Baghdad, October 10 – Even the best neighbourhoods can fall into disrepute, at least in Baghdad. The apartment blocks near the local meat-processing factory here were once highly prized as exclusive residences during Saddam Hussein’s reign, offering a quiet alternative to the hustle and bustle of the city. The apartments enjoyed the pleasant shade of palm trees and each one had a balcony. Anyone who lived and worked here in Hamsa Donum along the green belt in the southern part of Baghdad was known to be on good terms with Saddam. A sign in front of a flat building adjacent to the six-storey residential buildings says “National Laboratory for Veterinary Medical Research”.
The palm trees are still there, as is the sign; but the veterinary laboratory is long since closed, and now rubbish gathers in the forecourt. Dogs sniff and rummage their way around, kept company by the remains of a car that has been stripped of every single cable and screw that ever held it together. The apartment blocks, in the concrete architectural style so stereotypical of the former Soviet Union, are dilapidated now and their walls are covered in “Long live the Islamic State of Iraq, long live Omar al-Baghdadi” graffiti.
The “Islamic State of Iraq” is none other than al-Qaeda. The apartment blocks here in Hamsa Donum have well and truly fallen into disrepute, and their better days were before the last four years of war here. Lamia Salum has lived in the apartment block on the left since 1993. She says, “Everything has changed here. It all started with the war. Last year al-Qaeda took over around this area. It’s only since the Americans began sending in large patrols on a daily basis that we can move around safely again”. She looks out of her sitting room window and sees two dozen US soldiers jumping out of their armoured vehicle. Spreading out underneath the palm trees, the soldiers hold their weapons at the ready in firing position, finger on the trigger. Lieutenant Daniel Samuel from the 2nd Stryker Cavalry sizes things up in the area. Then his soldiers ascend the crumbling stairway of the apartment building. They move their way up from floor to floor, eyes focused upwards parallel with the barrel of the M4 machine gun, and predictably, finger on the trigger.
Lashes for smokers
A few neighbours look on fearfully from their balconies before locking their windows and doors. Lamia Salum was once a laboratory technician in the veterinary laboratory. A few years ago it was monitored closely by the United Nations before the organisation ultimately shut it down. Allegedly Saddam Hussein wasn’t having animal diseases researched in the veterinary laboratory. Instead the UN opinion at the time was that he was having the same atomic, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction developed that proved to be a Washingtonian mirage in the end.
Lamia Salum now sits on her worn out couch while the American soldiers, clad in their helmets and protective sunglasses, search through her apartment. They rummage through the sitting room and its typically Middle Eastern knick-knack decor on the sideboard, passing by the copper plaque on the wall engraved with verses from the Koran. The soldiers then move on through her bedroom, her three children’s bedrooms and the kitchen. Even in the apartment the Americans have their rifles poised at the ready, and as always their fingers on the trigger. Then Lieutenant Samuel takes a seat on the sofa. He pushes back his helmet and asks, “What’s new around here? Anything suspicious?”
Here the US soldiers, the occupiers, meet Iraqi civilians, the occupied, in an atmosphere hardly capable of being based on trust. Despite this, Lamia’s husband Sabaa al-Kadun says, “The Americans should stay, at least for now. They should stay until Iraq finally has a government worthy of the name. And then they should go, right away!”
We’re moving through Baghdad with the US Army. What do the Iraqis think of the occupiers? What are their lives like in the fifth year of war? What do they want and dream of? Insights into this part of Iraqi reality are limited at best. After all, is anyone anywhere likely to feel comfortable talking openly on their couch to a journalist accompanied by three soldiers armed to the teeth and an Iraqi interpreter who has to wear a mask to protect his identity?
Lamia Salum tries. She talks about the period when al-Qaeda controlled the rural southern part of Baghdad, including Hamsa Donum. They would question the locals about which of the neighbours chew gum, smoke, and drink alcohol. Smokers caught in the act the second time were whipped; it’s rumoured that drinkers who couldn’t break the habit were executed. Mobile phones with cameras were forbidden to enforce Islam’s ban on images of sentient living creatures. Women shopping at the market without a veil were first harassed and then chased back home with empty hands and empty shopping bags. 45-year-old Lamia, sitting on her couch veiled and wearing a long dress and sandals, says, “Back then I wouldn’t have been allowed to go out of the house like this. They insisted we wear gloves on our hands and socks on our feet”.
The simultaneous brutality and absurdity of al-Qaeda’s brief reign is evident in more than simply the stories told by residents. It is also illustrated in the jokes told by the apartment block residents now that the fundamentalists are no longer in charge here. One such yarn asserts that if things were up to al-Qaeda, it would be utterly forbidden to serve cucumbers and tomatoes on the same plate. After all, cucumbers are male and tomatoes are female. Another declares that al-Qaeda wouldn’t tolerate water with ice cubes, since there were no ice cubes when the Great Prophet lived in Mecca. One of Lamia’s neighbours is certain that “if they could they would have put underwear on the goats so that no one would be able to see their udders”.
The al-Qaeda leaders preached Jihad and housed their followers in the apartments here that Saddam had reserved for the secular middle class. Anyone who opposed them risked everything. “And of course, not all of the al-Qaeda people were foreigners,“ continues the neighbour, “there were a lot of Iraqis, too. And yes, some of them were from this area around here. And yes, some of them are still here”. A family living one floor up has a son in US custody. His mother says, “My son is a good man”. The Americans say he is a member of al-Qaeda. The neighbours just shrug their shoulders.
See nothing, hear nothing
In any case, al-Qaeda’s control over these apartment blocks is over, at least for now, as long as American tanks are positioned in front of them with the motors running. However, Lieutenant Samuel admits that it is hard to know what goes on here at night. He is sure that there are still terrorists here. Someone has to be planting the explosive devices at night that the American patrols drive over in the daytime. When he asks the apartments’ residents, he receives the standard answer: No one has seen anything, including Lamia Salum and her husband. What else are they supposed to say? After an hour or so, the US soldiers drive off. Lamia and her three children, of course, have to live inside the apartment blocks 24 hours a day.
There can be no doubt that the large offensive known as “the surge” initiated by the US Army the summer before has produced tangible results in the battle against al-Qaeda in Baghdad. Fewer US soldiers are dying here, and according to official US statements, the number of attacks and civilian Iraqi casualties has also been more than halved. Al-Qaeda is under pressure and has been forced to withdraw further and further from the in and around Baghdad. One reason is the massive build-up of 30,000 extra US troops during the surge. The other reason, however, is political: the Americans have managed to win over a part of the Sunni population: until now, it was the Sunnis that formed the basis of the rebellion against the US occupiers and the Baghdad government working with them.
In recent months, some of the most important tribal leaders in the Sunni-dominated provinces of central Iraq have decided to fight against al-Qaeda alongside the occupiers. The influential sheiks are now forming their own militias under the auspices of the US Army. The sheiks and their militias, now known the “salvation front”, are the same ones that spent the last four years fighting side by side with al-Qaeda.
They now say they are fed up with the terror practiced by the religious fanatics. They have deployed their civilian militias to protect the people in Baghdad against the radical Islamic bloodlust. They are also eager to protect their fellow Iraqis against the Shiite militias, who in their eyes are at least as serious a threat as al-Qaeda due to their close relations with Iran. The salvation front is also present in the green belt of Hamsa Donum. Here the resistance to al-Qaeda is organised by Mustafa Kamil, a former general in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Lieutenant Samuel deploys some of the general’s militiamen at his check posts. Masked to protect their identities, these Sunnis from Kamil’s militia point out alleged al-Qaeda fighters and Shiite militiamen to the Americans. Samuel says, “Mustafa’s people know the names and faces of the al-Qaeda people”.
Not everyone believes that the Sunni salvation front is a sustainable model in the long-term. One such sceptic is Yahia Salman Habib, a Sunni sheik who lives in a freestanding house on the main road near the US base. The date, orange and pear plantations he operates stretch from behind his house several hundred meters down to the banks of the Tigris River. Sheik Habib belongs to one of the important Sunni tribes in central Iraq. He is well-known to the people and formerly had an executive position in the country’s agricultural ministry. Sheik Habib, while evoking his friendship to General Mustafa, also warns in the same breath that “the Americans should be careful who they trust. After all, some of these people are the same ones who were fighting together with al-Qaeda not so long ago”. British newspaper The Economist recently illustrated this uneasy alliance with a quote from an internet blog. A US soldier asks an Iraqi who has now switched sides to the American-allied salvation front, “Do you want to kill me?” The Iraqi answers, “Yes, but not today”.
Sheik Habib is also no great fan of the occupiers. He complains, “They come by every other day. What do they want? They’ve already seen everything”. Yet there is one thing that irritates him even more: “A couple of months ago one of them shot up a few of my date palms from a tank. I’m still waiting for compensation,” says the sheik. Then he makes a very subtle distinction, commenting, “Why do the Americans always lump everything together in Iraq? For them national resistance and al-Qaeda are all the same. But they aren’t. National resistance has its justification”. He then continues with a glance toward Lieutenant Samuel and adds, “unarmed resistance, of course”.
Then the sheik begins his long list of complaints: “No electricity, no petrol, all the water pumps for the fields are broken. Everyone is just trying to survive, however they can”. Things for Sheik Habib are not so bad thanks to his plantations on the Tigris. Yet when the Americans knock on other doors, which they do in the relative safety of Hamsa Donum as opposed to other parts of the city where they simply kick the door in, they generally find a prevailing sense of the same poverty, the same vacant faces and the same politely formal gestures. The children call out “Hello Mister”, their hands outstretched for the sweets that the soldiers pull from their pockets. And the answers to the penetrating questions posed by Lieutenant Samuel and his soldiers are as predictable as the inevitable broken “What is your name?” from the children. Repeatedly the soldiers hear, “No, no one has seen anything or anyone… no, nobody knows anyone who has anything to do with al-Qaeda”.
Iraqi families are large. Lieutenant Samuel and his soldiers take photographs of all the men. They use the latest technology to take electronic fingerprints and scan the men’s eyes with a special camera. They ask who is still living in the house: uncles, aunts, brothers, cousins. Lieutenant Samuel is probably aware that all his checkpoints, patrols and house searches are ultimately little better than the search for the proverbial needle in the haystack. He knows that the iris scanner and the fingerprint scanner cannot substitute for what is really the most important factor: the trust of the Iraqis. He can only imagine what the people are actually up to and what they might be hiding. Lieutenant Samuel says, “I’m a soldier, but what we’re doing here is mostly police work. And what little bit I know about police work I know from watching television”.
Anyone with money is gone
Lieutenant Samuel and his soldiers continue poking around in the Iraqi haystack with their high-tech pitchforks. The odds that their efforts will produce any genuine results are low. Ignorance plays a role as well. How the people in the ramshackle houses of the Hamsa Donum district in Baghdad live is an eye-opener for US soldier Stephen Berry, who comments, “Back home, if the TV didn’t work for five minutes because of an electricity blackout people would be out on the streets protesting. But these people are thrifty. They can go without electricity for days”.
For a brief time under Saddam, Iraq was the most highly developed country in the Arab world. Families like apartment block resident Lamia Salum’s had a good life, particularly before the first Gulf War. Up until the regime of international sanctions began, the standard of living for most of the population was far better than in Egypt, Syria or Jordan. In contrast, today Baghdad’s residents continue to face daily life with food rationing cards, even though the US government promised them freedom, democracy, reconstruction and prosperity. Anyone with money has already left anyway. Since the war began, around two million Iraqis have fled to Syria, Jordan or Egypt in a brain drain of any society’s most important kinds of people: doctors, engineers, teachers, businesspeople and middle class families. Another two million Iraqis, mostly Sunnis and Christians, have fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq and are regarded as refugees in their own country.
One of the Iraqi interpreters who accompanies Lieutenant Samuel on the daily patrols through the houses says that “things have gotten off track. Someone has to restore order. Our government can’t do it. Neither can the Iranians or the Syrians or the Saudis. All we have left is the Americans”.
So this is the essence of the encounter between the occupiers and the occupied. Iraqis know they never invited the Americans to intervene on their behalf, but now they also don’t want to be left on their own with the chaos the uninvited guests have created. Lamia Salum, the laboratory technician from the apartment blocks, sums it up saying, “Leave here? Sure, right away. But we need money for that. And we don’t have any”.