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Iraq: Before & After, and Now

This September, at the height of Ramadan, I flew north in a US Army helicopter from Baghdad to Samarra, a former sanctuary of the extremist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, on the east bank of the Tigris River, known for years by US troops as “the worst city in Iraq.” Between 2005 and early 2008 Sunni extremists imposed a theocracy here, executed “spies” in the central market, and financed their operations through protection rackets and by hijacking fuel trucks. In February 2006 militants with al-Qaeda in Iraq blew up the Golden Dome of the city’s al-Askariya Shrine, a revered Shia pilgrimage site that contains the bodies of two ninth-century imams. The bombing plunged the country into a civil war in which tens of thousands of people died. Sixteen months later, in June 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq destroyed the shrine’s minarets, and a few weeks before that, a suicide bomber drove a truck into police headquarters, killing the police chief and eleven of his men, and sending the rest of the seven-hundred-man force fleeing for safety across the river.

By the time I arrived in Samarra, however, the al-Qaeda forces had retreated. In February 2008, the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division signed a deal with two powerful Sunni tribes in the city, and two thousand fighters—many of whom had previously been laying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to kill American troops—were put on the US payroll. The Sons of Iraq, or Concerned Citizens Council, an offshoot of the Sunni Awakening movement that had brought peace to neighboring Anbar province in 2007, started to give intelligence to their new US allies about al-Qaeda in Iraq operations in the city.

This increase in valuable intelligence, combined with US firepower and the improved performance of the Iraqi police and military, sharply reduced the levels of violence in and around Samarra. According to US Army figures, hostile actions against American soldiers dropped from 313 in July 2007 to seventeen in August 2008. “The Sons of Iraq had seen how low the city had sunk, they saw how al-Qaeda had oppressed the population, and they turned against them,” I was told by Captain Nathan Adams of the 101st Airborne, as we sat in an air-conditioned briefing room beside the helicopter landing zone in Samarra. Working together, he said, “we’ve made Samarra an unattractive option for them.”

On a steamy afternoon I traveled with a platoon from the First Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne in Samarra that was escorting Brigadier General James Boozer, deputy commander of the US Army’s First Armored Division, of Task Force Iron, on a tour of the city. In the 120-degree heat, we threaded our way through a maze of Sons of Iraq checkpoints, blast walls, and bombed-out government buildings surrounded by coiled barbed wire.

The First Brigade Combat Team—including several hundred troops based inside the city—had borrowed from the strategies that US troops had used in Anbar province, absorbing the lessons of Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Tal Afar, and other former combat zones: they had reinforced a berm—a continuous mound of earth—that surrounded the city, constructed watchtowers for constant surveillance, and set up three checkpoints through which much of the city’s population passed. Samarra was broken into a dozen neighborhoods, each one protected by a perimeter of blast walls. The US forces also conducted a census of every adult male in the city, to make it more difficult for al-Qaeda guerrillas to infiltrate unnoticed. Samarra felt to me like a maximum- security prison. But it was a safe prison, and the restrictions of movement and heavy military presence were, for the Samarrans I talked to, certainly preferable to the anarchy and carnage that they had lived with for nearly five years.

We drove down to the Tigris River to inspect a new bridge that was finally being completed after a three-year delay. Provincial contractors, after being threatened and sometimes killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, were back at work. About twenty US troops fanned out across the riverbank, as Boozer, Colonel J.P. McGee, and I walked halfway across the bridge—a series of metal plates balanced on pontoons. “I don’t think a single contract was carried out in Samarra [in three years],” I was told by McGee. “You’d be crazy to do it—you’d either get killed or give up all your money. Everything’s changed since March.” He mentioned, by way of example, the UNESCO-sponsored project to reconstruct, here in the heartland of the former Sunni insurgency, the Golden Dome, the holy Shiite site that had been destroyed in February 2006.1

But how much has really changed? The Iraq of November 2008 is a far safer place than it was one year ago. Yet as two new books about America’s experience in Iraq make clear, five years of violence and civil war have left a legacy of deep sectarian division. Waiting for an Ordinary Day, by former Wall Street Journal Baghdad bureau chief Farnaz Fassihi, follows the lives of several Iraqis she came to know between 2002 and 2005, and examines how US political and military failures contributed to the cataclysmic breakdown of society—failures that continue to have strong effects today. The Strongest Tribe, a detailed account of the Iraq war by Bing West, a US Marine veteran, picks up the tale from the perspective of the US forces in Iraq, and demonstrates how, by trial and error, luck, and skilled leadership, US commanders turned the war around beginning in late 2006. Both books make it clear that the US occupiers, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, permitted extremism to spread, and failed to encourage the growth of civil institutions. The books also show that the disastrous situation described by Fassihi is sure to have lasting effects, even as the military strategies described by West have dramatically improved security in some of the most violent regions.

Fassihi, the Iran-born daughter of Tehran intellectuals who emigrated to the United States after the Shah’s downfall, was a close observer of the disastrous US decisions that turned the rage of the disenfranchised Sunni population into a full-scale rebellion. She got much attention in September 2004 when an e-mail that she had intended to be read only by friends and colleagues from Baghdad was circulated on the Internet; and her Hobbesian portrait of a disintegrating Iraq provided a counterpoint to the blandly optimistic pronouncements of the Bush administration. “I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets,” wrote Fassihi. Her pessimistic view of the US occupation was much quoted by liberal bloggers, while arousing the fury of neoconservatives on the eve of the 2004 US presidential election:

I can’t go grocery shopping anymore, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike up a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in anything but a fully armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can’t and can’t….

Drawing on three years of intrepid reporting in Iraq, starting with the last year of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Fassihi shows how ordinary Iraqis suffered under the occupation. Sabah Nasser, his wife Marie-Rose, and their sons Ayad and Ziad, for example, are well-to-do Catholics in Adhamiya, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, whom Fassihi first meets a few months before the invasion and visits frequently during the war. The Nassers have little love for Saddam, but view the imminent US invasion as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty, and they distrust US motives. After the Americans arrive and are unable to prevent Baghdad’s descent into lawlessness, violence begins to overwhelm the family. Ziad decides to marry his fiancée in the middle of a raging Sunni insurgency—“Clinging to plans in wartime, even if they seem insane, provides a sort of relief,” Fassihi writes.

Then, as the Nassers drive through Baghdad delivering wedding invitations, Ziad is nearly killed with his mother when assassins open fire with machine guns on a passenger in the car in front of them. Sabah hires armed guards to stand outside the church door during the ceremony—gangs of kidnappers often troll for victims on such occasions—and orders guests to leave the church “in fifteen-minute intervals to avoid a long procession of wedding cars attracting attention.” By the end of the book the Nassers, fearful of being targeted by Sunni Islamists, stay inside their house, avoiding eye contact and conversations with their Muslim neighbors. “Everyone seems to be pulling more tightly into their own sectarian cocoons, looking for protection and revenge,” Fassihi observes.

Iraq’s insurgency was fed in large part by disaffected members of the Iraqi army, disbanded by L. Paul Bremer in May 2003 in what historians will surely regard as the worst single decision of the post-invasion period. But as Fassihi makes clear in Waiting for an Ordinary Day, Iraqi civilians—shopkeepers, auto mechanics, and teachers—driven by nationalistic pride, fear of disenfranchisement by the Shia-dominated government, and anger at the sometimes brutal tactics of the US military, also joined the insurgents.

In one of Fassihi’s strongest chapters, she tells the story of Najim Abdulhussein, a devout Muslim, grocery store owner, and community leader who had good relations with American troops—he distributed army-issued cooking gas canisters to his neighbors and served on a fifteen-member local council that had been set up by the Americans shortly after the invasion. Abdulhussein and his seventeen-year-old son were arrested during one of the largely indiscriminate sweeps by American troops through Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad in August 2003, a gas canister used for inflating helium balloons cited as evidence of their subversive activity.

Abdulhussein’s US captors pinned the paper label “Bomb Maker” on his dishdasha, then put him and his son into Abu Ghraib prison, which was swelling with men and boys arrested in similar sweeps across Iraq. For six months, Abdulhussein was interrogated, humiliated, and tortured daily. “His hands were tied behind his back, and his face was covered by a hood, under the sweltering sun. After thirteen hours he collapsed, unconscious,” Fassihi writes of one such session. Abdulhussein was liberated from Abu Ghraib after the publication of Fassihi’s article on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. When Fassihi attempted to do a follow-up article after his son’s release, a year and a half after his father’s, she found that it had become physically impossible: “The family’s neighborhood is a bastion of insurgency,” she writes, “and too dangerous for even our Iraqi staff to go to inquire on behalf of an American newspaper.”

Fassihi captures the early, freewheeling days when ambitious young reporters who stayed at the al-Hamra hotel in Baghdad cruised the streets by day, then gathered around the pristine pool in the courtyard every evening. As the insurgency spread, Fassihi moved to a guarded house in the well-to-do Mansour neighborhood, which became an al-Qaeda in Iraq enclave; terrorists began kidnapping Westerners and beheading them. A bomb exploded beneath a US Humvee just in front of the house, shattering all the windows and badly shaking up Fassihi and her colleagues.

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    See my account of this project in the forthcoming Smithsonian Magazine of January 2009.

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