BAGHDAD — Looks can be deceiving, but they can also be revealing. Walking into a major hotel in Baghdad these days and one cannot help but notice a group of women dressed in a conservative Muslim fashion, covering not only their heads, but also wearing long matching overcoats – in the heat of Baghdad, where summer comes very early.
Mistaking this gathering for an event connected with the nearby Iranian embassy, it is further astonishing to learn that this is in fact an event sponsored by the United Nations and the Iraqi government for International Women’s Day.
To those familiar with Baghdad, such a sight is an anomaly in a city that prided itself for its cosmopolitan flare. And the irony is even more accentuated by the fact that this gathering is in celebration of women.
“This is Baghdad,” laments one of the hotel staff, pointing despairingly at the women. “Do you see this? They all look like they are from Iran! What is our country coming to?” he wails.
Reluctant at first, one of the women agrees to talk, but insists it be done away from the crowd.
“Why is everyone dressed like this,” asks this reporter.
“Please don’t misunderstand. We don’t dress like this normally. It is too hot and this is not our style, but if we do not, they threaten us,” she explains. A friend standing by her side nods in agreement.
Another woman, a member of the election committee explained that they were told to dress that way and wear a coat, even in summer if they wanted to be on the committee.
“Iran is taking over everything,” she laments.
Another woman, an Iraqi Assyrian Christian, refuses to partake in a business meeting organized for women, because she is afraid she will be seen.
By whom? Asks this reporter, insisting that this is inside the so-called Green Zone, protected by the U.S military.
“I’m so sorry, but they will see me and it will be a problem for me” says the woman, a hint of trepidation clearly audible in her voice.
Does this mean “they” are watching inside the Green Zone?
The woman becomes very nervous: “They are from Iran,” she says. “They are everywhere. If I am seen they will cause trouble for me. They have hurt many.”
Refusing to accept the notion that Iranians are operating right under the eyes of U.S. forces, this reporter decides to have a look for himself.
Meeting with the Iraqi-American who is coordinating the event I relate the conversation just exchanged across the street.
“I am afraid she may be right,” he says, almost in a whisper.”There are Iranians all over the place,” he adds.
He goes on: “What is happening is that Iranians are coming, but they have Iraqi IDs. We keep telling the Americans that even though they may show up with Iraqi IDs they are in fact from Iran. They don’t want to hear about it. They are everywhere.”
One woman who had removed her head to foot covering related the story of her ‘arrest’ and detention which lasted for six hours.
“They are all Iranian and influenced by Iran. The only way they let me go was if I promised I would spy for them inside the Green Zone and with my contacts,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.
A constant fear from Iraqis these days is what will happen after the United States withdraws.
“Please don’t let the Americans leave. Iran is taking over. We are afraid and we need help,” she said, echoing the feeling of many Iraqis, especially among minority groups, like the Assyrians.