Baghdad/Kirkuk – A group of very young America-haters is ecstatic. The thirty or so boys are rocking back and forth on a flatbed truck snaking its way through the dusty streets of Sadr City, Baghdad’s huge Shiite ghetto. Some of the rockets that occasionally rain down on US troops are launched from here. The boys are squealing with pride and coolly waving their pistols like true warlords. The guns are made of plastic, but the gestures are genuine. Virtually all the children in Sadr City, both boys and girls, carry toy firearms, sometimes with toy silencers or golden barrels. And they know the lingo: Glock, Beretta, Magnum. The war never really finished here in Sadr City, here in Baghdad, here in Iraq, and once the Americans leave at the end of December, it may start up all over again. Until then the Iraqis and their occupiers live side by side in an uneasy carrot-and-stick atmosphere that is not unusual in the Middle East, but is seldom as suffocating as one finds here. And sometimes, although rarely, there is a glimpse of what a peaceful Iraq could look like in a best-case scenario. But you have to look for it.
Take Dschoad Karim Kassim for instance. Dschoad, at well over six feet tall one of Sadr City’s biggest America-haters, decided to switch sides. Dschoad is 25 years old, a towering figure of a man with muscles rippling through his “California” t-shirt who spends his spare time these days playing basketball. He finally came to the conclusion that American aid organisations actually do a lot of good. A mere four years ago though, Dschoad was a soldier in the Mahdi Army under the leadership of militant Shiite cleric Muqtadā al-Ṣadr battling the Americans. “I thought the occupiers would never leave if we didn’t oppose them. I was afraid they would tear the country apart”, he says.
On December 31st of this year, US President Barack Obama wants to end the war and bring his troops home, leaving Iraq to fend for itself, with itself and its enemies. Western diplomats warn that the Iraqi government is likely to be tested by jihadists, Sunni rebels, dissatisfied tribal leaders or Shiite militias. The number of attacks is already on the increase. With the entire region on shaky ground, why should anyone expect Iraq of all places to remain stabile? Anything is possible, including nothing. In other words, what happens if the feared “big bang” simply doesn’t occur?
Much will depend on how the Shiites react to the American withdrawal, above all here in Baghdad in Muqtadā al-Ṣadr’s stronghold of Sadr City. As a child, Dschoad saw how Saddam strangled the Shiite revolt in 1991 with unfettered brutality. Then the Sunnis came and threw his family out of their house. They ended up here in Sadr City, still Saddam City at that time, a pre-designed, almost pre-fab district of Baghdad built in the 1960s and crisscrossed with a street grid not unlike Manhattan’s. This was the breeding ground for a new type of politicised caste of clerics. One of those was Muqtadā’s father Mohamed Sadik al-Sadr, a star among ayatollahs who chose to combat the suffering of the Shiites head on rather than exclusively with prayer. For his trouble, Saddam had Mohamed shot in a car in 1999 along with two of his sons. It is also said that Saddam’s fate for Sadik’s cousin, the Grand Ayatollah Mohamed Bakir Al-Sadr, was to have nails driven into his forehead.
Overnight, Muqtadā became their successor. When Saddam fell and the Americans drove the Sunnis out of power, the Shiite majority was finally free to preach its doctrines and undertake pilgrimages. This was the moment when Muqtadā, sensing the Iraqi Shiite’s support for his ascendency, chose to take advantage of his noble heritage and create the Mahdi Army. Then he declared war on the American occupiers. Dschoad says, “I thought he wanted to finish his father’s mission”.
Even by Iraq’s brutal standards, Muqtadā set new records for sectarian violence. Local residents recount how, following a bomb attack on the market in Sadr City that killed more than 250 people, al-Sadr had innocent Sunnis kidnapped and shot to death inside the bomb crater. That was too much for Dschoad, who says that “the wrong people are fighting for Muqtadā. They’re a band of criminals”.
In an apparent about-face, the preaching militia leader Muqtadā then travelled to Iran in 2008 and demobilised the Mahdi Army. He soon re-emerged not simply as a politician, but indeed as a kingmaker in forming the Iraqi government, with Sadrists occupying no less than five ministerial seats. And all this came from a man who had declared that any Iraqi government would be nothing more than a group of lackeys for Washington. Dschoad says, “America is the devil, but Muqtadā is not half the man his father was. And now he’s even a politician! I don’t risk my neck for politicians anymore”. He is uneasy about December 31st, commenting, “Once the Americans are gone, someone could take advantage of the situation”. That goes for Sadr City as well.
Between military vehicles and checkpoints, hagiographic comics appear, disappear and re appear on the walls, depicting the characters Ali and Hussein with jagged eyebrows and honey-coloured complexions amidst technicolor landscapes. For Shiites, these figures are among the holiest of the holy, superheroes from the 7th century and members of the Holy Prophet’s family. Next to this, as if yesterday and today were one and the same, there are photographs of bomb victims as well as Muqtadā surrounded by the family of a martyr or alone and defiant with rifle in hand. At the road junctions, like some surreal greeting straight out of Disneyland, police shelters designed to look like a police uniform stand out. Their roofs simulate a black cap situated on top of a white wall representing a shirt. The officer on duty’s seat is the bent tip of the necktie on the “uniform”. Directly next to him, graffiti in letters as high as the wall itself reads “No to the occupation”.
These streets, brimming with kitsch and violence, are governed by Muqtadā’s men with social patronage and religiously-inspired terror. Only a couple of years ago brides were required to be fully veiled; music was forbidden. Today, the locals say, the Sadrists broker jobs for thousands of dollars, but they threaten EU projects because they equate the stars on the EU flag with the Israeli Star of David. According to the New York Times, the fighters in the Mahdi Army now operate as a kind of army of religious social workers known as the “Mumahidun” on behalf of the people, organising Koran classes and football matches. Yet some locals remain sceptical; there are no new hospitals or schools, but there are now mosques everywhere, and when the Sadrists call for a general strike, the call is accompanied by a threat: “If you go to work, we will break your legs.” Some suspect that as soon as the Americans are gone, the radical cleric might attempt to establish an Islamist “state within the state”, à la Hezbollah in Lebanon. In any case, with the mobilisation potential of his militias and his connections to Iran, the Pentagon sees Muqtadā as a greater threat than al-Qaeda.
Muschrik Nadschi Abud, the speaker of the Sadrist fraction in the Iraqi parliament, receives us in a room filled with gold-embroidered upholstered furniture shimmering like his own petrol-coloured suit. His cologne smells from yards away, and it is little wonder that he has a completely opposed take on the potential danger. Abud maintains that all of Iraq’s problems have been caused by the Americans, from tensions between Sunnis and Shiites to al-Qaeda to corruption, and everything in between. He is certain that when the Americans disappear, so will these problems. “We will fight any form of occupation, be it political, military or anything else”, says Abud. Recently America’s Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta announced that the USA would leave a maximum of 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers in Iraq, which is barely enough to defend themselves, to say nothing of playing an effective military intervention role. Does Abud see 3,000 American soldiers as an occupying force? “One soldier would already be an occupying force”, he responds. Then, with a tactical enthusiasm for democratic rules shared by so many of his fellow Islamists, Abud asserts that “the true feelings of the people are expressed in parliament. We Sadrists have more than 40 seats, with each member representing 100,000 Iraqis. That’s already quite a few votes for the withdrawal”.
The Americans are already leaving – and how! The journey to visit the remaining troops takes place by helicopter via Mosul and on to Kirkuk, and I am struck by its beauty. Below, thereid the dark land with flames licking upwards from the pipelines as if they were spitting gold straight out of the ground. The ethnic mix in Kirkuk makes it a kind of mini-Iraq, and the tussling here between the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens for the oil resources is regarded as a crack in the foundation with the potential to explode into civil war. This is where we find Camp Warrior, one of the last remaining US Army bases in Iraq. The men stationed here are members of the “Devil’s Brigade”, the 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division. One of the US Army’s oldest brigades, the 1st Brigade has fought in both world wars, in Vietnam and in Kuwait. One of its units can even trace its roots back to America’s Revolutionary War in the 18th century. For America, that’s old.
A Turkmen doctor has just been murdered in Kirkuk, triggering demonstrations by the local Turkmen population. In the afternoon Second Lieutenant Ryan Sheffield and his convoy travel to one of the Arab-Kurdish checkpoints to analyse the situation. In eight years, more than 100,000 Iraqis and over 4,000 American soldiers have been killed, but August was the first month with no losses for the US Army. The US combat troops were already withdrawn a while back. The US Army has trained tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers, also here in Kirkuk. These days Lieutenant Sheffield’s mission is defined as monitoring the learning objectives.
The American soldiers have long since disappeared from the cities. It is only occasionally now that they cruise through the streets in an MRAP, an ominous-looking mine-resistant troop transporter. This one has a small Superman sticker on its mine-detecting protective rod and a men’s magazine beside the machine gun turret. The checkpoint is a pink-coloured fortress. Corporal Fahradin Osman, a Kurd, welcomes the Americans like old friends. Maintaining the cordial atmosphere, Lieutenant Sheffield asks the corporal when he last saw his family. Corporal Osman answers that he recently had a few days off. And who’s on your team here at the moment asks Lieutenant Sheffield. “– Seven Arabs and seven Kurds. – Electricity and petrol? – Enough. – Problems? – Drunk drivers.” Then Lieutenant Sheffield wants to know if the corporal has considered deploying female inspectors. The Kurdish corporal elegantly deflects the issue, replying that there are five women but seven checkpoints. He would like to help, but he doesn’t see any possibilities for his post.
The corporal says that he has learned much from the Americans, but he would feel better if they stayed. “We need two weeks to secure an area. They do it in two days”, says Corporal Osman. “Even today there’s not really a proper Defence Minister or Interior Minister in Baghdad. Do you really think that will improve without the Americans?” he continues.
Like many of the lower ranking soldiers, Lieutenant Sheffield is convinced that the US troops are helping Iraq’s different religious and ethnic groups to reconcile with one another. Others continue to believe that Saddam hid weapons of mass destruction. You hear that America has torn itself apart for the Iraqis. One captain says that Iraq is “like a kid that turns 18 and has to step out into the world, even though it doesn’t want to”. The captain is in his mid-20s. One sergeant didn’t even know that there are palm trees in Iraq.
This naiveté begins to dissipate in the higher ranks. Colonel Michael Pappal, Commander of the 1st Brigade, views the compulsory firing of all members of the Baath political party and the forced break-up of the former security apparatus as mistakes. “We had to start from scratch with the country’s bureaucracy and its military”, the colonel explains. For the rebels in Libya or Syria, eight years after the fall of the tyrant Saddam, Iraq is the opposite of what they seek for their own countries. The social marginalisation of entire ethnic groups, religious groups and political minions of the former regime which then turns to years of rebellion against the new state is regarded as the Americans’ cardinal error. Colonel Pappal knows this, but believes that the damage done does not outweigh the good. He agrees that the government in Baghdad doesn’t fit with Western standards of democracy, but it works; and it’s true that the army and police are not as well-trained as they could be, “but they’re not bad”, he maintains.
And it’s too late anyway. Of what used to be more than 500 US bases in Iraq, only a good 40 or so remain. Where there were once 170,000 soldiers, there are now around 43,000. Camp Warrior is the last remaining base in the province of Kirkuk, where five other bases have already been closed. There are no more American tanks in the entire area. Yet when Jacquelyn Gerald, a member of the military’s logistics team, thinks about everything that is still here, all the MRAPs and Humvees, the flat screen monitors, radar equipment, generators and more, she still has sleepless nights. They sometimes find lost cargo, covered in dirt, or a carton without any proper papers. They call this a “frustrated load”. Once they even found a container full of rubbish. Everything ever inventoried and distributed to the troops in Iraq on behalf of the Pentagon can be found in gravel fields like these at Camp Warrior. There are weapons for US units in Iraq, Afghanistan or America. And there are empty prefabricated apartments for the Iraqi security force personnel, who are known for regularly counting each of the window-mounted air conditioning units in the apartments, presumably to make sure they haven’t been stolen.
The US Army brought America to the “Cradle of Civilization” with T-bone steaks and Stars-and-Stripes tablecloths. Now it is Jacquelyn Gerald’s job to wrap up the bases. She has already worked her way through 20 of them, and the pace of the drawdown is now blinding. “Basically, everyone’s just working on packing everything up and getting it out of here now”, she says. For months now, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been trying to convince the Americans to leave a few US soldiers in the country as military advisors, equally trying to pin them down on exactly how many troops constitute “a few”. Most Iraqis have nothing but contempt for the country’s politicians, who took no less than three-quarters of a year to form a government after the elections. And now the haggling continues on an issue of such importance. As busy as they already are, the US generals are simultaneously trying to complete the withdrawal while remaining as flexible as possible in the event that the Iraqi government does request 10,000 or 20,000 troops in the end. Is this even possible in logistical terms? Jacquelyn Gerald gives the idea short shrift, saying: “It would be unbelievably expensive. We’ve already crossed the point of no return.”
So, what remains after eight years aside from a few residential containers for the Iraqi army, a couple of Humvees and concrete walls? One Iraqi journalist says that Iraqis didn’t get to know much about American culture, since they only know the Americans in uniform.
In a Baghdad park we come across a family on a picnic, a Sunni family from Al-Jusfija, a former stronghold of the rebels. Let’s call the father Hamid. Hamid is a police officer. He earns a reasonably good wage, but police officers are also favourite targets of terrorist attacks. “What else can I do to earn a living?” he asks. When questioned on whether the police force is ready to maintain order once the Americans leave, Hamid’s answer is “No”. One week later, a bomb explodes at the outer edge of the same park. There are certainly Iraqis who feel that eight years with the Americans is long enough and that every day that they stay longer is a provocation; but among others there is an air of distrust of their own abilities, coupled with bitterness and deep shame over the many years of unrelenting murder. One Sunni sums it up with the words, “You know it yourself. Iraq really is a depraved country”.
Of course that’s not true. In Baghdad’s bookstore district along Mutanabbi Street, veteran book dealer Naim al-Schattri breaks out in tears when he remembers the attack that took place here four years ago. Today, however, the street has been rebuilt, and his customers are back buying their favourite books on religion and politics. “This street is my family, and it’s more beautiful than ever before”, Naim says.
In Karrada, one of the most open-minded and cosmopolitan districts in Baghdad, the locals enjoy strolls in the cool of the evening air, passing by shops selling herbs, Chinese clothing and Shaun the Sheep jumpers. Aside from a large Adidas store, there are hardly any other Western retailers in Karrada. Instead there are mostly stands with fruit from Syria. Iranian cars drive by, men enjoy a shave under the neon lighting of the barber shops, and ice cream dealers have fans to blow cold fog on their guests. A fish that is the key ingredient in Iraqi cuisine’s popular “maskuf” dish suddenly leaps out of a small holding pool onto the sidewalk, flopping from side to side as it suffocates. A glance through the doors of a spirits shop reveals shelves full of whiskey. A provocation for the Islamists, for others these are the remnants of a vibrant, open era. The night swallows up the dilapidated building fronts with all their scars, old and new. Right here, right now, for only a few hours along a few street blocks, Baghdad seems at peace with itself. It’s almost like the Americans were never here.