Some contractor has struck it big: whoever imported plastic flowers in recent weeks must be swimming in cash. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqi Police cars and Iraqi Army Humvees have been decked out in plastic flowers and balloons, and policemen and soldiers were handing out stems of plastic flowers to passersby. Speakers were hooked up to car batteries, patriotic songs blaring. At least one traffic cop was spotted riding around, awkwardly holding a cell phone to his motorcycle’s radio with the aim of amplifying a love song saved on the phone to other motorists.
This was the scene on the streets of Baghdad on June 30th the day U.S. soldiers left Iraqi cities and garrisoned themselves in military bases away from urban areas. The date was set by the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government last year. The latter put together elaborate celebrations—concerts, military parades, and of course, investing in plastic flowers—to mark the occasion, but impromptu street dancing with trumpets and drums, one outside my balcony, came together as teenage guys, needing release and needing to get spotted by the teenage girls looking on from the sidelines and from other balconies, jumped and yelled and hooted and did all the things that people that age find fun.
The official rhetoric was all about ending the ‘occupation’. Yet the unofficial and very real euphoria that was felt came from a sense that an important milestone had been passed: garrisoning American soldiers was an inevitable step towards the return of normality. Normality, after such a long absence, makes regular people happy.
There was significant trepidation the day before. Folks were calling each other up, warning of cancelled flights and changed plans. Most assumed that a curfew would be in place, even though the official television station carried a line on its ticker all day denying that. Police stations would be overrun and insurgent groups would be back in the streets, people whimpered.
Nothing of the sort happened. The only armed presence was that of the state, and there was plenty of it, even though it looked a little silly with those balloons tied to tank cannons.
The Americans didn’t put on a show. No tank parades of their own and no fighter planes flying in formation. I wished that Iraqi politicians would have had the courage to express gratitude for all sacrifice that these young Americans had expended to bring normality back to Iraq’s streets, but political courage was lacking. The irony was that U.S. troops had to vacate the same streets that they secured so that regular Iraqis would feel relief. It will require some more time for the people of Iraq to acknowledge the gratitude they owe to the Americans.
Spokesmen for insurgents were busy filling the airways of Arab satellite channels like Al Jazeera with claims that they had forced the Americans out. The reality is that the Americans wouldn’t have left had the insurgency not been broken. This too will take time to sink in.
For now, some contractor needs to think about investing in greenhouses to supply Iraq’s botanical needs. According to the SOFA agreement, by 2011 all U.S. troops will have left Iraq and that will count as another milestone towards normality. By that time, one would hope that those garish plastic flowers will be replaced by real ones.