Evan Osnos / Chicago Tribune / KRT – 2005-02-08 22:54:29
When the foreigners did not leave on their own, kidnappers began taking them one at a time — engineers from construction sites, diplomats from their cars, anyone they could get their hands on. In September, several days after the kidnapping and execution of 12 Nepalese laborers, I visited a Sunni imam with close ties to insurgents.
Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabar Jabbar kept a cramped office beside a non-descript neighborhood mosque in Baghdad. The small, airless room was well over 100 degrees when I arrived with a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal, and the sheikh had his white headscarf resting on his desk.
I slumped into a clammy vinyl armchair as one of his aides handed us cans of orange juice from a plastic cooler. We asked why the violence was growing more than two months after the United States had formally restored Iraq’s sovereignty.
“Islam says that if someone fights against your land, then you must fight against them. So we consider that to fight the occupation is halal,” he said, using the Arabic word for things approved under religion. “And fighting those people who are cooperating with the coalition is also halal.”
I asked him about the killing of the Nepalese workers, and he answered with a question of his own: “I ask you,” he said, sipping orange juice, “Is someone who is driving a truck to deliver supplies working with the occupiers?”
But they weren’t driving a truck, the other reporter said with irritation. They were cooks and cleaners. How is that halal?
Before the sheikh could answer, one of his aides answered a bleating cell phone and handed it to his boss. The phone call caused a commotion — another assistant fired up a generator and carried in a small television, placing it on a tea table at the cleric’s hip. The sheikh apologized to us, but he had to do a short interview with a Saudi television channel.
The television set, it seemed, allowed him to see his performance. As we watched, he spoke for several minutes, describing negotiations under way to free two French journalists who had been kidnapped weeks earlier. Yes, he was in contact with rebels, he said. No, he did not believe the Frenchmen had been beheaded, but he couldn’t be sure. (The Frenchmen were eventually released in December after four months in captivity.)
He snapped the phone closed and turned his attention back to us. We asked again about the insurgency and whether local rebel cells coordinate with each other. He was getting impatient.
“They are not fighting in Fallujah because the coalition made mistakes there,” he snapped. “They are fighting in Fallujah because of the occupation. The resistance in Latifiya or Najaf is not defending only its lands. It is defending all of Iraq.”
We thanked him for his time. Six weeks later, US and Iraqi troops stormed the sheikh’s home and arrested him for reasons never disclosed. His supporters called it a “dangerous escalation from the side of the occupier.”
A Bloodstained Mosaic of Endless Carnage
Over time, the scenes of carnage ran together in my mind. I could remember only a few details from each incident — the uprooted trees at the bombing by the Green Zone; the rain falling on the bodies piled outside a morgue; the bloody scarf where professor Gailan Ramiz died in an explosion beside his home, where he used to welcome me for tea.
One morning, our devoted cook, Sultana, arrived late for work and in despair. Her nephew had been killed the night before. He had secretly found work, like so many others, on an American base, weighing the security of a paycheck against the danger of being killed for it.
The gunmen finally found him on his drive home. They pulled up to his sedan on the highway and shot everyone in the car. Sultana couldn’t be sure how many others were killed. All she knew was that the assassins had pulled over after the first blast of gunfire and shot them all again, just to be certain.
The attacks grew bolder. Two Italians were abducted from their home without a shot fired. A few days later, two Americans and a British worker were kidnapped at dawn, as one of them stepped outside to turn on the generator.
That night, as other reporters and I discussed our options, my phone rang. It was Nadeem. “Arfan won’t be coming in tonight,” he said of his brother. “He’s been shot.”
Arfan had been heading back to the office, his left arm resting on the lip of the open window, when a bullet tore through his forearm and sliced into his thigh. Bewildered and soaked in blood, Arfan had managed to steer himself the short trip home.
While a doctor worked on his wounds, his brothers rooted through the car and found a shiny brown AK-47 slug beneath in the driver’s seat. All things considered, Arfan had been lucky. The bullet appeared to have been traveling slowly enough that it was likely a “wedding shot,” one of the rounds fired when Iraqis point their guns in the air in celebration. He would recover well, the doctor said.
Forced to Flee from a Growing Culture of Rebellion
The kidnappings had become too frequent to ignore. We could no longer justify waiting to see what would happen next. Late that night, we piled into a car and abandoned the house. Nobody said it as we drove away, but we knew we would probably never be back to the house. We could no longer live there.
We drove to a hotel that we had once derided as unsafe. It was now our best option. Until we worked out the details, the guards stayed at the house, protecting an empty place that was no longer safe enough to protect us.
We had come full circle — from the isolation of a Marine convoy during the war, back to an isolated hotel room. Iraq had come full circle as well. Once a forbidding blank spot on the world map, the gates had opened, flooding the country with new knowledge, new prosperity, new threats. It then slid steadily into disorder, until most of it was once again a mystery too dangerous to visit.
The United States had deposed a savage dictator and unleashed an anger far more powerful than one man could muster. The bitterness that had emerged as seething glances from the roadside had metastasized into a vast culture of rebellion.
For Iraqis, violence had become widespread enough that a gunshot wound suffered in celebration, not in anger, was a source of perverse relief. For Americans, the hopes for Iraq had been reduced to a shadow of what they once were, downgraded from the dream of transforming a nation to simply leaving as little chaos behind as possible.
On a cool clear morning in September, on my last day before leaving the country for some rest, I set out with a driver and translator for a hospital on the edge of the capital to visit a doctor I knew.
We crossed a small river, and I recognized the place. We were at the Diyala River bridge, within sight of my encounter with the grieving brother more than 18 months earlier.
What we didn’t know is that Ziad Khisrow, our driver, had been here too. “My office was over there,” he said, pointing to a meadow beside the road, where a jumble of small shacks and brick ruins were all that were left by aerial bombing. “All of the buildings are gone.”
Quiet and serious, with a trim black mustache, Khisrow, 34, had been a captain in the Iraqi army, commanding an artillery battery. Beyond that, he had never talked much about his old life.
“I had 35 soldiers at the start. In the end, I had one,” he said, after we stopped the car, his cherished black BMW. Like millions of Iraqis, a new car was among the first changes in his life after Baghdad fell and the borders opened.
His men had fought the Marines for control of the river, until being forced back by the surging Americans. Khisrow had fled by car and on foot, finding an unfinished tan-brick house where he had hunkered down for two days and two nights while planes and helicopters pounded the area.
“We knew we could not win,” he said. “But we were all afraid” to run away. He dragged his index finger across his throat, miming the penalty for desertion.
He got out and walked into the tall parched grass by the roadside.
All that was left of the American imprint here was the spray-painted emblem of the US military unit that had inspected the shell of a nearby building.
“Cleared, 1/7,” it read in green painted letters. It was a familiar emblem: the 1st battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment, the unit with which I had been traveling on that day many months ago. Khisrow and I had been within a few hundred yards of each other. But this was a different country then.
Evan Osnos has spent much of the past two years in Iraq and Kuwait. He is scheduled to leave Iraq in early February.)
© 2005, Chicago Tribune.
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