Deconstructing Baghdad

During lulls between terrorist attacks, there are moments when the capital of Iraq feels like any other Middle Eastern metropolis. Fruit juice bars are making a comeback, annoying ring-tones herald the long-awaited launch of a mobile phone network, and American soldiers, having transferred many law-and-order duties to Iraqi policemen, appear on the streets as if in cameo roles. But one can’t go far in central Baghdad without being reminded of recent unpleasantries. One year after the start of Operation Shock and Awe, bombed and looted buildings still stand like massive mausoleums at seemingly every corner, public square, and boulevard.

Among the wrecks are some of the city’s most prominent structures — the Vice Presidential Palace, the Olympic Stadium, Souk Monsur, Iraq’s largest mall. Once the gilding on the cage that was Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, these buildings are now impediments to the city’s rebirth, havens of crime, and downright gloomy. Who’s in charge of cleaning up this mess? Why a freelance documentarian, of course.

Sean O’ Sullivan first came to Iraq to film the war, returning to California soon afterwards. Then one day while sitting in a Los Angeles cafĂ© complaining about the slow pace of reconstruction, his girlfriend told him to put up or shut up. So he raised $2 million dollars in private contributions, and returned to Iraq to found Jumpstart, an NGO that will soon employ almost 1,000 people and has cleared over 200 major ruins and destroyed 50 others that were beyond repair. One of its recent patients, the looted National Library, is now ready to be restocked with books.

Jumpstart tackles high visibility projects, operating on the Broken Window Theory, Baghdad-style. The idea, championed by successive New York city police chiefs as they turned that city from a byword of lawlessness into the pre- Sept. 11 yuppie utopia it once was, is that obvious signs of civil disorder lead to greater chaos. In New York, that meant quality-of-life crimes went punished. In Baghdad, where unemployment is rife, giving jobs to unskilled laborers is a terrorism prevention program in of itself.

The fact that the only coordinated effort to remove these eyesores is being led by a man trying to impress his girlfriend reflects the haphazard way things happen in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-dominated de facto government, is preoccupied with security and major infrastructure problems like power and water. It expects Iraqi ministries to clean up the buildings that they own. But in the absence of specific orders, the ministries dither.

One day last month, while O’Sullivan was inspecting work on the Ministry of Information, the largest office building in Iraq, former Ministry bureaucrats demonstrated outside, calling for their jobs back. None of them have come by and offered to help, or even ask for work, O’Sullivan pointed out. “If just one Minister rolled up his sleeves and got a wheelbarrow, it would set an example.”