his bunker in the "Green Zone", instructed his vulnerable people to vote two days ago.

More and more, we feel this vast, cosmic distance between real Iraq and the fantasy Iraq of Washington and London. I watch Blair talking nervously, his body language defensive, his eyes spiritual, telling us what a stupendous success the election has been. But he chose to keep the extent of the extent of the RAF Hercules tragedy secret from his people when he spoke on Sunday night. So why the surprise when the Americans and British still keep secret the number of Iraqis who are killed here every day?

Twice in the morning, there are huge explosions which roar over Baghdad. I hear a gun battle near Sadr City. But the local Iraqi radio carries no explanation of this.

At mid-morning, two police cars overtake me, sirens squealing, Kalashnikovs waving out the windows at motorists, the cops mouthing oaths at anyone who blocks their way. No reason again. They are the real world, hooded and unidentifiable. Fast and stirring dust.

Like the wind.

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