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In recent weeks I have begun watching, some 20 years late, HBO’s iconic show “The Wire,” which predominantly showcases the failures of institutional bureaucracies in Baltimore where drug lords terrorize many underserved neighborhoods in the city. It took a while becoming familiar with the names and faces of the involved parties from gang members to police and detectives. By episode 6 of season 1, I needed a notebook to map out the plot and various players and locations. I would frequently Google certain phrases and expressions that sounded alien to me which often led me down rabbit holes of stories and anecdotes on the fascinating yet terrifying world of illicit activities. I learned “g-pack” meant a package of 50 vials of cocaine, and “tool up” meant to prepare for a massive street war.
That research felt uncomfortably similar to the work on armed extremist groups I have done for nearly a decade. In previous years I had overtly rejected the term “Chi-Raq,” a wordplay combining Chicago and Iraq to express the state of lawlessness, violence, and chaos in the former. I found it racist and inaccurate. Organized crime and state-sanctioned violence are incomparable, but watching “The Wire,” a fiction based on reality, has shifted my thinking. Not Chi-Raq but Balti-Raq. The contexts remain drastically different, but the parallels stand. One prominent parallel is how both drug wars and inter-militia conflict both seem never-ending.
One scene in season 3 illustrated a situation eerily similar to what was unfolding in Baghdad in real time and to people I care about. On the show, a woman was complaining to a police commander about how she can no longer enter her home in dignity because drug dealers would sell their stuff on her porch. Another woman said her children can no longer play outside, and at night when the shots go off, they would sleep under the bed. When gangs clash, neighborhoods and streets become their playground.
While I was streaming the show on HBO, in Baghdad armed militias confronted one another in what could have been the long-feared intra-Shiite war. Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his rivals, the leadership of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have been on the verge of confrontation for nearly one year. Both parties vying for power, viewing the other as a trespasser over their sphere of influence, or rather turf. But where the fights on Baltimore’s streets as portrayed on The Wire were over territorial ownership of neighborhoods for drug trade purposes, in Baghdad the fighting was over parliament seats and the formation of a new Iraqi government. The most influential Iraqi politicians have armed militias and tribes at their disposal. These armed factions protect these politicians, and also impose certain realities through coercion and violence. Al-Fatah bloc, the political arm of the PMF, lost parliamentary seats in the last elections, whereas the Sadrist movement, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, had significantly more votes. Both blocs control militias, and what could not be solved in Parliament transpired on the streets.
A curfew was quickly announced, with gunshots and what appeared to be rocket attacks fired from and into the neighborhoods adjacent to the Green Zone. The recent escalation in Baghdad did not amount to urban warfare but was similar to the street fights between local gangs. Violence is in no way foreign to Baghdad, but for the past decade or so armed confrontation at the neighborhood level became a rarity and the cautious stability offered hope to a young generation of Iraqis who have only known conflict.
I phoned my friend in Baghdad as soon as the curfew was announced last week. She was understandably frantic, having just left her work post on the way home. Traffic was insane, and by the time she arrived in her neighborhood, the confrontation between the armed militias had started. There were convoys of gunmen patrolling the streets looking for their rivals. My friend quickly ran to the neighborhood bodega.
“There was nothing left! All I managed to get were two potatoes the shop owner offered me. There is no bread anywhere,” she cried.
The said neighborhood is by no standards poor, but fear of this particular militia rivalry left locals dreading the worst. They rushed to local neighborhood markets and bought all they could to store for a potentially long armed conflict. Luckily, de-escalation came soon after. Also like “The Wire,” the local authorities and security apparatuses appeared unable or unwilling to prevent the violence, and the withdrawal of the armed street power only happened due to compromises made by the main perpetrators. The curfew was removed in less than 24 hours, and I dialed my friend to see how she was. In the background I heard music and giggly voices. “Everything is fine. I’m at a cafe with friends in Karradah” (let’s call it downtown Baghdad). The ease and content in her voice contrasted the anxiety I heard just hours earlier. The cautious stability in Baghdad was also precious, and locals were trying to simply make the most out of their days.
Surviving in a climate where everyday life seems like a marathon between two contrasts can only be mentally taxing. The longing for normalcy triumphs, right now at least, any desire to uproot the wrong. There is no trust in government but no appetite for change that would come at the hefty price of confronting these militias. Analysis of what is happening in Iraq between Muqtada al-Sadr’s men and other armed militias did make headlines. Missing in most was the direct effect on civilians who remember Iraq’s 2006-2008 period, before the last jihadist reincarnation as the Islamic State group and before the PMF were an official part of Iraq’s security apparatus. The last armed confrontation between militias emptied entire districts and displaced thousands of people, forever. No one in Iraq besides the militias is happy with the de facto rulers of the country, the armed groups on all sides that dictate political outcomes. Very few in Iraq are willing to act to end the cycles of chaos. Three years ago, thousands of unarmed youths took to the streets demanding change, and hundreds of them died. A sense of fatalism appears dominant in the country where living day by day in peace is the highest aspiration.
Four season finales of “The Wire” remain for me to watch. The first two did not have a happy or satisfying ending, but a realistic one where the bad guys get away with crime and the good guys aren’t always good. In Baghdad, there are no winners, either. The fear of the consequences that accompany change is stronger than the desire for a better life. There are Iraqi voices abroad , many sincere, that are just as frustrated with the status quo in Iraq and repeatedly call for change through protests and revolution. They are quickly shut down by locals who vow not to repeat the mistake of listening to and believing in the opposition in diaspora. Maintaining fragile stability triumphs the idea of dying as a hero in vain.