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On April 9, 2003, as the world watched, Iraqis dragged a bronze statue of the body of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein through the streets of Baghdad. Sahel, a word unique to the Arabic of Iraq, means, literally, to pull a body through the street. Iraqis have coined the term because they have done it so many times before, to other deposed leaders, usually in the flesh. Once again change had come with violence. This time, the violence did not end with the change.
It was that April that my experience of the new Iraq began.
The overthrow of Saddam unleashed a wild mix of reactions: a spontaneous burst of repressed fury from one segment of Iraqi society, which caused more damage to property than did the American bombs; solidarity and a volunteer spirit eager to restore security and normalcy from another segment. Common civilians stood all day, directing traffic in a country with no traffic lights or rules, and the absolute liberty to drive anywhere, in any direction, at any speed. These volunteers protected neighborhoods and established order. Shia groups self-organized and managed hospitals, city governments, and police. But many criminals, gangs, and mafias took over, and the fear of Saddam's totalitarian state was replaced with complete indifference to the idea of a state.
This is the story of the occupation, reconstruction, and descent into civil war of the new Iraq. It makes no attempt to cover the invasion or debate the decision to invade. (Those topics have been well covered, if not resolved, elsewhere.) Instead, this is an attempt to capture the story of the new Iraq from the point of view of the Iraqis themselves.
From the start of the liberation, Iraqis have been divided not only in their views of America, but also among themselves. Many Iraqis might have preferred an occupation, imperialist or not, to the anarchy that prevailed. When I would ask Iraqis what they wanted, they would always say "amn," safety, security. Some called for an immediate evacuation of U.S. and British troops, others asked to be the fifty-first state, and some asked for both in the same breath. Most longed only for a place in the shade and a better future than their past, though they were proud of their history.
New political parties and organizations appeared every day, announcing their birth and their intentions on walls. Their banners covered the abandoned buildings they had confiscated. The Iraqi Communist party headquarters bore the hammer and sickle associated with dogmatic atheism, right next to a huge banner proclaiming their participation in an important Shia holiday. Seventy newspapers appeared in Baghdad after the war, their viewpoints as divergent as possible. Azzaman, the most popular, professional, and mainstream paper, was owned by a former senior intelligence official who worked directly for Saddam's son Qusay. In May, Azzaman used a Reuters picture of an old Iraqi man being held by two American soldiers on each side. Its caption read "American soldiers help Iraqi man cross street." Tariq al-Sha'ab, the Communist party paper, had the same picture over the caption "American soldiers beat Iraqi man."
Everywhere I looked, I saw division, conflict, struggle. (Only one group of Iraqis remained virtually invisible amid the throngs. Iraq's greatest majority, its women, outnumbering men by as much as 1.5 million, were imprisoned in silence. In my many months in Iraq, I met hundreds of men, but very few women. I became afraid to look at them or walk too close to them and thus arouse the ire of their male guardians. Among the Shias in particular, Arab tribal mores had combined with religious conservatism. The Shia women reminded me more of the prisoners behind the Taliban's burkas in Afghanistan than their comparatively liberated Iranian coreligionists, who granted women far more participation and liberty.)
Civil war requires that fratricidal violence be organized. At first, after Saddam fell, the violence was mainly chaotic. But there was an endless supply of it, and it was soon organized, as the chapters that follow attempt to show.
According to almost every Iraqi, the Americans "came as liberators and now they are occupiers." For Americans occupation conjures images of postwar Germany or Japan, and the repair of damaged societies. In Arabic, tahrir, or liberation, and ihtilal, or occupation, have much greater moral and emotional significance. Ihtilal means the Crusaders who slaughtered Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians, it means the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century, it means the British imperialists who divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire with the French, and it means the Israelis in southern Lebanon and Palestine. It is hard for Americans to understand just how deeply they are hated by ordinary Iraqis. "We warned them," one member of the Free Iraqi Forces says of the Americans, "but they didn't listen. They are turning a thousand friends into enemies every day."
Was it an occupation or liberation? On June 2 the Coalition Provisional Authority hosted an Iraqi Senator Council for nearly three hundred tribal leaders of all religions and ethnic groups. Ambassador Hume Horan, a political advisor to Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, addressed the audience in fluent Arabic. After Horan finished speaking, a Shia tribal leader from Amarra thanked President Bush for removing the Baath regime of Saddam and stated that he had seen the mass graves of Shias in the south and was firmly opposed to Saddam. He asked Horan if the coalition forces in Iraq were liberators or occupiers. Horan responded that they were "somewhere in between occupier and liberator." This was not well received. The tribal leader said that if America was a liberator, then the coalition forces were welcome indefinitely as guests, but that if they were occupiers, then he and his descendants would "die resisting" them. This met with energetic applause from the audience. Several other sheikhs echoed the same sentiment. The meeting deteriorated, and one-third of the audience stood up and walked out, despite the efforts of Horan and other organizers to encourage them to stay.
I first crossed into Iraq in April 2003, a few days after Baghdad fell. I split the $2,000 taxi ride with three other journalists and we drove the twelve hours into Baghdad. The city's walls were covered with leaflets and banners announcing the deaths of "martyrs." At first the names of those martyred by the liberating American military festooned the walls, but soon there were new martyrs, victims of the nihilistic anarchy spreading in the country, the faudha (chaos) as Iraqis called it. These new names up on the walls were those martyred first by violent men let loose in the power vacuum, and then by the Iraqi insurgency's terror -- men seeking martyrdom. Without the Baath Party or any other political force, without police or an army, all that remained was the mosque. Old authorities were destroyed and angry young clerics replaced them, arrogating to themselves the power to represent, to mobilize, and to govern. Sunni clerics exhorted their followers to seek martyrdom. Shia clerics wearing turbans and often wielding Kalashnikovs, hailed the memory of two particular martyrs; their bearded visages soon dominated much of the country's walls.
Known as the First and Second Martyrs, these were, in order, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, martyred in 1980 after Saddam's men tortured and killed his sister and hammered nails into his skull, and then his kinsman Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, slain with all but one of his sons in 1999 when their car was riddled with bullets by Baathist assassins. Supporters of the First and Second Sadr Martyrs now swept throughout Iraq's Shia areas, imposing a new order. The downtrodden Shia masses were now ascendant for the first time since the seventh century.
The story of the new Iraq is the triumph of its martyrs. When I arrived, Saddam's statue had just fallen, marking the beginning of what Iraqis would call "the fall." For some it was the fall of the regime, for some it was the fall of Iraq. But all those in Iraq would forever view time as "before" and "after." I would, too, for Iraq changed my life. I celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday a month after I arrived. My dark complexion and grasp of Iraqi Arabic allowed me greater access to the country and its people than some of my colleagues. I tried to live with Iraqis as much as possible, in small unfortified hotels that did not imprison me and remove me from the rest of the country. I traveled by taxi and ate in local restaurants. I befriended Iraqis who became my interlocutors and taught me how to survive, how to act, what to look for. I witnessed with excitement and wonder Iraqis struggling to grasp the new reality and to redefine themselves. With concern and sorrow I was with them when the postwar world of possibilities became chaotic and violent.
I did not belong to an organization and had no backing or supervision, so I wandered wherever I wanted. I focused on the Sunni and Shia Arab parts. (Kurdistan was a different country, not occupied by foreign troops, independent of Baghdad in its political development, and apart from the occasional terror attack in Erbil or Suleimaniya, free from the flames engulfing Iraq.) I consciously chose to avoid reporting about events in the Green Zone and focused instead on developments in the "red zone" that was the rest of Iraq. These events seemed more real to me than the world of make-believe acted out on a political stage removed from Iraqis and surrounded by American soldiers.
As Iraqis were searching for new authority, I was too. Like them, I found it in the mosque and the tribal meeting hall, the new centers of power in Iraq. Perhaps I neglected those who were silent, but they would not be the ones to determine the shape of the new Iraq. Perhaps I neglected those who shied away from violence, but they would not seize power in the new Iraq. My book begins with Iraq's oppressed majority, the Shias, awakening and expressing their identity with an unprecedented vigor, vowing never to be shackled again. They, and perhaps the Kurds who are on their way to independence, were the only victors in America's war. I continue with the Sunnis, the losers, struggling to adjust to a painful new reality. I visit the occupation, seeking to understand how American actions were alienating the Iraqi population they had come to liberate. Their presence and the realignment of power unleashed sectarian forces of internecine hatred that the people of Iraq had never experienced. Into the vacuum stepped foreign radicals in need of a home base where they could operate without obstruction and arrive in paradise via martyrdom.
As Iraq's violence made a journalist's work more and more dangerous and finally prohibitive for most, I continued to venture out, relying on my Middle Eastern features and Arabic, as well as a young freelancer's recklessness borne of desperation. But as friends were killed and others fled, and the violence came closer and closer to me, I too found it increasingly difficult to work with integrity in Iraq, where foreigners were a target and a commodity, and the ranks of the martyrs in Iraq only increased.
Copyright ©2006 by Nir Rosen
Cast of Characters
1 The Triumph of the Martyrs: April 2003
2 The New Mongols: Summer-Fall 2003
3 If They're Not Guilty Now, They Will Be Next Time: Fall 2003
4 Iraq v. Iraq: Spring 2004
5 The Heart of the Insurgency: Falluja, Summer 2004
6 The Rise of Zarqawi: Fall 2004
7 Elections: January 2005
Posted May 5, 2006
Rosen's book is a must read for anyone interested in discussing the Iraqi conflict. It provides fascinating and much needed insight into the events of the last three years from a little known perspective - that of the Iraqi population. The reality on the ground proves to be in stark contrast to the platitudes fed by the administration as well the general media which is limited with respect to its access due to both safety concerns as well as an uninviting indigenous population. Rosen's recklessness for his safety seems a blessing as numerous insurgent commanders are interviewed and Rosen leaves no stone unturned. The book is rather comprehensive in its detailing of the conflict and the various demographics in Iraq. The writing style, though at times uneven, generally proves to be an ideal blend of of vital information and history together with interviews, experiences and anecdotes detailing Rosen's journey throughout the country. The traces of cynicism which decorate the book sporadically hint at Rosen's misanthropic tendencies yet are easily forgiven considering his extended exposure to the various extremes of the cultures he explores. Overall most of the book is extremely readable (an unexpected page turner at times) and though many of the details and names will escape the reader at its close, the perspective and knowledge gained is invaluable. Perfect for a course on modern Iraqi politics, urban military conflicts and the like.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.