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What About the Iraqis?

1.

Sometimes there is nothing more gripping than the mundane. Consider “Baghdad Burning,” the online diary of a young Baghdad woman who goes by the pseudonym of Riverbend. Her story begins in the summer of 2003, almost five months after the American invasion, and by the end of the book version, compiled here in two volumes, she has provided us with the most comprehensive Iraqi view of the war to date. In one entry she describes her tragicomic efforts to battle boredom as she accompanies her brother and cousin on a mission to fill up the family car at the local gas station. (She gives up, she tells us, after the first six hours; the two young men will be forced to stay for another seven.) She documents shopping expeditions on which she takes note of the growing number of women who are covering themselves in hijab, or catalogs the travails involved in coping with daily power outages, such as setting up a bucket brigade to fill the family’s rooftop water tank. She offers a primer on how to react when you notice that soldiers are cordoning off your street:

My aunt went into a tirade against raids, troops, and looting, then calmed down and decided that she wouldn’t hide her gold tonight: her daughter and I would wear it. I stood there with my mouth hanging open—who is to stop anyone from taking it off of us? Was she crazy? No, she wasn’t crazy. We would wear the necklaces, tucking them in under our shirts and the rest would go in our pockets….

We went on with our usual evening activities—well, almost. My aunt wanted to bathe, but was worried they’d suddenly decide to raid us while she was in the bathroom. In the end, she decided that she would bathe, but that E. would have to stand on the roof, diligently watching the road, and the moment an armored car or tank found itself on our street, he’d have to give the warning so my aunt would have time to dress….

Here we were, 10 p.m., no electricity and all fully clothed because no one wanted to be caught in a raid in their pajamas. I haven’t worn pajamas for the last…6 months.

Americans, by now, can be forgiven for believing that we know something about the situation in Iraq; we hear about it, after all, every day, in what seems like benumbing detail. And yet, in reality, what we know about the lives of individual Iraqis rarely goes beyond the fleeting opinion quote or the civilian casualty statistics. We have little impression of Iraqis as people trying to live lives that are larger and more complex than the war that engulfs them, and more often than not we end up viewing them merely as appendages of conflict. The language of foreign policy abstraction and a misplaced sense of decorum on the part of the press and television also conspire to sanitize the fantastically disgusting realities of everyday death. One of Riverbend’s neighbors has been missing ever since he drove off one day in April as American troops were entering the city. His family has spent the past five months trying to determine his final fate:

…They traced his route from his home to Al-Jami’a Quarter, where his parents lived, pausing at every burnt vehicle to examine it and asking the people in the surrounding areas whether they had seen a white 1985 Toyota being driven by a 40-year-old man? Maybe it had been fired at by a tank? Maybe it was hit by an Apache? People were sympathetic, but helpless. No white Toyota—a blue Kia with 6 passengers, a red Volkswagen with a mother, father, and two kids…but no white Toyota. Every single time, they were referred to the makeshift graves along the main roads and highways….

Some of the graves had little cardboard placards stuck carefully under a pile of stones to help family members: adult male, adult female, 2 children in black Mercedes. Adult male, small boy in a white pick-up….

They finally found him, this morning, in an area outside his expected course. One of the several burnt cars, dragged into a dusty field, was a white 1985 Toyota with the skeleton of a car-seat in the back. Not far off were the graves. They located the “adult male in the white Toyota” and with the help of some sympathetic men in the neighborhood, unearthed Abu Ra’ad for identification.

To be sure, there is plenty of politics in Riverbend’s work as well. She is a passionate opponent of the occupation, and her writing sparks with rage and indignation. An avid consumer of the press and the Internet, she is well aware of the range of American attitudes about the war; she has her own.1 When she hears that US forces in Iraq are fighting “terrorists,” she notes that the American-installed Iraqi government includes several prominent members of the Islamist Dawa Party, which was behind a string of bombings that killed Iraqi civilians in the 1980s.2 When she hears that Washington aspires to implant democracy in Iraq, she responds by showing how her rights as a woman are being steadily curtailed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism sponsored by the very same political parties that the Americans have brought to power. And when the talk turns to “collateral damage,” she asserts that “American long-term memory is exclusive to American traumas. The rest of the world should simply ‘put the past behind,’ ‘move forward,’ ‘be pragmatic,’ and ‘get over it.’”

A harsh verdict, to be sure, but perhaps it needs to be heard. The underlying irony of all this should be obvious. The writer of these words is a young female computer programmer (now twenty-seven), whose resourceful English (acquired during a long stay abroad in her childhood) would put many Americans to shame. Her familiarity with American culture and principles repeatedly comes to the fore; indeed, it is her intense awareness of American political discourse and reporting that infuses her writing. If any Iraqi can be receptive to America’s grand democratic design for Iraq, surely it ought to be someone like her. And yet, as her book dramatically demonstrates, she and her occupiers may temporarily inhabit the same country, but they continue to live in different worlds.

2.

At the end of May 2003, shortly after the occupation officially began, two Washington Post reporters embarked on a noteworthy experiment. While Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks, the author of the informative book Fiasco,3 accompanied a US patrol on its rounds through a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, his Arabic-speaking colleague Anthony Shadid trailed behind, asking Iraqis what they thought of the American presence. “Everybody likes us,” a soldier from Louisiana confidently assures Ricks. Meanwhile, as Shadid recounts in his book Night Draws Near:

… Around the corner was a man named Mohammed Ibrahim, standing on the sidewalk as Tom and the ten-man patrol passed his gated house.

Despicable” was the way he described the US presence. In a white dishdasha, a long Arab robe, the thirty-four-year-old winced as the soldiers moved along his street, nine carrying automatic weapons slung across their chests, the tenth a medic. Ibrahim’s grimace was personal, the kind of contortion an insult brings. “We’re against the occupation, we refuse the occupation—not one hundred percent, but one thousand percent,” he told me. “They’re walking over my heart. I feel like they’re crushing my heart.”

As Shadid continues, he discovers that some of the residents welcome the Americans, “in the hope that they would provide a measure of security after the weeks of looting.” Others express relief about the removal of Saddam. It soon becomes clear that the split in views tracks sectarian differences: Shadid’s Sunni interlocutors are clearly inclined to reject the occupation, Shiites notably less so. One Shiite matron tells Shadid that she fears what will happen if the US troops depart: “‘If the Americans left,’ she said, ‘massacres would happen in Iraq—between the tribes, between the parties and between the Sunnis and Shiites, of course.’” She hastens to add that “no one who loves their country accepts an occupation. Everybody wants freedom.”

The Baghdadi woman on that street in Yarmuk knew something about her countrymen’s basic sentiments, and the underlying fragility of her society, that eluded not only the US Army soldiers walking down it but, evidently, the invasion’s planners as well. Considerable attention has been paid within the United States to the Bush administration’s failure, before the invasion, to understand the true state of Saddam’s programs for the development of weapons of mass destruction. Yet there has been far less in-depth analysis of the government’s equally scandalous inability to form a clear picture of Iraqi public opinion, and its reluctance to study the history and culture of the country where it was about to embark on the most ambitious nation-building experiment since World War II.

When Paul Bremer, the head of the occupation government for most of the period until nominal sovereignty was transferred to the Iraqis, summarily disbanded the Baath Party and the Iraqi army, dismantling at a stroke the machinery of the Iraqi state, many Iraqis immediately understood that a dramatic watershed had been reached; it took somewhat longer for Washington and the American public to figure this out. For a time Bremer flirted with the idea of watering down planned elections to allow for greater Sunni participation as a way of pacifying the insurgency, but then his advisers were caught completely off guard when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of most of Iraq’s majority Shiite population, called for nationwide protests that immediately rendered the idea moot. The Americans were similarly clueless about the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric who rose from obscurity to become the single greatest challenger to the success of the occupation to date. Anthony Shadid recounts how one of Washington’s leading Arab experts in Baghdad dismissed Sadr as “a young upstart and rabble-rouser” and a “distraction.”

The reasons for such misreadings are many. Surely one has to do with the self-selecting nature of the regional experts whom the administration consulted on its plans. Ambitious Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi all too often told policymakers what they wanted or expected to hear in the entirely warranted hope of gaining political power in return later on. Critical outsiders never gained a comparable hearing. Government experts whose thinking somehow contradicted the administration’s ideology were ignored (the most famous case being the immense collection of planning documents compiled by a group of State Department analysts and Iraqi émigrés). A broader atmosphere of cultural indifference toward the Islamic world and the non-Israel Middle East undoubtedly had a part as well. As a recent editorial in The Washington Post observed, five years after September 11 the FBI still has a mere thirty-three experts who speak Arabic—and most of those are far from fluent.4 The CIA and the Pentagon are not much better off.5

Small wonder, then, that the American discourse about the war usually ends up saying far more about American domestic politics than Iraq itself. Within the United States, politicians and commentators are fervently debating the issue of whether what is happening there now constitutes a “civil war.” In Iraq there is no equivalent discussion that I am aware of. Such a discussion, one presumes, would be bizarrely misplaced when more than one hundred Iraqis (in a country of 29 million people) are dying each day from internecine violence. In a country of America’s population, the equivalent losses would be a little more than 1,000 per day—or roughly two September 11 massacres per week. Similarly, New York Timesjournalist Sabrina Tavernise, who has spent much of the past three years in Iraq tracking down the views and daily experiences of ordinary Iraqis, wrote shortly after the US midterm elections that many members of Baghdad’s present-day political class, though well aware of the elections, regarded them as irrelevant to the fate of their country.6

3.

The simple statement—“we should listen to Iraqi voices”—poses a crucial question. In our search for authentically Iraqi viewpoints, whom should we be listening to? Who can claim to speak for the citizens of a country where the barriers to understanding—following differences in religious belief, ethnicity, class—are so forbiddingly complex? In the case of Riverbend, it happens, it is also the mistakes of the young Baghdad woman, her limitations, that make her narrative worth reading. The daughter of an upper-middle-class family, she is a progressive Muslim and an idealistic Iraqi nationalist, intent on demonstrating to her American readers the high level of Iraq’s cultural and economic development. And yet she is also distinctly oblivious to some of the darker sides of Saddam’s regime.7 “Some would say that they [the Kurds] had complete rights even before the war,” she notes at one point, in a characteristic moment of blindness (she has apparently never heard of the poison gas attacks Saddam’s regime staged against Kurdish civilians). “The majority of Iraqis have a deep respect for other cultures and religions,” she argues elsewhere. She decries American policies that seem to her aimed at dividing Iraqis into ethnic and sectarian communities, and makes a great point of emphasizing the mixed Sunni-Shia origins of her family.

As the story progresses, though, reality begins to catch up. Suddenly Shiites are taking to the streets with their deeply traditional rituals of mourning and self-chastisement, which had been prohibited by Saddam’s government. For Riverbend it is a jarring sight:

These processions were banned before and, quite frankly, I wish they could be confined to certain areas now. The sight of so much violence (even if it is towards oneself) is just a little bit unnerving.

So much for her Shia roots. By the same token, she is notably contemptuous of Shiite representatives who have risen to new power and prestige under the occupation. She is particularly scornful of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq—SCIRI, the Iranian-influenced Shiite party in Iraq—which she dismisses with some plausibility as an Iranian proxy. But she neglects to note that its leaders include clerics who command the allegiance of large numbers of the Shiite population. She is equally dismissive of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the senior spiritual authority for most of Iraq’s Shiites, whom she scorns simply as an “Iranian.” Such contempt, like that of many Iraqis who share her beliefs, completely misjudges the profound impact of the national elections sponsored by the occupation authorities. Before they took place she predicted they would be a fig leaf for American power—when in fact they ended up providing a galvanizing moment for many of those who voted.

In this misjudgment, Riverbend reminds me of those Soviet patriots who failed to understand the events that ushered in the final agony of the USSR. Many of those who lived well under the system were unable to see its crimes for what they were, making them dismissive or uncomprehending when the once-oppressed began to express their own political demands. The situations are not entirely dissimilar. In 2003, the American-led coalition entered an Iraq that had just completed a century of colonization, rebellion, social unrest, endless coups (marked by the public murder of political leaders), and authoritarian government even before the Baath Party ascended to power briefly in 1963 and then, more enduringly, in July 1968. After Saddam gained the presidency in July 1979, the country embarked on a twenty-four-year-period of totalitarian rule. The disastrous events of this era included the eight-year war with Iran (characterized by savage trench combat of a type not seen since World War I); genocidal attacks on the Kurds (including the use of chemical weaponry against Iraqi citizens); political terror targeting the Shiite spiritual leadership and religious institutions; the invasion of Kuwait and Saddam’s defeat in Operation Desert Storm; and twelve years of postwar sanctions that pauperized much of the population and severely debilitated Iraq’s once-envied social infrastructure. All too often attempts to deal with the effects of this history were driven underground by the state’s ban on political discussion, furthering a process of atomization that has resulted, on countless levels, in a society that no longer knows itself. Both Shadid and Nir Rosen, in his book In the Belly of the Green Bird, note in passing that many of the Sunni Arab Iraqis they encounter during their reporting firmly believe, for example, that Sunnis make up 60 percent of the population.

This doesn’t mean that Riverbend’s own perspective renders her irrelevant8 ; her passion, to the contrary, is precisely her strength. Her story is powerfully complemented by another Iraqi diarist, Amal Salman, a Shiite girl whose musings form a narrative spine of Anthony Shadid’s remarkable book. It’s an account made all the more powerful by her background: when Shadid meets her, before the American invasion, she is fourteen, one of eight children of a “stout matriarch” named Karima Salman, who is struggling to keep together her impoverished family as the latest threat of war encroaches. In her diary Amal reveals the musings of a child confronted with the confusion and brutal injustice of fighting. As war gives way to occupation, her diary reveals how the girl who had once spoken “with the force of a loyalist” matures into a questioner: “We used to have trust in President Saddam Hussein, but now we don’t know whom we trust,” she writes. Soon the markets are filled with videos documenting the horrors of Saddam’s regime:

Saddam’s elder son, Uday, is the most corrupt person on earth,” she wrote after watching the videos over two days, a viewing interrupted by blackouts. “Any girl he liked, he would take. No one could say anything because he is the son of President Saddam Hussein. His other son, Qusay, is also cruel, like his father and brother.”

A month after the collapse of Saddam’s government, she sets off to attend school for the first time since the invasion. Her teachers tell her and her classmates to rip the pictures of Saddam out of their textbooks—and then warns them to avoid wearing tight pants, “because there are some who are abducting girls.” Later her sister, Hibba, will be wounded in a multiple car bombing that shatters the family’s street. Shadid’s great strength as a reporter is his ability to encourage his subjects to tell us their own stories, wherever possible in their own voices, and by the end of his book we are left with a sharp and fully realized portrait of a young woman finding her voice amid the furies of anarchy.

That paradox of simultaneous empowerment and brutalization runs throughout Shadid’s panoramic portrayal, which scrupulously and very sensitively charts experiences of many kinds ranging from the pre-war period to the end of the occupation’s first year. He describes the funeral of a boy killed in a US bombing raid. He reconstructs the world, and the motives, of one of the early members of the Sunni insurgency, a rural man whose intense faith in Islam leads him to die in an ill-considered attack on US troops. Shadid also tells the story of a father forced by tribal custom to kill his own son, who is accused of collaborating with the Americans. At a mosque in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, Shadid watches as a Shiite cleric loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr engages, as he responds to petitioners, in a style of hands-on religious activism heretofore unknown to Saddam’s Iraq:

The questions ranged from the mundane to the abstract—requests for equipment at a brick factory, help in tracking down a stolen trailer, assistance to reinstate a dismissed teacher, permission to open a medical clinic, queries about religious taxes. Money flowed freely—from a few hundred dinars to ten thousand, depending on the request…. Unlike US administrators, already blamed by many Iraqis for promising too much, Shuweili was careful. He never promised more than he could deliver.

Shadid, who spent years reporting on the Middle East before his work in Iraq, muses that he has seen this same kind of grassroots Islamic politics before, in places ranging from the slums of Istanbul to the refugee camps of Gaza. “The arcs of that activism,” he observes, “played out over years and decades. In Iraq, I was watching it evolve over days and weeks.” Listening to Iraqi voices, a simple strategy that few Americans have yet proven capable of mastering, has enabled Shadid to spot and track the agents of Iraq’s extraordinary evolution, no matter how traditional their guises might seem. And if we are to come even close to understanding Iraq, we must first be able to comprehend its radical transformation.

4.

It is an aspect of the problem often overlooked in reporting of the war, but Iraq today is a country in the grip of revolutionary change. The American occupation swept away the institutions of Saddam’s regime without providing for new ones to replace them. It encouraged a remarkable flowering of pluralism in expression (including satellite television, avidly competing newspapers, and cell phones), allowing Iraqis to discuss the problems of their own society with a freedom that is still rare in the Arab world,9 while failing to provide many basic services or respond to widespread unemployment. It organized democratic elections and stimulated the growth of local self-government without ever dealing with the conditions that prevented these new participatory institutions from effectively exercising power—and watched helplessly as they were bypassed by other forms of community self-assertion, like Shadid’s activist clerics. Most catastrophically of all, the occupation government never managed to offer Iraqis a basic level of security—a situation that led to the expansion of already existing militias and encouraged the growth of new ones.

Many American commentators mistakenly assume that the democratic freedoms brought by the Americans have simply allowed the inherent weaknesses of Iraqi society to come out into the open.10 Certainly Iraqi society has always been deeply divided against itself; but under the occupation it has been turned upside down. The middle class, under attack from criminals and murderous ideologues, is abandoning the country. According to the Iraq Index of the Brookings Institution, the authorities have issued two million passports since August 2005. An estimated 40 percent of Iraq’s professional classes have left the country.11 New elites are rising in their place, sometimes through the use of violence; needless to say, this is not the sort of civil society that the Americans were hoping to promote. There is evidence, for example, that some of the Shiite parties have embarked on systematic assassination campaigns against leading Baathist officials, including secret policemen and air force officers who flew missions against Iran during the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s.

Nothing illustrates this better than the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric who has benefited from the frustrations and desires of the Shiite dispossessed to become, arguably, the most powerful man in Iraq today. The son of a respected grand ayatollah who was killed by Saddam in 1999, Sadr the younger holds a relatively modest clerical rank. But he has managed to capitalize on his illustrious pedigree12 by casting himself as an unstinting opponent of the occupation from the start—which has offered the additional political benefit of positioning him against the established Shiite clerical elite, sometimes known as the hawza, after the influential Najaf seminary that remains one of Shiism’s spiritual centers. This elite has generally tolerated the American presence in exchange for the hope that elections would award political power to the Shiite majority. As Nir Rosen observes in the pages of In the Belly of the Green Bird, “The Sadr family was known for being revolutionary, their political activism a contrast to the quietism of the hawza‘s more traditional leadership.” At times, indeed, Sadr’s followers (known in Arabic as the Sadriyun, or “Sadrites”) have spoken of their camp as the “speaking” or “outspoken hawza” (natiqa hawza) in contrast with the “silent hawza” (samita hawza) of Sistani, who identifies himself with a Shia tradition that eschews all-too-direct involvement in politics.

Sadr is an unapologetic Iraqi nationalist. His supporters proudly embrace the Iraq national flag, in stark contrast to the emblems of the other Shiite parties, which stress religious symbolism. When Sadr and his then-nascent militia, the Mahdi Army, rose up against the Americans twice in 2004, many Sunnis offered enthusiastic support for his rebellion. Sadr, who stayed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein despite the attacks on his family, is also happy to play on widespread doubts about the bona fides of his Shiite rivals, many of whom sought refuge in Iran and are accordingly derided as safawi (after the Iranian Shah Ismail al-Safawi, who forcibly converted Sunnis in what is now Iraq to his own Shia faith in the early sixteenth century). Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual exemplar for most of Iraq’s Shiites, was born in the Iranian city of Mashhad and still speaks Arabic with a Farsi accent—though there is little in his career to suggest that he has ever viewed himself as a proxy of Iran. Sadr, for his part, is a fluent populist, imparting his views in a slangy, colloquial, even crude Iraqi Arabic that stands in studied contrast to the classical elegance of his more educated rivals.

Rosen, another Arabic-speaking American journalist, spends much of his book listening to Friday prayers at the mosques where Iraqi faithful are being galvanized against the Americans by their spiritual leaders. He is one of the few Western journalists to get inside the Sunni insurgency, and his book contains a memorable portrait, among other things, of Fallujah under the chaotic rule of the mujahideen in the days before the US Marines retook the city in a devastating offensive in November 2004. But it is his accounts of Sadr’s rise that will probably prove more enduring. At one Baghdad mosque, he listens as the Shia faithful amend the traditional chorus of “Our god prays for Muhammad and Muhammad’s family” with

a strange innovation, “and speed the appearance of the mahdi,13 and damn his enemies and make victorious his son Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!” Suddenly, Turkmen Shias were shouting it in demonstrations in front of the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters, as well as in Kirkuk. Followers of Moqtada began repeating it in their daily prayers.

Rosen notes other interesting examples of Sadr’s willingness to change the rules of the game, and recently he has reported on the violent breakdown of the links between Sadr and the Sunnis.14 Against tradition, Sadr maintains his father’s status as marja, a spiritual “figure of emulation” for his followers, even though he is dead: “By preserving the office of his slain father, Moqtada has changed yet another rule,” Rosen notes. Though Shadid, who had a rare interview with Sadr, offers a much smoother narrative than Rosen (whose book at times has the feel of a reporter indiscriminately emptying his notebooks), Rosen does succeed in capturing some vivid snapshots of the Sadriyun worldview:

On the walls of the Sadr office I found announcements exhorting the people to support the Shias, plant trees, and preserve the grass. A nearby shop sold stickers for children’s schoolbooks with spaces for the child’s name, class, school, and address. They had bright colors and flowers and each depicted Moqtada in a way I had previously not seen. He was smiling, friendly, even embracing children. Each sticker contained one of Moqtada’s aphorisms, such as “If the teacher is good, then certainly the student will be good.” The shop also sold keychains with Moqtada, his father, and his uncle framed by hearts. Stickers for cars depicted Moqtada and his fighters in various natural settings. Some were in the deserts of the American Southwest, others in lush jungle paradises, and one was on an ocean, with two crescent moons in the sky (perhaps Moqtada was on a different planet).

As I was able to see during my own recent stay in Baghdad, talk by Americans of “disbanding” militias like the Mahdi Army (a demand much heard in Washington these days) rings hollow in the communities where they are so deeply rooted, particularly Sadr City, the immense Shiite slum in northeast Baghdad where Moqtada’s political organization and militia reign unchallenged. And none of his rivals, it should be said, can boast a power center of comparable cohesion and intense devotion—which is why many in Iraq believe Moqtada to be the man most likely to achieve control of a future Iraq subject to Shiite rule.

Many Shiites in Sadr City and elsewhere view Sadr’s hard men as their only protection against attacks by their sectarian enemies. “The Mahdi Army is our crown,” a man in Sadr City told me. “Without the Mahdi Army the terrorists would have destroyed this city. They [the militiamen] are our brothers and cousins.” While Ayatollah Sistani has continued to argue for moderation even in the face of increasingly savage Sunni-sponsored terrorist attacks on the Shiite population, Sadr and his militias have taken a much harder line, instigating terror campaigns of their own. This has been a major factor in the growth of the Mahdi Army’s power and reach. (After one recent car bombing in Sadr City, Mahdi Army men are said to have kidnapped several Sunnis at random from elsewhere in the city, then executed them in the bomb crater.)

As so often in comparable historical situations, the distinction between thuggery and law enforcement becomes blurred. One officer in the Iraqi army who came from Sadr City told me that the militia consists of “good guys and bad guys.” “The bad guys are engaged in kidnapping and various kinds of criminal activities.” And the good? “They eliminated bad habits like drugs and prostitution. And they prevent terrorists from coming in. That’s the good part. Killing Sunnis just because they are Sunnis—that’s the bad.”

It is in the once-mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad that the depth of change is at its most apparent. The waves of sectarian terror and ethnic cleansing that have seized Baghdad and other parts of Iraq since the attack on a Shiite shrine last February have uprooted entire communities. As of August, half a million Iraqis had become refugees inside their own country. As I walked through Baghdad in the company of US military patrols, I encountered Baghdadis who do not know their neighbors, something that would have been unthinkable not long ago. The neighborhoods of the city are traditionally close-knit places, with neighbors sharing information and assistance across the lines of ethnicity and sect. Now the newly displaced are finding themselves in places where their only ties are sectarian. In Rusafa, the half of Baghdad located to the east of the Tigris River, I encountered Shiites from other parts of the city who had been driven out by Sunni militias using death threats and targeted killings.15

Terrorized by horrific acts of bloodshed and torture, and frequently forced to leave behind the businesses that once sustained them economically, these new arrivals have only the mosques, and their associated political parties, to turn to. As the Mahdi Army has steadily extended its control over areas it has succeeded in “cleansing” of its enemies, it has increasingly become the organization that, for many Shiites, delivers the goods. Need cheap propane gas for cooking? The Mahdi Army will be happy to supply it. Your wayward husband refuses to give you a divorce? The Mahdi Army will beat some sense into him. And what about wreaking vengeance on the nawasib (Sunni militants) who drove you from your house? That goes without saying.

And so the cycles of rage and retribution spiral ever higher. In the south Baghdad district of Doura, meanwhile, I encountered another surprise. The Sunnis I met there, usually steadfast opponents of the occupation, were overflowing with praise for the US Army’s effort to “lock down” their neighborhood after some of the worst sectarian violence over the summer. “We don’t want the Americans to go,” one of them told me (an elderly man who, on closer questioning, revealed himself to be a fervent supporter of Saddam Hussein). The reason was clear: when the US forces leave, the Sunnis of the area will more likely than not find themselves under full-scale assault from their sectarian enemies. And an American withdrawal could force the increasingly threatened Sunnis to find their own protectors in the region, precipitating a broader Middle East conflict. In late November, Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi government adviser expressing his “own” views in The Washington Post, wrote that “one of the first consequences” of an American withdrawal “will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”16 Yet even as the residents of Doura told me this they were aware of the growing limitations on the exercise of American power, and sensed that, sooner or later, withdrawal is probably inevitable.

As I listened to these Iraqi voices, I could not entirely shake the feeling that we Americans are already becoming irrelevant to the future of their country. While people in Washington continue to debate the next change in course, and the Baker report raises the possibility of gradual withdrawal, Iraqis are sizing up the coming apocalypse, and making their arrangements accordingly. My conversations with those hapless Baghdadis took place under a glowering afternoon sky that announced the arrival of the rainy season. It was the day that an Iraqi tribunal pronounced a verdict of death for Saddam Hussein, news marked by a crackle of celebratory gunfire somewhere in the distance. Aside from that, though, no one really seemed to care; they are worried about saving their own lives.

—December 13, 2006

  1. 1

    That the occupation has inspired an explosion of media pluralism from which she also benefits is one of many ironies that apply to her story.

  2. 2

    Many Western countries shared Riverbend’s assessment of the group in the early 1980s.

  3. 3

    Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006).

  4. 4

    What FBI Agents Don’t Know,” The Washington Post, October 16, 2006.

  5. 5

    See, for example, “Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?,” Jeff Stein, The New York Times, October 17, 2006. The article cited examples of how US government officials and lawmakers in leadership positions of the war on terror are often ignorant of some of the most basic facts about Islam.

  6. 6

    American Political Shift Linked to the War Is Met With a Shrug by Baghdad’s Elite,” The New York Times, November 10, 2006. There is certainly no lack of interest in the voices coming out of Iraq. When I ask readers of my own publication, Newsweek, what they miss most from current coverage, the answer, surprisingly often, is “What is it like for ordinary Iraqis?” Aside from the sources mentioned in this article, one remedy is certainly the growing number of blogs by Iraqis. See, for example, Iraq Blog Count at iraqblogcount.blogspot.com. Perhaps the best-known blog, aside from Riverbend’s, is by Salam Pax; unfortunately it now seems to be quiescent. Some of his writings are included in Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi(Grove Press, 2003).

  7. 7

    As she herself informs us, some of her e-mail correspondents accuse her of being a Baathist, which she stoutly denies. I take this denial at face value; there were many Iraqis who benefited from Saddam’s regime without necessarily joining the party.

  8. 8

    She herself has acknowledged that blogging is not intended to substitute for history. See Firas al-Atraqchi, “Iraqi Blogger Documents History,” al-Jazeera (on line), April 6, 2006.

  9. 9

    Press freedom has now come under severe pressure from political parties and militias. So many Iraqi journalists have been killed that there must now be serious doubt about the extent to which the media can still report freely.

  10. 10

    See, for example, Fouad Ajami, who in his latest book depicts the benefits of the occupation as a “gift” that ungrateful Iraqis are incapable of accepting: The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq(Free Press, 2006).

  11. 11

    See www.brookings.edu/fp/saban/iraq/index.pdf.

  12. 12

    He is a sayyid, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. He is also the son-in-law of Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who was tortured and killed by Saddam’s agents in 1980, and, perhaps most intriguingly, he is the grand-nephew of Mohammed al-Sadr, one of the leaders of the rebellion against the British in 1920.

  13. 13

    The mahdi is the Shiite twelfth imam, a messiah-like figure who disappeared in 874 and is expected to return to deliver the world from injustice.

  14. 14

    See his article in the Boston Review, November/December 2006.

  15. 15

    I also met Shiites who had moved into the city from rural areas and were being allowed to squat on empty patches of land. It’s hard to tell how much of this latter movement has been actively encouraged by Shiite political parties; certainly many Baghdadis believe that the Shiite leadership is working to tip the demographic scales in Rusafa in its own favor.

  16. 16

    See “Stepping Into Iraq,” The Washington Post, November 29, 2006. On December 12, The New York Timesreported that while the Saudi government disavowed the comments of Obaid, who has been fired, it also made similar warnings to Vice President Dick Cheney in late November.

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