Faith, Shame, and Insurgency

Life in occupied Iraq


Unless you're a VIP who can fly directly into the Baghdad airport, the usual way to get to the city is from Amman, Jordan—a 600-mile, 12-hour-plus drive (depending on the vagaries of Jordanian customs officials) across barren terrain only a Bedouin could love. My Iraqi driver picked me up at my hotel at 1 a.m., and after interminable hours bouncing in a GMC Suburban along unmarked pavement lit by stars, we hit the border at dawn. By a neat bit of timing, the sun was just lifting over the horizon when we cleared the final checkpoint and, as I slipped a Nelson Riddle tape into the cassette player, we were off again, roaring across the Mesopotamian desert to the strains of "Route 66."

I'd come to Iraq to test my beliefs. Back in New York, I'd been a firm and vocal backer of the war, though not necessarily of the Bush administration. After witnessing firsthand the horrific events of 9/11, I felt the civilized nations of the world had to take on terrorism at its roots—roots that included the Middle East's legacy of poverty, hopelessness, and despotism, epitomized by, among other tyrants, Saddam Hussein. Saddam may or may not have contributed to the murder of 3,000 people in downtown Manhattan, but I believed a free and prosperous Iraq, spreading ripples of democracy and the rule of law from Damascus to Riyadh, was a key element in preventing similar attacks in America or elsewhere.

But a question had always nagged me: How could I truly endorse the war unless I actually went to Iraq? How did I know my assumptions were correct? And so last fall I traveled to the cradle of uncivilization, staying in Baghdad from mid-September to late October, with a four-day trip to the southern city of Basra. Although my experiences were by no means exhaustive, I feel confident that they were intense and profound enough to offer a valid perspective on the state of Iraq today. I spoke to cab drivers, Islamic clerics, waiters, Western journalists, American and British soldiers, anti-war activists, human rights activists, Iraqi housewives, employed and unemployed academics, children, U.S. government officials—as close to a full panoply of current Baghdad life as I could. What I saw and heard surprised, delighted, and horrified me in ways I could never have predicted. I still support the war—even more so, in fact. But I'm less optimistic than I was on April 9, 2003, the day the statue of Saddam fell in downtown Baghdad, when, through my tears, I believed the good guys had won.

I realize no single account will sway someone as to whether the Iraq war was justified. Indeed, for many opponents of the war, the demise of Saddam Hussein and America's flawed attempts to establish democracy in that country are beside the point. But I wonder how they can assume that their suppositions are correct until they do what I did—go to Iraq and discover for themselves what the Iraqi people think and feel about Saddam and the U.S.

Taking the Pulse

My education in the realities of Iraq started early. At a truck stop near the "Sunni Triangle," the area west of Baghdad populated by foreign and Ba'athist guerilla fighters, we picked up an Iraqi doctor whose car had broken down. As we passed through the volatile towns of Ramadi and Fallujah, where booby traps and ambushes kill or wound American soldiers daily, the doctor pointed out the surrounding vegetation: verdant fields, hedges, palms, and even, he said, copses of birch trees. "To reward his followers," he explained, "Saddam diverted water from the Euphrates River to turn this area into a Garden of Eden." In doing so, however, the tyrant drained thousands of square miles of fertile wetlands in southern Iraq to punish the local "Marsh Arabs" who revolted against his regime after the first Gulf War. "In this way," the doctor concluded, "Saddam turned a desert into gardens and gardens into desert. He corrupted the very geography of Iraq."

Baghdad is an unlovely place. Thirty-five years of war, economic sanctions, and now looting have resulted in gutted buildings, pitted streets, and garbage-strewn fields where packs of dogs run through monotonous neighborhoods of plaster and poured concrete. The dominant color is brown: brown skin, brown buildings, and brown sky, the last from the smog that chokes the city like a five-pack-a-day habit. Add autumnal temperatures of 100 degrees or more, nightmarish traffic jams, and the ever-present threat of crime and suicide bombings, and you've got a place unlikely to top anyone's vacation list.

But if you're interested in hooking up with the Baghdad scene, there are two places to go. One is the Hewar Gallery, northwest of the city's center. As with Rick's American Café in Casablanca, everyone goes to Qasim Septi's combination art gallery, teahouse, and gossip nexus, where former Ba'ath Party members and former agents for the Mukhabarat, Saddam's secret police, hobnob with many of the same people they spied on for the old regime. (The unspoken rule regarding Saddam supporters: Unless they actively tortured or killed people, Iraqis forgive and forget.) At the Hewar I met what passes for Baghdad's bohemians: young, smart, male artists and writers, whose fluency in English makes them the go-to guys for foreign visitors seeking insights into Iraq. I wasn't sure what I'd hear when I asked them about the war.

"When I saw the statue of Saddam fall, I couldn't believe it; I thought I was dreaming," said sculptor Haider Wady. "We use to pray to live for just five minutes without Saddam Hussein. Now we have the rest of our lives!" Painter Mohammad Rasim remarked: "We were afraid the U.S. wouldn't invade. We knew there would be death, but we chose war to get rid of Saddam." Naseer Hasan, a poet and former member of Iraq's national chess team, put it in personal terms: "Throughout my nearly 40 years, I've seen only oppression, terror, and murder. But the removal of Saddam shows me that history can actually smile. Now, each morning I wake up, I find parts of my soul that I thought were dead are slowly coming back to life. April 9th was like a second birthday for me."

To be sure, not everyone at the Hewar felt reborn, especially among the customers over 40, who remembered the good old days of government-sponsored awards and competitions, lucrative commissions for portraits of Father Saddam, and extra pocket money from spying for the Mukhabarat. "Under Saddam, we could do any kind of art, as long as it wasn't political; things were much better then," Septi, the owner, said nostalgically. "Saddam was good for us; we lived well!" declared former Saddam portraitist Abdul Jabar. Some yearned for Saddam's authoritarian hand, especially when it came to the thieves, called in local slang "Ali Baba," who infested Iraq directly after the invasion. "Saddam good, Saddam strong—under Saddam, no Ali Baba," an art dealer griped in broken English.

The roughly 50/50 split between pro- and anti-Saddam voices at the Hewar is deceptive, however. Because of the despot's beneficence to artists—advocates of government arts funding, take note—support for the tyrant runs deep there. The same can't be said for the country as a whole. Among the Kurdish population in the north, for example, opinion is largely anti-Saddam, pro-U.S. In the south, the dominant Shi'a Muslims despise Saddam but are neutral or somewhat antagonistic toward the U.S. Only in the central Sunni Triangle do you find loyalty to Saddam mixed with deep opposition to America.

Baghdad is part of this area, but judging by countless conversations I had with residents, including more than 100 cab drivers, Saddam should not consider running for mayor anytime soon. I'd say at least 95 percent of Baghdadis hate him, with maybe 80 percent supporting the U.S. to various degrees. Anti-American sentiment is tricky to gauge: Iraqis are notoriously double-minded about everything—quite capable, for example, of praising the U.S. for removing Saddam one moment, then castigating it for supporting Israel the next. But an August opinion poll conducted by Zogby International for the American Enterprise Institute found that while 32 percent of Iraqis wanted coalition forces gone within six months, 34 percent wanted them to remain for a year, and an additional 25 percent said it should be two or more years.

Among those less friendly toward the U.S., there's a welter of views, ranging from pro-Saddam, pro-liberation (a tough one to parse) to vehement diatribes against George Bush that Michael Moore might envy. These sentiments were largely drowned out in December when the news that U.S. troops had captured Saddam sent Iraqis into the streets, singing, dancing, and shooting guns into the air. "Saddam is gone and took all his evils with him," said Rand Matti Petros, manager of a Baghdad Internet café, in an e-mail she sent me shortly after the tyrant was pulled out of his hole. "This surely must be the work of God."

Hamlets and Gertrudes

Besides the Hewar, the other must-see destination in Baghdad is the Shabander Teahouse. It's down on Mutanabi Street, in an old part of the city where buildings dating from the Ottoman Empire sag with age and neglect. On Fridays, Baghdad's booksellers crowd the muddy thoroughfare, hawking everything from Saddam's potboilers to English-Arabic dictionaries to American engineering manuals a quarter-century out of date. Friday was also the day my artist friends gathered in a dirty, open-air, turquoise-colored teahouse where, for 1,500 dinar (about 75 cents), you can purchase a glass of bitter lemon tea, rent a narghile (water pipe), and sit for hours. Like the Hewar, the Shabander is a social scene favored by Western journalists eager to interview Iraqi locals. I was one of the few American reporters this crew had met—and boy, did I get an earful.

"A lot of French journalists are shit," Wady, the sculptor, observed one afternoon as we shared a narghile filled with apple-flavored tobacco. "They come here and talk against the U.S. in a stupid way. They don't care about the crimes of Saddam Hussein." And it's not only the French, noted Esam Pasha, a painter and translator for the U.S. military: "European and Arab journalists talk to us, but they don't care about our happiness in being liberated. They only want us to make anti-American comments." Even a cabbie who took me to the Shabander one afternoon weighed in. "Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia TV, no good," he said. "They only show pictures of bombings and killings of Americans—always how things are bad in Iraq, never how they are getting better."

Worse, I heard many stories at the Shabander about foreign correspondents staging news events to discredit the U.S. One young man introduced me to a Spanish photographer who, he later reported, had just finished posing an Iraqi woman in a nearby pile of rubble looking plaintively toward heaven, as if seeking deliverance from U.S. bombs. Rasim, the painter, claimed he witnessed Arab TV journalists pay idle Iraqis to light a car on fire and throw rocks to create an "anti-American" demonstration. "These journalists come here with their minds already made up," he groused. "They're not interested in anything that contradicts their anti-American viewpoint."

I asked Hasan, the poet, why, if the freeing of his country from Saddam Hussein was such a great event, so many people, both in Iraq and throughout the world, view it so negatively. "Think of Hamlet," he told me. "In the play, the young prince is haunted by his murdered father. At the same time, his mother, Gertrude, wants to forget the murder in order to get along with her life and encourages her son to do the same. But Hamlet can't forget; he won't forget. We see the same in the world: Hamlets who refuse to forget the crimes of Saddam, and Gertrudes who refuse to remember them."

In a small building north of the city center lie the final traces of many victims of those crimes. Their bodies are dust, their voices gone; now only documents exist to indicate their unpleasant fates. Imprisonment, exile, torture, rape, disfigurement, amputation, execution—the list of the horrors experienced by Iraqis at the hands of the Ba'athist regime goes on. I stood in an upstairs room of this small building, home to the National Iraqi Association of Human Rights, surrounded by thousands of battered folders, many of which were taken from the Ba'athist headquarters in Baghdad, each folder an individual story of misery, loss, and death. "We have 17 more rooms like this in our offices across Iraq," said Asad Abady, deputy director of the human rights group.

As Saddam's role model Josef Stalin once noted, "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions a statistic." For that reason I hesitate now to recite the horrendous acts of Saddam: the hundreds of thousands killed in his wars; the thousands buried, sometimes alive, in mass graves; the barbaric tortures involving acid baths and wood chippers, electricity, power tools, and ravenous dogs. For what do they mean? Amnesty International reports how Ba'athist guards sliced chunks of flesh from the bodies of women prisoners and then force-fed them to the captives. Abady told me of seeing buildings in northern Iraq filled with captive Kurdish women: A man could go to these buildings, fill out a form, and take a woman away for his own pleasure. The mind resists contemplating such deeds—and this resistance is the first step to denial, and then forgetfulness.

I had gone to the association precisely to know, as best I could, the evil of Saddam Hussein. There I found more than files and statistics. In Abady's office, I met a woman whose husband and son were executed by the regime (which diligently charged her for the bullets) and buried in graves she was forbidden to visit. I met with people who were among the first on the scene when mass graves were uncovered near Babylon. They described the skeletons of men, women, and children killed so abruptly that the jugs they had brought to fetch water from a nearby river that day were still clutched in their hands. "Not since the days of the Mongols and Tartars has there been such brutality," Abady said.

Evidence of Saddam's brutality is everywhere in Iraq. In the Shabandar, I talked with a man I'll call Ahmed. Once a high-ranking Shi'a cleric, he was arrested by the Ba'ath Party in the late 1990s for supposedly conspiring with anti-government Shi'a groups in Europe. Imprisoned for three years, he was repeatedly tortured. Guards tied his wrists behind his back and hung him from the ceiling, sometimes for days at a time. They starved him, beat him with heavy black cables, electrocuted him with wires connected to a hand-powered generator. When he finally regained his freedom, Ahmed told me, the right side of his body had lost most of its feeling, while an untreated disease he contracted in prison had withered his right leg to the size of his arm. "When I went into prison, I was a Muslim," he told me. "When I left, I was an atheist."

But the heart of Saddam's malevolence wasn't only in the awful statistics (5,000 dead in the 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja) or stories of individual atrocities (the 1999 murder of Mohammad al-Sadr, in which Ba'athists drove nails into the Shi'a cleric's head after raping his sister in front of him). It was also found in the endless stories of routine harassment, imprisonment, and fear expressed by everyone I talked to in Iraq. "Just a conversation like we're having now," Rasim, the painter, related one afternoon as we walked down Mutanabi Street, "could lead to the police picking me up and questioning me for hours about what we talked of."

Saddam was always watching: Wady described being interviewed by a European film crew interested in his sculpture. "A 'minder' from the regime stood behind the interviewer, next to the camera, and if they asked a sensitive question, she opened her eyes to warn me not to answer incorrectly or else she would report me," he said. "Of course, if I'd hesitated, or looked defiant, she would report that, too." Saddam was always listening: An Iraqi man told me how his son one day blurted out "I hate Saddam Hussein" among a group of friends and was arrested within hours, forcing the man to pay more than 1 million dinars in ransom. Sometimes what you personally had done wasn't even the issue. An Iraqi cab driver told me he spent two weeks in prison because his uncle was a communist. "I had to cover my ears because of the screams of the women being raped," he said.

The climate of terror and uncertainty that Saddam spread throughout the nation lingers today. "I wake up every morning fearing that I've been dreaming and that Saddam is still in power," said Rand Matti Petros, the Internet café manager. "My generation is lost," Pasha, the painter, said sadly. "Maybe in 20 to 30 years Iraqi children will live normal, happy lives outside the shadow of Saddam." Exacerbating the pain of many Iraqis is a keen awareness of the world's record of apathy toward their plight. "Where were the U.N. and our 'fellow Arabs' when we were suffering?" Hasan asked. "Where were the peace activists and leftists? How can they all accept the crimes of a dictator for so many years, then rise up in protest when a war begins to remove that dictator?"

The Spirit of Impotence

Yet the more I investigated Saddam's regime, the more I began to realize that the dictator had bequeathed something perhaps even more corrosive to the Iraqi people than repression, trauma, and fear: shame. This is one of the most sensitive parts of the nation's psyche, one that may prove the most problematic. On some level, many, if not most, Iraqis are ashamed that Saddam Hussein brutalized them—and even more ashamed that it took foreign troops to end his reign.

At a small social function one evening, I spoke to an Iraqi woman who expressed excitement over the fall of Saddam. Yet in almost the same breath, she declared, "I hate the Americans so much I fantasize about taking a gun and shooting a soldier." When asked how she expected Saddam to fall without the hated U.S. soldiers, she looked at me miserably. "I know," she said, "and you can't imagine how that humiliates me."

A waiter admonished me, as if I'd advised Rumsfeld and Bush: "You should have waited just a little longer. We would have risen up and overthrown him ourselves." When I asked why the Iraqi people hadn't toppled Saddam before, other Baghdadis claimed that the tyrant had support from "outside" forces—most notably, the Jews. Speaking of Iraq's disastrous invasion of Iran in 1980, the piano player in my hotel confided, "You know, of course, that the Jews manipulated Saddam into attacking Khomeini in order to keep the Arabs down—and Israel on top."

This sense of impotence and humiliation, exacerbated by every Humvee that rumbles down a Baghdad street and every Bradley Fighting Vehicle that ties up traffic, is the flip side to the pro-liberation sentiment I heard so often in Iraq. It helps explain the "thanks, America—now go home" syndrome observers frequently note. It also colors U.S. plans to hand over civil and military affairs to Iraqi officials as quickly as possible—giving them, the theory goes, a stake in their own future. But Iraqi attitudes may be more complicated than that.

Unlike the German acknowledgement of guilt for Hitler, Iraqis, I found, do not blame themselves for Saddam. To them, he is like a gunman who burst into their home, seized their family, and terrorized the neighbors—until the police finally stormed in and drove him out. Now, standing amid the ruins caused by the police raid, they say: "We weren't responsible for the maniac. You took it upon yourself to remove him. Thanks, but how soon are you going to repair our house?" They overlook the fact that from 1968 to 1980 Iraq lived happily under the control of the nationalist-socialist Ba'ath Party, reaping the benefits of a booming oil economy. (I heard numerous times about how "wonderful" Baghdad was in the 1970s.) Not until Saddam took full control of the nation in 1979 and launched the war on Iran—and then on the Kurds, and then on Kuwait, and then on the Shi'ites—did the Iraqis realize they were in the hands of a madman. By then it was too late.

"I hate Saddam! I hate Americans! I hate Iraqis—and I hate myself! I need a Valium!" cried one woman at the Hewar Gallery. It was, I thought, an apt summation of the mentality shared by many Iraqis today.

Despite Iraq's former claim to be the most "modern" culture in the Middle East—despite the presence today of high-tech gadgetry, Internet cafés, and multichannel cable TV in a Babel of languages—the country is in many ways reminiscent of America in the 1950s. In the absence of a civil rights mentality, ethnic, racial, and religious differences are seen as legitimate and natural grounds for discrimination. Ecological consciousness is minimal: Baghdad is a polluted, sprawling city where garbage cans are few and littering a way of life. Women generally live terribly restricted lives, wrapped in black head-to-foot sheets no matter the temperature, excluded from public activities, and confined mostly to the kitchen and the bedroom. (Although Iraqi women once had more extensive rights than women in many other Middle Eastern countries, they lost ground in the 1990s as Saddam increasingly adopted Islamic law to placate his restive Shi'a population. Today they are among the most oppressed women in the region, with illiteracy rates climbing above 75 percent.) Gay rights are unknown.

So is postmodernism. The philosophical tone among the secular educated is a kind of Eastern Europe-style existentialism, dominated by ideas of repression and political cynicism, with a direct connection to the absurd. In 1995, for example, Saddam's son Uday shot his uncle in the leg over a business dispute. To teach his kid a lesson, Saddam had him stripped of power and imprisoned—but then oversaw the creation of "spontaneous" protests demanding that he free Uday and reinstate him to his former position. "We were hauled out of school, given signs and told to shout out our love for Uday, whom, of course, we all hated," Pasha remembered. (Father Saddam, of course, relented and freed his reckless scion.) Today, a suicide car bombing becomes the occasion for shockingly nihilistic jokes about body parts and explosives. "You have to laugh about the absurdity of these things," Hasan said, "or you will go mad."

Faith in Iron-Fisted Kings

In other ways, Iraqis' consciousness goes back even further—to the iron-fisted kings of their Babylonian heritage. Many Iraqis told me that as much as they hated Saddam, they still needed a strongman like him to keep their "ungovernable nation"—which really isn't a nation but a colonialist expediency created by the British in 1922—from fracturing into disparate parts. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the Kurds and Sunnis and Christians and Turkomans ever working together. Then there are the Shi'a Muslims, who comprise some 60 percent of the population and probably hold the future of Iraq in their Islamic hands. On top of all these differences is the terrorism, which, as I write this, seems on the verge of breaking out of control (although Saddam's capture may dampen the will of the insurgency).

The obstacles to democracy posed by these attitudes and social divisions were only heightened by errors the United States made in the immediate aftermath of the war, many Iraqis say. These included the failure to "shoot a few looters" to deter others, disbanding the Iraqi police and army, and stripping former Ba'athists of their jobs before securing order in the country (suddenly unemployed, many Ba'athists joined the fedayeen out of desperation, the theory goes). "It's been downhill since" is the gloomy assessment of Hassan Fattah, editor of the English-language newspaper Iraq Today. "Inevitably, the liberation became an occupation." An occupation, one should add, directed from a heavily defended compound in central Baghdad that is physically, politically, and psychically remote from the average Iraqi.

I don't mean to overstate the problems facing the U.S. in Iraq. Still, it bothers me to see supporters of the war assume that events are going better than the "biased," "liberal" media depict them. That may be true sometimes, but not always. Iraq is too complicated for such simple analysis—a fact I admit I had not sufficiently considered when I stood up to endorse the war. Now, when I'm asked if the U.S. can succeed, I can only join others in answering: "We must. The prospect of failure in Iraq is too catastrophic to conceive." It's not a policy so much as a statement of faith: that the center will hold, that democracy and freedom will triumph, that tyrants cannot long escape accountability and justice. But if it seems foolish, as it does to increasing numbers of people, to risk American lives and treasure on such an abstract concept, there are others who are risking their lives on something even less substantial: American public opinion.

At the former Iraqi Officers Club, now a base for the Florida National Guard, I interviewed Pasha and a number of other Iraqi men who serve as translators for the U.S. Army. It is an extremely hazardous job: More than 25 translators have died, many by assassination at the hands of fedayeen who consider them traitors. These linguists know they are marked for death, yet they continue to do the job. "We want to help rebuild Iraq," they explained.

I asked them if they ever thought about South Vietnam. When I was there in 1993, I met several Vietnamese who had worked for the American military, including a few translators. Left behind by the U.S., these men spent 10 years in "re-education camps" and were now pulling rickshaws in Saigon. Did the Iraqis worry that a similar fate might befall them?

"Oh no," they told me. "We have faith in the United States." Or, as another translator put it to me, in words that still make me shiver, "Our fates lie with you now. We know Americans will never abandon us."