Watching Iraq’s slow death, four years into the war.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
"CALL AT NIGHT,” Isam tells me. “The reception for the phones here is not very good since they built the wall.”
Isam lives in Adhamiya, a Sunni enclave in Baghdad that the US military has recently treated to its most-used counterinsurgency tactic – walls. In this case, a wall has been built around the neighborhood to prevent Shiite militias and police units that clashed with anti-occupation and anti-government guerillas in the area from getting in.
But it also makes it hard for the residents to get out, and makes it easy for police and militias to post spies at the neighborhood’s single entrance/exit.
The apparent effect of the American surge has been to slow the “battle of Baghdad.” Some Iraqis agree that if the US had not started building such walls and working with guerillas that had formerly been fighting it, the city would have been cleansed of minority Sunnis by now.
The explosion was close enough to shatter some of the windows in their house. My friend and his family didn’t even flinch.
Once defiant, many Sunnis who supported open resistance toward the occupation find themselves wishing that the American military remains in the country, if only to prevent what would statistically be their undoing. A shortage of water and electricity in the city means different groups battle for control of both, along with more lucrative industries such as the oil infrastructure.
Political reconciliation between all sides appears, for the moment, unlikely. As Sunni politicians push for more representation in government, they are caught between Shiite militants and extremist Sunnis who are targeting them for cooperating to any extent with the US and Iraqi governments. Meanwhile, Baghdad is literally dying. The electricity and the water infrastructure are crumbling. Inflation – especially in fuel prices – runs rampant.
Since 2003, I’ve spent more than 20 months working in Iraq, less than three weeks of it embedded. On this trip and the last one, in 2006, I spent most of my time in Karrada, which until last year had been a “safe” neighborhood. Safe is a relative term. Home to a number of Shiite politicians, the neighborhood is now frequently attacked by car bombs, despite a heavy presence of Iraqi military and police. Kidnappings are not uncommon. US troops also patrol, and, along with Iraqi forces, are the targets of bomb attacks.
One such attack occurred while I sitting in a friend’s living room. The explosion was close enough to shatter some of the windows in their house, enough to make me jump from the couch. My friend and his family didn’t even flinch.
The bombing was followed a few minutes later by gunfire, said by residents to be clashes between the US military and the “Jeish al-Mehdi,” the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both sides were apparently trying to secure the scene. The following day, as funerals began, residents threw rocks at the US military.
A week later, I attempted to visit the site of the bombing with an American cameraman. Angry residents who said they were still digging bodies from the rubble refused to let us film. An entire four-story apartment building had collapsed.
Predictably, the bomb makers are getting better at killing lots of people.
US soldiers we embedded with showed us videos of massive bombs capable of lifting an Abrams tank five feet in the air. Though the vehicle’s heavy armor meant all that solders survived the blast, the casualties included one soldier who received brain damage from the blast wave. Captured bombs, made from 18-wheel trucks, are designed to focus the blast in one direction. I witnessed one such bomb, packed into a minibus, which managed to level two buildings more than 100 meters from the blast.
The bomb in Karrada had gone off at 6pm. It seemed impossible that only 25 people could have been killed.
After convincing a police officer to take us through the cordon – the area remained closed – the family members of victims said they were still digging people out. The first question they asked as they rose from a nearby funeral tent that had become a permanent fixture on the street was not what news agency we represented, but what country we were from. Angry men arguing about whether they should let us film the blast site surrounded us. The consensus, in the end, was that we should go.
Isam is a cameraman. We used to work together. We used to have coffee and talk. Now if he can see me he comes to visit in the hotel. For a while it was easier to meet in Jordan, but now he can’t get into Jordan because the government is turning Iraqis away at the border. As many as 1 million Iraqis now live in Jordan, most of them illegally, making up about one-tenth of the population in a country that can barely provide for its own citizens.
In Falahat, north of Baghdad, one of the communities where Sunni tribal leaders have decided to work with the US against “al-Qaida,” the tribal militiamen admitted they were as afraid of Sunni extremists as they were of the Shiite militias, which have grown in strength as hundreds of thousands of Shiites have been driven from their homes.
Falahat is one such place where the Shiites have been kicked out, and the militiamen said they feared the families that had been removed would return seeking revenge. “We are caught between al-Qaida and the Jeish al-Mehdi,” said Sheikh Naji al-Zobaie, a Sunni tribal leader in the area.
Many of the families that had thrown their lot in with the US also appear to be interested in getting family members out of Iraqi and US custody and commonly request as much of the US commander in Falahat. The number of prisoners in US custody, about 75 percent of which are Sunni, has risen to more than 24,000 since the surge began. The number held in Iraqi prisons is higher, probably around 30,000.
The US troops that are here are doing a civil affairs mission for which they have not been trained and only began after three months of heavy fighting.
“Every time we came in here we were detaining people because we were getting hit all the time,” said Army Sgt. Johnny Escamilla, stationed at nearby Camp Taji as he walked through the village pointing out places where his soldiers had been hit by bombs buried in the road and houses they had raided.
The major drawback is that the US military, especially in central Iraq, is working with some of the same tribes and insurgent groups that have driven hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Shiites, from their homes. One of the small bases Escamilla’s men occupy in Falahat is, in fact, a home that belonged to a Shiite family that had been driven out with the rest of the village’s Shiite minority before the Americans struck the truce.
Asked about whether he sees the plan to assist the “freedom fighters” as fueling further sectarian violence, Escamilla just shrugs. The most important thing is that his men are no longer being attacked.
“You have to start somewhere,” he says.
Southern Iraq is faring little better than Baghdad. In Basra, Fadhila, a Sadrist offshoot, and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the US government’s closest ally in Iraq – the two most powerful parties in the city – continue to fight and have brought governance to a halt while the Jeish al-Mehdi and gangs have taken control of the streets.
At the center of the struggle is the approximately $170 million yearly reconstruction budget allocated to the province, as well as control of the port and its oil exports. Fadhila’s governor, Mohamed al-Waili, claims sole oversight over such projects. His detractors charge he’s embezzled most of the money. He claimed “80 to 90 percent” of the planned reconstruction projects in the last year had been completed, but refused to show us any of them.
“It is not the first conspiracy I’ve faced against me,” said al-Waili, who accuses Iran of funding and arming his opponents. “They [can’t remove me] forcibly because we are stronger than they are.”
Western journalists no longer work in Basra unembedded. We requested (and the governor’s office agreed) to allow us to come to Basra to film for four days, but ended up spending most of the time sitting in the house of the governor’s brother, watching TV. The governor was meanwhile holding meetings with opposition political leaders. We were not allowed outside the perimeter of the governor’s heavily-armed compound without riding in heavily-guarded vehicles surrounded by police and military or in an armored police vehicle itself.
On the first night, we attempted to do man-on-the-street interviews in one of the markets in Basra with the aid of four soldiers flanking on either side and a number of un-uniformed guards. Shoppers ignored the scene, acting, oddly enough, as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
Me to man in ice cream parlor: “Who did you vote for?”
Man in ice cream parlor: “I’m not saying.”
The governor blamed the lack of security on Sadr’s Jeish al-Mehdi, which is also blamed for fighting across the south. SIIC governors rule most of southern provinces and have sought to downplay tensions. The party itself seeks to translate its current majority into the joining of all nine southern provinces into a semi-independent mini-state, modeled on Kurdish autonomy in the north.
Two of the governors loyal to SIIC were killed by powerful, well-placed car bombs in August, most likely by the increasingly militant Mehdi.
Saleh al-Obaidi, the spokesman for Sadr’s political party Tayyera Sadrieen, explained why supporters of his party had clashed with Badr: “The Sadrieen in general focus on the people. The southern governorates are suffering more than Baghdad maybe, concerning the services and the economic situation. There were no tensions for 15 or 16 months (after the invasion), but, at the same time there were no services and no help from the governors of these provinces, so the people start to demonstrate and look and ask for something better. Unfortunately, the reaction from many governors was severe – they used guns and campaigns of detention against the people.”
Al-Obaidi also said Sadrist leaders in Amarra had been assassinated by forces loyal to the governor. In Basra, British troops fully pulled out of the center of the city in August.
In the north, the US’s Kurdish allies are growing increasingly impatient with the US military and government. The Sunni guerillas and tribes now working with the US have also driven Kurds from their homes, and the majority of the Kurdish population has fled Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
But the real prize is Kirkuk. As the Iraqi government has dragged its feet on a referendum originally mandated by the end of this year, the Kurds have grown impatient with the US military’s failure to secure the city.
“We cannot wait,” said Noschirwan Mustafa, a founding member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party of Jalal Talabani, the current president. “If they leave Kirkuk to us, we can control it.”
“Control” almost certainly means ethnic cleansing. Various scenarios exist for how this would play out, but most observers fear Turkey would intervene. An independent and economically viable Kurdish statelet would threaten Iraq’s small ethnic Turkish minority that resides mostly around Kirkuk and further embolden Turkish Kurd rebels that use northern Iraq as a base to fight the Turkish government. Mustafa, however, believes the US would once again betray its Kurdish allies to avoid angering the Turks. Tension between the PKK, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, and other groups is rising, and Iranian troops were recently reported to have crossed the border in pursuit of Iranian Kurdish guerillas whose attacks on police in western Iran have killed more than 200 (mostly police officers) since 2005.
F., an Iraqi friend and colleague whom I worked with in Baghdad and was now living in Damascus, needed to get to Jordan. He had been promised a job there. The only problem is that, despite extremely rare exceptions, Jordan has closed its borders to Iraqis. There are more than half a million Iraqis in Jordan already, and about 1.5 million in Syria.
Iraqis refer to it as “rent-a-whitey.” In Baghdad, I used to do it for people when they had to deal with the American military. It was no secret that the US military would take an Iraqi accompanied by an American much more seriously than an Iraqi alone. (This included, at one point, walking toward a snipers’ nest with my passport raised above my head, shouting, “I’m an American journalist.”)
A year ago, this same principal applied on the Jordanian border. Though Jordan had already begun turning Iraqis away, there was still some flexibility, and I was able to get another colleague across. This time, there was no flexibility.
F. was not the only one. During the time we were at the border, none of the dozen Iraqis who tried to cross were accepted. No reason was given other than that they were “rejected.”
After his passport was graced with a stamp informing him of his rejection, F. and I decided to argue anyway with the officer on duty.
“What is the problem?” F. asked. “Why won’t you let us in? We are just people.”
“Why don’t you ask him?” the border official replied, looking at me. Many Jordanians blame Iraqis for not fighting for Saddam, and then not resisting the invasion and occupation. Therefore, the refugee problem is Iraqis’ fault for allowing Saddam’s government to be overthrown in the first place.
F. considered replying that the Jordanian government exists only because of support from the American government, but then thought better of further offending a security officer in a country in which he has no rights.
So I left F. there at the border and continued on to Amman. As we exited the final checkpoint at the border, one of the Jordanian soldiers, smirking, handed me back my passport and asked: “Why do you care about an Iraqi?”
DAVID ENDERS, author of Baghdad Bulletin, reported from Iraq this summer with support from a grant by the Pulitzer Center. Video he recently coproduced for Al Jazeera International can be viewed on youtube.