"It's All Bad News"

Chaos in liberated Iraq


Rubaei street in Baghdad's Zayuna district is one of the city's unknown oases of normality, far away from the more famous Kindi street of Harthiya or 14 Ramadan street of Mansour in the center of the city. On either side of the wide and brightly lit boulevard good restaurants are open well into the night, the sidewalks are crowded with families and even young couples; expensive cars slowly cruise the street, young men gazing at the crowds of girls in tight clothes. I was sitting outside at dusk (staring at them too) with my Iraqi friend Rana in a fresh fruit juice and ice cream restaurant called Sandra. Rana ate imported ice cream, explaining that she did not eat the local ice cream for fear of nuclear contamination in the milk. She noted that the scene before us reminded her of the days before the war, when she would go out at night with her sisters, unafraid of the dangers that keep women sequestered in their homes today.

As she was waxing nostalgic about the good old days under Saddam, a refrain I am by now accustomed to hearing, and I was trying not to roll my eyes, two sharp gunshots cut her words short and returned her to reality. By now the sound of gun shots rarely distracts me, but this time it was too close, and too incongruent with the bustling nightlife. I saw two men walking hurriedly across the street in between the traffic, arms raised and pistols in the air. "They killed a man!" someone shouted. I got up and saw a man in a suit collapsed on the curb, blood spreading from beneath his head. The two men had walked up to him, shot him in the head, taken his pistol, then walked away laughing into a dark street.

The crowd grew and cars slowed down as their drivers gazed at the corpse. Soon about fifty men stood around silently, looking at the body then looking away guiltily. Someone tried calling the police but the call did not go through. Two men ran a few hundred meters away to the nearest police checkpoint, but were told by the policemen there that it was somebody else's jurisdiction. Two armed security guards from a building across the street returned panting, having failed to find the killers. They said they provided security for "an official" nearby. People told me the official was a judge. Someone from a nearby shop covered the body with a rug that failed to conceal the growing pool of blood. Half an hour after the shooting, Iraqi police began arriving, just as the several men in the crowd had turned over the body and were looking through his pockets for identification or a phone. When I returned to my hotel I told a photographer about what I had seen. He asked me if I had heard about the explosion in Fallujah. I asked him if he had heard about the deputy chief of police in Mosul getting assassinated.

"It's all small news, so you never hear of it," he said. "It's all small news but its all bad news."

Close shave

You never hear about most of it because the press never hears about most of it. And if the press wasn't there, it never happened. Baghdad is a huge sprawling city with poor communication, and it is impossible for the press or the occupying army to know what is happening everywhere. We only hear the distant thunder of the explosions or feel the silent change in air pressure. At 11 p.m. one night I received a call from a friend in the Saha neighborhood of Baghdad's Shaab district, a Shi'ite stronghold. A Sunni mosque near his house had been attacked. "They are Wahhabis," he said (Iraqi Shi'ites call all conservative Sunnis Wahhabis). Did I want to come? I asked the hotel for their taxi driver, but I didn't explain why I was going there. Not a single car was out as we drove for twenty minutes from the city center to the Qiba Mosque. The streets of Shaab were misty and unlit. The road before the mosque was blocked by a truck; about twenty men held Kalashnikovs.

They surrounded the taxi and on each side a young man in shabby civilian clothes pointed his barrel in through our windows. They demanded to know who we were and what we wanted. They were very tense. I asked the one on my side who he was but he ordered me out of the car. The taxi driver explained that I was not an Iraqi. "He's a foreigner!" they shouted to each other, and all the men came to the car. "They are all Israelis and Jews," shouted one man in a slurred voice. We tried to explain that I was a journalist, but they had never seen an American passport or a press ID before. Why was I here? What did I want? It was clear from the fear in their eyes and the anger in their voices as they barked orders that they wanted to find somebody to kill. They used none of the polite expressions that color even hostile Arabic conversation. They only gave orders, as if we were their prisoners, their voices echoing against the empty city's buildings.

The man with the slurred voice pointed his Kalashnikov at me and ordered me out of the car in a drunken rage. The driver and I protested that I was just a journalist, here to investigate an attack. Not knowing if they were Sunni or Shi'ite I recited the names of every Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite leader I could think of and said they were all my friends. I won over two men and they began struggling with the drunk man who still wanted to shoot me. An argument broke out over whether or not they should kill me. The drunk man would not move the barrel down as they tried to push it and I moved away from its swaying range. The others were undecided and nervously eyed me. One man rushed me into the mosque for safety. This is why journalists and Iraqis stay home at night.

Ready for war

The violence is relentless. Explosions from bombs, rocket propelled grenades and artillery as well as guns firing can be heard all day and night, but their locations are usually impossible to determine, even if you are foolish enough to search for them after dark, when gangs and wild dogs own the streets. There are systematic assassinations of policemen, translators, local officials, and anybody associated with the occupiers. The pace of the violence is normal and mundane, so nobody cares. Unless an explosion is perceptibly close, it is just an echo, and nobody pauses in mid-conversation or stops chewing his kabob. Nobody in the US (and certainly nobody in Iraq) even cares much about the American soldiers dying daily, as long as the numbers on any given day are low. In the Sunni neighborhood of Aadhamiya in Baghdad there are nightly RPG and mortar attacks on the US base, and the men on the street erupt in cheers and whistles at the sounds.

Mosques are attacked every night and clerics killed, leading to retaliations against the opposite sect. Mosques now have armies of young volunteers wielding Kalashnikovs guarding them. Soon neighborhood mosques will unite to form neighborhood armies, to fight rival mosques or rival neighborhoods. (Even many journalists now travel with armed bodyguards; in at least one incident they returned fire, making them combatants). In the Sunni Hudheifa Mosque in Rasala one can purchase a magazine that praises Yazid, the early Muslim leader who killed Hussein, the martyr whom Shi'ites venerate and mourn for. This article would be enough to start a civil war if Shi'ites found it.

"We don't talk about civil war," one Sunni tribal leader told me. "We just prepare for it."

Complete idiots

Like in Bosnia before the war, all sides profess their brotherhood and unity, but they are scared. And just in case, they make preparations, arming themselves and organizing units for self defense. These defensive measures are interpreted by the others as an offensive threat, so they too take defensive measures, increasing the other side's fears, and then everybody is armed and scared, as they are now in Iraq, and all it takes is a match. "We fear this match," said a leader in the Hudheifa mosque who did not want to admit to me that his mosque had been shot at, because he did not want the young men to lose patience.

So far the attempts to provoke a civil war have failed. Though clerics from both sects are assassinated weekly, the culprits are unknown and the leaders exhort their flock to be patient, blaming the "Anglo American Zionist conspiracy." After the March 2 explosions in Karbala and Baghdad, where I saw piles of body parts, scalps, hands, and fly-covered pieces of flesh, the fury was directed at the Americans. Immediately after the three suicide bombs struck in Baghdad, spraying blood even on the mosque's ceiling, the loudspeakers urged people to be calm and accused the Americans and Jews of attacking them. Shi'ite mosques sell CDs of the riot in Kadhim, when thousands of Shi'ite men attacked American military medical vehicles that came to help, and then chased them to the base, throwing shoes, stones and epithets, waving flags and taunting the reviled occupiers. The American retreat into the base was a great victory for the shocked Shi'ites.

Though Shi'ite and Sunni leaders hastened to mouth professions of unity following the attacks in Karbala and Kadhimiya, they hate each other. Sunni and Shi'ite newspapers have grown more brazen in their attacks against each other. The only things they agree on are the need for an Islamic government (though they disagree on what it will look like) and their insistence that the Jews and Americans are to blame for all their woes. The Sunnis are scared, they fear the impending Shi'ite takeover of Iraq if anything resembling a democratic election takes place. Sunnis view Shi'ites the way white South Africans viewed blacks, and now feel disenfranchised, seeing the barbaric heathens threatening to rule their country. Many Sunnis cling to the fiction that they are in fact the majority, and the Shi'ites are all Iranians. Shi'ites don't fear the Sunnis, they just dislike them. Shi'ites hate the Kurds now, blaming them for attempting to divide the country with their calls for federalism and autonomy. Arab Shi'ites have already started supporting Turkmen in the north, who are often Shi'ite as well, in their bloody clashes with Kurds.

A war of words has begun in the newspapers belonging to the religious parties. Sunni papers insist that Sunnis are a majority and warn of the "Persians" who are coming in by the millions to claim citizenship. For successive Sunni governments, the Shi'a Arabs of Iraq have been Persians, and the leading Sunni clerics of Iraq continue that tradition. Shi'a newspapers warn of the "crimes of the Wahhabis" and remember the Wahhabi assaults from Saudi Arabia that threatened Iraq's Shi'a in the 19th century. This war has been escalating with increasingly brazen critiques of the rival communities.

But Sunni Arabs don't scare Shi'ites anymore. The threat is America now. Only America can thwart the long-suppressed Shi'ite hope to control Iraq and establish a theocracy. Their expectations are high. Now is their time to inherit Iraq and only America stands in the way. Leading Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani has not left his house for nearly a decade but pronounces judgments on everything from elections to whether or not women should wear high heel shoes. (They cannot because it makes their asses shake too much.) Other, more radical clerics such as Muqtada Sadr speak of a jihad against the infidel Americans who have come to kill the Mahdi (Shi'ite messiah). Radical Sunnis and members of the resistance hate the compromising Sistani but respect Muqtada for his defiance. In every mosque and religious center in the country one can purchase the DVDs, CDs, tapes and literature of the Islamic revolution that rejects "American democracy" and "American freedom." In Shi'ite stores you can buy books about Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, and in Sunni stores you can buy radical Sunni magazines published in Saudi Arabia.

Sunni and Shi'ite leaders were quick to condemn the new interim constitution for its secularism. They were united in calling the Quran their only constitution. They need not have worried since what happens in the walled-off "Green Zone" of the Occupiers is a land of make believe that does not affect the rest of Iraqis living in the "Red Zone" which is the rest of the country. Westerners who work for the Occupation in the green zone rarely venture beyond its walls; Iraq is as alien to them as they are to Iraqis. Congressional staffers put in six months to spice up their resumes, former military or State Department officials fish for contracts with General Electric or KBR after they finish their stint. They don't have to deal with many Iraqis. In the Rashid cafeteria for military and civilian servants of the Occupation, non-Iraqis serve the food. When they do deal with Iraqis, they have interesting choices. The deputy minister of the interior has been diverting arms and stockpiling them privately. He is accompanied by two doting American intelligence agents. Perhaps he is their last hope, should all else fail. The minister of higher education has banned all student unions that are not ethnically or religiously based. He is forcing even Christian girls to cover their heads and instituting mandatory Islamic education.

In the bathroom of the country director of an important D.C.-based and US-funded democratization institute I found, in the bidet by the toilet, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Quran," a brochure explaining that Arabic is written from right to left, and a guide to focus groups. It is from these focus group results that westerners in the green zone learn "what Iraqis want." The director of the institute, a motivated and well compensated man with experience in Asia and eastern Europe, was dejected, his advice ignored by the CPA, the tribal leaders he lectures about democracy interested only in securing contracts with the Americans.

A massacre

He seemed to be missing the point when he was lecturing to the Farmer's Union about civil society while the war was going on in Iraq. There is never a day of peace, anywhere in the country. One night, after a slow day, I was sitting in my room, having just read about a report declaring my adopted city Baghdad the worst city in the world to live in, and debating with a friend which cities might be worse, when an immense blast hit me and sent my door flying out of its hinges. That's a car bomb, I thought, and ran to my balcony to see if any nearby buildings had collapsed. Downstairs, I sprinted past Fardus circle to Andalus circle, where the Mount Lebanon hotel, which I had never heard of, no longer existed. It was dark and hazy, with visibility nearly impossible, but a huge orange glow the size of a building shimmered through the smoke and dust.

Hundreds of people were emerging from the smoke, running away, hundreds more were running to it and hundreds more were standing in shock, crying, screaming. A woman walked by carrying the inert body of her child. American humvees pulled up, as did Iraqi police cars. "There are many dead people," shouted one man running from out of the hotel's wreckage, asking people to help. Terrified and confused US soldiers tried to turn back the crowd of Iraqis who rushed to help; they swung in ever direction with their rifles, looking for the enemy, as Iraqi police with guns drawn tried to push people back. Ambulances arrived, by now well practiced in quick responses to bombs, and carried away the lucky ones who survived, screaming and with their shredded clothes and bodies drenched with blood. Inside one I saw a hellish scene—an entire family, all red, six of them looking up and screaming, holding a lifeless bloody piece of meat that lay between them. Everywhere on the street angry men, stunned, hurt, feeling vulnerable. Survivors attacked cameramen, seeking someone to vent their fury on, neighbors stood crying, friends rushed to the scene looking for loved ones, terror on their faces. Two fat women in their nightgowns began screaming at an American soldier angrily. Bewildered, he told them "Everything's gonna be alright," not knowing what they were saying. From atop their Humvees other American soldiers swiveled their machine guns, screaming and cursing orders at the Iraqis and journalists below them. An Iraqi policeman with his gun drawn pushed me away. The entire scene was lit glowing orange as the fire spread to a nearby building.

Journalists moved away to report on their phones in English, Turkish, Italian. Others stood still, filming the scene. At least we didn't have to go far; the resistance is considerate enough to strike close to the hotels and neighborhoods where the press reside. Arguments broke out between Iraqis who wanted the journalists to film and those who wanted them to leave. More and more bodies were carried out from the gaping wreckage of the flaming hotel building. Al Jazeera, always first on the scene of any attack, didn't have to go very far since their hotel was across the street, its windows blasted out. A rumor spread among the crowd that an American missile had hit the hotel and the crowd argued over who was responsible.

I returned to my hotel. The staff were congregated around the television, I assumed to watch the aftermath on Al Jazeera. But no, they were watching a soccer match and barely acknowledged the entry of the silly foreigners who run to find explosions, the ambulance chasers with notebooks and cameras. Perhaps they are used to this. American missiles, far more powerful and deadly than car bombs, had fallen on them before, and this was just a bomb, only a tremor. They didn't seem to wonder, as I did, when their hotel would be next.

Everybody's got a hidden hand

That same night the "Iraqi street" was blaming it on a missile, meaning on the Americans, and as always everybody had a friend who swore he had seen the missile hit the car. Sunnis and Shi'ites are united in believing America and "the Jews" are responsible for the sectarian attacks, because of the absurd belief that America wants to remain in Iraq and will provoke a civil war to serve as a pretext. The Jews are blamed for everything, because they're the Jews. The Jews are everywhere in Iraq. They are feared and loathed, the "Jewish hands" working their evil, the "Jewish fingers" reaching every nook and cranny, selling their drugs and pornography, defiling Islam.

Americans still cling desperately to their own myths, blaming the phantom Zarqawi for all the attacks, because they cannot blame Saddam anymore. But the Zarqawi story seems to have worked with the press, who remain as gullible today as they were when they bought the "45 minutes" claim.

Meanwhile over ten thousand Iraqi men are being held prisoner, and most of them are innocent. Iraqi security guards as well as American soldiers hate the explosive-sniffing dog in front of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels, because they, like the rest of us who live in the area, are subject to its olfactory whims as it imagines every day that it smells a bomb and they must close off the street for several hours. Two of my friends were arrested for not having a bomb last week, when the dog decided their bag smelled funny. They were jailed for four days though they were not carrying a bomb. Unlike the murderous accuracy of the Israeli security forces, who at least speak Arabic, the American security forces are a blunt instrument. They arrest hundreds at once, hoping somebody will know something. One morning in the village of Albu Hishma, the local US commander decided to bulldoze any house that had pro-Saddam graffiti on it, and gave half a dozen families a few minutes to remove whatever they cared about the most before their homes were flattened.

Ayoub's bad day

I was with a US army unit when they went on a raid one morning. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees squeezed through the neighborhood walls as a CIA operator eyed the rooftops and windows of nearby houses angrily, a silencer on his assault weapon. Intelligence had intercepted a phone conversation in which a man called Ayoub spoke of advancing to the next level to obtain landmines and other weapons. Soldiers broke through Ayoub's door early in the morning, but when the sleepy man did not immediately respond to their orders he was shot with non-lethal ordnance, little pellets exploding like gun shot from the weapon's grenade launcher. The floor of the house was covered with his blood. He was dragged into a room and interrogated forcefully as his family was pushed back against their garden's fence.

Ayoub's frail mother, covered in a shawl, with traditional tribal tattoos marking her face, pleaded with the immense soldier to spare her son's life, protesting his innocence. She took the soldier's hand and kissed it repeatedly while on her knees. He pushed her to the grass along with Ayoub's four girls and two boys, all small, and his wife. They squatted barefoot, screaming, their eyes wide open in terror, clutching one another as soldiers emerged with bags full of documents, photo albums and two compact discs with Saddam Hussein and his cronies on the cover. These CDs, called The Crimes of Saddam, are common on every Iraqi street and, as their title suggests, they were not made by Saddam supporters. But the soldiers couldn't read Arabic and saw only the picture of Saddam, which was proof enough of guilt. Ayoub was brought out and pushed on to the truck. He gestured to his shrieking family to remain where they were. He was a gentle, avuncular man, small and round, balding and unshaven, with a hooked nose and slightly pockmarked face. It seemed unlikely that he was involved in any anti-American activity; but he did not protest and maintained his dignity, sitting frozen, staring numbly ahead. The soldiers ignored him, occasionally glancing down at their prisoner with sneering disdain. The medic looked at Ayoub's injured hand and chuckled to his friends, "It ain't my hand." The truck blasted country music on the way back to the base. Ayoub was thrown in the detainment center. After the operation there were smiles of relief among the soldiers, slaps on the back and thumbs up.

Several hours later a call was intercepted from another Ayoub. "Oh shit," said the unit's intelligence officer, "it was the wrong Ayoub." The innocent father of six who had the wrong name was not immediately let go so as not to risk revealing to the other Ayoub that the Americans were searching for him. The night after his arrest a relieved Ayoub could be seen escorted by soldiers to call his family and tell them he was fine, but would not be home for a few days. "It was not the wrong guy," said the units commander defensively, shifting blame elsewhere. "We raided the house we were supposed to and arrested the man we were told to." Meanwhile Army intelligence was still confounded by the meaning of the intercepted conversations until somebody realized it was not a terrorist intent on obtaining weapons. It was a kid playing video games and talking about them with his friend on the phone.


The procrustean application of spurious information gathered by intelligence officers who cannot speak Arabic and are not familiar with Iraqi, Arab or Muslim culture is creating enemies instead of eliminating them. Many languish in prisons indefinitely, lost in a system that imposes English-language procedures on Arabic speakers with Arabic names not easily transcribed. I walked past a detainment center once where a dozen prisoners could be seen marching in a circle, surrounded by barbed wire. They were shouting "USA, USA!" over and over.

"They were talkin' when we told 'em not to, so we made 'em say somethin' we liked to hear," grinned one of the soldiers guarding them. Another gestured up with his hands, letting them know they had to raise their voices. A sergeant later quipped that the ones who are not guilty "will be guilty next time", after such treatment. Some prisoners are termed "security detainees" and held for six months pending a review to determine whether they are still a "security risk". Most are innocent. Many were arrested simply because a neighbor did not like them, or because they were male. A lieutenant colonel involved in this told me that there is no judicial process for the thousands of detainees. If the military were to try them, that would entail a court martial, which would imply that the United States is occupying Iraq, and lawyers working for the administration are still debating whether it is an occupation or a liberation. Even if the men are guilty, no proof will be provided to the community. There will be no process of transparent justice. The only thing evident to the Iraqi public is American guilt.

In the beginning of the occupation I entered a taxi and asked the driver what he thought of the events in Iraq. He looked away and started crying. I asked him if somebody in his family had died. "We all died," he told me. Now taxi drivers talk only of the latest explosion and how much they hate the Americans and want to kill them. One taxi driver drove by a mosque and saw Americans in the courtyard. "Look what they're doing!" he shouted hysterically. "They even enter inside mosques! They are dirty Jews, I swear if I had an RPG now I would shoot them!