If you walk the streets of Baghdad at night it is best to move quickly and keep to the shadows. You can often hear gunfire, but whether it comes from people celebrating something or from, as they say here, gangs of “Ali Babas”—thieves—robbing someone, who knows? Groups of men hang out on street corners close to their homes, and boys kick soccer balls about on side streets. All across the city are piles of moldering garbage, and in many places it has been set on fire to get rid of it. Sometimes this flaming rubbish helps you to see where you’re going.
Very few foreigners seem to understand how ordinary Iraqis are still groping in the dark. On April 21, for example, the retired American general Jay Garner, who was appointed by the US administration to run Iraq, paid a visit to Baghdad. An interviewer from a German television station called to ask me two simple questions: “How was General Garner received? What was the reaction of ordinary Iraqis?” The questions seemed so ridiculous that I had no idea what to say without sounding rude or aggressive. So, in what I hope were measured tones, I replied, “There was no reaction, because most Iraqis didn’t know he was here. How could they if there is no television or radio and no electricity? As far as I understand, he visited a few places in the city, presumably traveling in an armored vehicle, so how would anyone know who he was? I think he came with ’embedded’ journalists from somewhere in the Gulf, but even this I don’t know for sure. One Iraqi asked me if I knew anything about him, and since I’d been in Baghdad for almost six weeks I didn’t.”
I could hear the irritation in the voice of the interviewer, who said, “Well what can you tell us then?” The answer to this was, “Only what I see or hear.”
Now Iraqis are looking backward—and forward. They are looking back to make sense of what has happened to them over the last three decades and forward to divine what might happen to them now. But for many, looking back is the most painful thing of all, because it means looking not just at their own lives—could this or that have been done differently, or should they have gone abroad?—but too often it means confronting their own worst fears. It means finally losing the flickering hope that a member of their family who one day was suddenly arrested and never seen again might just, somehow, still be alive.
At the gates of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison on the western outskirts of Baghdad, you can read the legend, “There is no life without the sun. There is no dignity without Saddam Hussein.” But in the empty cell blocks I met forlorn Iraqis wandering about, hunting for people who had disappeared as much as a lifetime ago. The prison is empty now; most, but not all, of the prisoners were released last October in the amnesty before the war. But some have refused to give up hope. Amir Khadi was looking for his brother, Rabbiyah, who disappeared when he was a twenty-year-old medical student in 1980. His family never heard from him again.
That year, Amir told me, his mother managed to arrange an audience with Saddam himself. Amir said, “He told her: ‘Go home and we will set him free.'” But of course he never returned. The family never knew why he had disappeared. An uncle had been arrested on charges of associating with the Dawa, the banned, Shiite-based Islamic revolutionary party. Rabbiyah himself had refused to join the Baath Party. Could those have been the reasons? There were no answers.
Amir, a man in his forties, seemed close to tears. “I have heard there is an underground prison here,” he said. “Did you see it? Do you know anything about it?” Just behind us was the part of the prison that housed the gallows. He had not seen it yet, and I did not mention it.
On the ground were the nooses. They were padded at the place that would fit under your chin. The ropes, to which they would then be attached, are still hanging in position between two holes in a raised platform. The holes had been covered with trapdoors which had been moved to the side of the room, perhaps for maintenance—or perhaps because the executioners had been killing the prisoners by pushing them down the holes. In between the two ropes and holes is a machine with two levers which, when pulled, would have opened the trapdoors and sent the prisoners to their deaths.
Looking through a small window in a locked door, we could see death row, ten very small cells where the condemned spent their last hours. The cell doors swing open now, and scrawled on the inside of one of them are the words “Allah protect me.” Walking through the empty corridors of the prison I saw dozens of wall paintings of a smiling, horse-riding, or cigar-chomping Saddam. Some of them were inscribed with the names of the prisoners who painted them. Under one of them, someone had written, “This is a present from the prisoners to Saddam Hussein.”
The prison had been ransacked by looters, and in the offices books and papers were everywhere. In the education office I found an English exam taken by prisoners in May 2002. Many of the questions had multiple-choice answers, but one did not: “Re-write this sentence in Cursive: Our leader Saddam Hussein is the man of victory and peace.”
Back in the center of Baghdad, visiting the Mukhabarat—secret police—interrogation center in the al-Alwiyah district, which the looters had also visited, smashed potted plants lay strewn about otherwise light and pleasant offices. Someone, it seemed, had already cleaned out any incriminating papers. On the floor lay empty covers of files inscribed with the formal name of the Mukhabarat in Arabic and English. In English the Iraqi Intelligence Service had the acronym IRIS.
At the end of an office corridor was a door that led up a narrow staircase with the ceiling so low you had to duck. You needed a flashlight, since there was still no electricity in this part of the city. Upstairs, and with no natural light, were the cells. The doors were thick steel ones and each cell measured three meters by three meters, apart from a small toilet at the back.
Walking through the prison I met Hamid Esed, who had spent three months here a few years ago and was lucky to have survived. He had been falsely charged with traveling to Lebanon without permission. The cells then, he said, had been dark and painted red, and there were six men to a cell. His arm had been broken while he was being interrogated and after that he was hung up on a fan, which was then switched on to spin him around. In a matter-of-fact way he described the electric shock torture he had been subjected to.
Since Hamid’s time the cells have been whitewashed; the prisoners had scratched their names and messages onto the walls, which showed up now because of the red paint underneath. “My beloved ones,” reads one message, “Safa, Ali, Marwa.” One man had written the date, August 27, 2002, and next to it he had gouged neat lines of 102 holes, presumably one for every day he was here. “Don’t despair. Allah will support you,” he had written. On February 7 of this year Mehdi Sherif scratched his name and the words “Allah is the Greatest.”
According to the men I talked to, the building had been emptied just before the bombing began on March 20, because it was believed to be a potential target. Nobody knows what happened to the prisoners. I saw eggs and hardened rolls of bread left in the cells, as if the prisoners had left before having had time to eat them. In a side room, where a guard sat outside a closet door holding fifty keys, were many dozens of strips of material. These were used for binding prisoners’ hands. Blindfolds also lay scattered on the floor, along with a brand-new pack of bottles of Kapitin diarrhea medicine.
Back at the cells, peering in with a flashlight that had a weak battery, Haider Fadil Hassan told me that he had come here because he wanted to see where his father died. His father, he said, was a businessman, not involved in politics. “He was arrested in 1994 and to this day I have no idea why. After two months we were contacted by telephone and asked to go to the Rashid Military Hospital. We thought he was sick but when we got there we found he was already dead and had been for twenty days.” Haider was told that his father had died of a heart attack, but he did not believe it.
Standing outside the building I met a man who told me he was a former lieutenant colonel in the army, but he was still too frightened to give his name. “I won’t go in there,” he said. “Many of my friends disappeared in there, maybe because they talked too much. They were killed there. Perhaps only one or two percent who went in ever came out again.”
A few days later I went to Karbala, which, along with Najaf, is one of the two Shiite holy cities of Iraq. In 1991, following the Shiite uprising against the regime, Saddam brutally crushed the rebellion and thousands lost their lives. Each time I began to ask questions, a huge group quickly gathered around and, believing I was some sort of American or foreign official, they began clamoring for something. “Please fix the electricity,” they said. But when I began asking about people who had disappeared or been killed some began shouting that they would make lists and that I should find where they were still imprisoned and send them back to them. Yas Kadir Lefte pulled out a virtually disintegrating black-and-white picture of a young man, his cousin, Ali Jassim Lefte, who had taken part in the 1991 uprising and been executed afterward. He just wanted to show it to me.
Many of the people I spoke to said that they hoped there would not be any killings in revenge for all the blood spilled in this country during the last thirty years. As far as I’m aware, these settlings of scores have not yet begun, at least not in Baghdad. But I suspect they will come. In Kosovo, after NATO troops arrived in June 1999, many Serbs who had done absolutely nothing wrong, and enjoyed good relations with their Albanian neighbors, also thought everything would be okay; and for the first few weeks at least, they were right. But later, of course, they were wrong.
On April 19 I went to Baghdad University, where I had been told there would be a gathering of intellectuals, academics, writers, and others to discuss the future. Here I think I glimpsed part of the future, but it was certainly not the one that they intended. A nearby building was on fire and the university offices were ransacked; papers had been burned and were strewn about everywhere. Outside the lecture hall where the meeting was taking place, the men and women who had turned up were joyfully hugging one another, happy to find their friends alive. Inside the hall it was a different story. Between two and three hundred people were gathered there but, at the front of the hall, all you could see were men screaming to make themselves heard. Sweat was pouring down their faces. Their shirts, too, were soaked with sweat and the louder they shouted the more hysterical they became.
Of course, as they shouted, more people jumped up and began yelling too. There was no one in charge, and everyone seemed to be accusing everyone else. Some were screaming that some of the others had been Saddam supporters. Some were screaming that others had been members of the Mukhabarat, and still others were yelling that they wanted nothing to do with anyone who had just come back from living in luxury abroad, while they had suffered at home.
I was standing on the podium because I was trying to see what was happening and was frightened that I might get hurt as the ever more frantic academics and writers jostled to get to the front to scream at everyone else. After decades of acting together in frightened, obedient ranks and chanting how they would give their blood and souls for Saddam, the pressure was finally off and pandemonium had broken out. At this point I noticed a man in a black shirt, who was not trying to yell at anyone, nor was he trying to force me to write down what he wanted to say, as many of the others were doing. We went outside where we found a table and chairs and began to talk.
Hussein Ali Harif told me that he was a theater and television director and an assistant professor of drama at the university. He had also been an editor for Iraqi television. He was forty-three and had joined the Baath Party when he was twelve. He said that he had joined the party because he believed in its ideals, that is to say, socialism, pan-Arabism, and an Arab “renaissance,” which is what the word baath means. As far as he was concerned everything had begun to go dreadfully wrong in the early 1990s when, he said, Saddam had taken over the entire Baath Party for his own benefit. Still, he said, “any educated person was part of the last regime whether they liked it or not.” Then, pointing at his heart, he added, “Inside, I was against the last regime but I was a teacher at university and an editor at TV carrying out their media policy.” What else could he have done, he asked. “It was something I had to do. I am married with five children and live in a flat with one bedroom and only one other room.” He told me that he had received many invitations to teach in Arab universities abroad, but had decided that he would “prefer to be humiliated in my own country” rather than “ruled by any other Arab or foreigner.”
During the war I had seen several times a troupe that toured the city singing patriotic songs which, until the electricity went out, were then broadcast on television. I asked Mr. Harif if he had been involved with this group. “Oh, yes,” he told me. “I was one of the singers. We believed we had a job to boost morale, to defend Iraq, but not Saddam Hussein. I was a well-known artist so I had to appear.” During our talk he compared Iraqis like himself and those who had fought the Americans to Soviet citizens who rallied to Stalin during World War II, even if they did not like Stalin. Just as in that case, he argued, people were rallying against an invader who “did not speak the same language.”
Mr. Harif told me that one of his jobs was coordinating special events for television “to show solidarity with Saddam Hussein, and we had a lot [of events]…three or four a month.” Saddam, he said, was actually very interested in cultural events and would ask for actors to come and perform for him at his palaces. He believed, it seemed clear, that he needed to buy their loyalty. In November, Mr. Harif said, Saddam decreed that he would pay all dramatists, writers, painters, and others involved in culture—which was now really just a question of celebrating his personality cult—a monthly stipend. There were three levels of payment. Mr. Harif was in the middle level and got four months’ extra pay, amounting to $50.
He said, “I always sent presents to Saddam Hussein. Three years ago I wrote a book which was published in Jordan. It was about the historical philosophy of drama. Saddam Hussein rewarded me. I got $250. I sent him this present because I knew he would reward me, and all the intellectuals did the same. Even if you sent him a pen-cil he would take it and send you a reward.”
When I asked Mr. Harif if many academics and people in his circle had been killed or jailed, he said, “A few disappeared, but most people supported Saddam Hussein in order to live, otherwise it was suicide.” He told me about a play with which he had had some trouble because one of the characters had seemed a little like Saddam. If he had overstepped the mark, I asked, might he have ended up in Abu Ghraib? “If I had been against the regime,” he said, “I would not have gone to Abu Ghraib. I would have been killed.”
As I was writing all this down, I realized that Mr. Harif had buried his head in his hands and was crying. I apologized and said I hadn’t wanted to upset him. I asked him if he wanted to stop the interview. No, he replied, we could go on. Mr. Harif wanted to talk about the events of the last few weeks, and about the future. “Look,” he said, pulling at his shirt. “I am wearing black. I am in mourning. They did not topple Saddam Hussein, they toppled Iraq, they toppled Baghdad.”
He was, of course, talking about the Americans. But surely, I asked him, weren’t there benefits to this? For example, we could now talk freely. “No,” he said, “I am very pessimistic. What will come in the future will be worse; we will receive a fake dish of democracy. We will be allowed to curse each other, to express opinions, but a real ideology, one that will be implemented, will be absent, except for representing foreign interests.”
Mr. Harif said that he believed the future Iraq would be like Egypt: “There will be intellectual freedoms and free media, but Hosni Mubarak is not a president because he takes orders.” If President Mubarak had real freedom, he said, he would have been able to close the Suez Canal to US forces on their way to invade Iraq, but he had been unable to do so. Now, he said, American and Israeli interests were supreme in Iraq, too. He added sourly, “My computer has been looted so now I will have to buy a new one from an American company.”
But if Mr. Harif was weeping for the past and the future, perhaps his most bitter tears were reserved for his fellow Arabs. “They could have turned off the oil [going to the West], as they did in 1973. They could have withdrawn their assets from US banks. Now I have started to suspect the benefits of pan-Arabism, because the Arabs did not support us. In the past we were always with them, so now I think, if there is a new government, it must withdraw from the Arab League. It is better for us to have relations with Russia, Korea, or Malaysia. The Arabs sold us out.”
Did Mr. Harif expected purges at the university? “No,” he said, “that won’t happen, because everyone was part of the last regime, against their will or not. You can’t find any writers, dramatists, poets, or artists who did nothing for the last regime.”
When later that day I met a doctoral student who knew Mr. Harif, I asked him whether he thought that, at the university, there would now be purges, accusations, and backstabbing, especially for jobs. “Of course,” he said. “Hussein Ali Harif is finished.”
My talk with Mr. Harif changed my relations with my translator, who seemed struck by Harif’s willingness to talk. Originally he had been assigned to me as an official government minder, whom all foreign journalists were required to have, but while many had fled as the Americans approached, he had stayed. I got on well with him, and, whether he knew it or not, I had, especially before the war, managed to slip away and see a good many people and places on my own. After the war I could have replaced him, but he had adapted well to the post-Saddam world; for several days now I had been trying to persuade him to tell me how the minder system had worked, but he had refused. Now he said he would talk (a move eased, I believe, after complex negotiations involving three days’ double pay).
It is often the case following the fall of despotic regimes that the details of its day-to-day workings and its various police agencies turn out to be disappointingly banal. My translator explained that there were two classes of minder. There were those who worked permanently for the Ministry of Information and those like him who, thanks to personal contacts, were brought in during crises when there were too many foreign journalists for the ministry to cope with. His former boss at the Iraqi News Agency had become head of the government press center and so he was trusted. Those who worked regularly for the ministry had to make reports, which he said were pretty dull to read. A typical one would say, “Today we went to visit the Yarmouk hospital,” and not much more. He swore that he had never been asked to make a report on me; but he added that they had not really needed to ask him since they had confidence in him.
The key to the system was fear and money. Foreign journalists were required to pay $100 a day to be able to work here, and then $100 a day for a satellite-phone permit. Visas expired after ten days: after that the minders went through a ridiculous charade, saying that the ministry said the journalists had to go, but there might be something that could be done—with a little money. (Visas were hard to get. It took me ten months to get mine.) In this way many minders and ministry officials made tens of thousands of dollars; and the system also served to keep most journalists in check because they did not want to risk expulsion. Many were, in fact, told to leave. “You know,” he said, “there is an English play called The Taming of the Shrew. Well the journalists were the shrews because they were too frightened to do much.”
Of course all of this depended, in part, on whom a journalist worked for. The big television news networks and the major British and American papers especially were monitored daily. The New York Review of Books was apparently not high on the list of reading matter for Iraqi officials, whether in Baghdad or in Washington. I was aware of the advantages and disadvantages of this. I had much more freedom to write what I wanted; but when the ministry officials wanted to expel people, they might easily decide to get rid of a relatively small publication that they had hardly heard of.
Just as the war began, my first ten-day visa ran out. Luckily for me at this point, the ministry abandoned the official visa renewal system. In the middle of the war it drew up a list of people to expel. Several colleagues paid thousands of dollars to get their names removed. I would have done the same if I had known whom to pay, but my minder advised me just to lie low and do nothing. At that point he said: “You hide behind me now and when the Americans come I’ll hide behind you.” I said this was a deal. The next day the ministry decided not to enforce the expulsions. My colleagues who had paid up were peeved.
On April 18 I went to Friday prayers at the Abu Hanifa an-Nu’man mosque in the district of al-Adhamiya. I had been here two weeks earlier and heard an outspoken defense of Saddam Hussein by one of the mullahs. A few days later there had been violent clashes around the mosque, which was damaged when US forces fought a pitched battle here with Saddam loyalists. At the time it was thought that Saddam himself might even be taking refuge inside the mosque.
This was the first time since the US attack that it was open again for Friday prayers. Thousands had come to hear Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Kubeisi preach. He is a well-known Iraqi cleric who has for the last few years been living in the United Arab Emirates. Around the mosque were many banners. One read, “No Sunni! No Shia! Islamic Unity! Believers are Brothers!” Another said: “American tanks out! Don’t yield to them!” Yet another read, “No dealing with the Zionist entity!”
Everyone, including many hundreds who had to pray in the street outside the mosque because there was no room for them inside, listened in complete silence as the sheikh began to talk. “For the second time, Baghdad has fallen,” he said. The first time, he said, was in 1258 when it was conquered by Hulagu the Mongol. The Americans were the new “barbarians” but, despite their taking the city, they had really failed because the spirit of the Iraqi people was unbroken. The reason why the Iraqis had not been able to get rid of Saddam before, he went on, was that every attempt had been betrayed to Saddam by some Western intelligence agency.
At this point an American patrol wandered into the crowd, apparently by accident. Tension began to rise but the soldiers, realizing their mistake, pulled back. “The Iraqi people,” argued the sheikh, were the “only winners,” and they had “stayed but the government ran away and left its people alone.” Despite his hostile attitude toward the Americans, the sheikh did not call for an intifada or any sort of violent action against them. After the prayers, several thousand of his supporters set off on an anti-American protest march shouting slogans like “Yes, yes for Islam! No America! No Saddam!” Everyone I talked to approved of the sheikh’s sermon and especially his calls for unity between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.
Many pundits have predicted that in post-Saddam Iraq the Shiites, who make up well over half the population, and the Sunnis, who make up perhaps 10 to 15 percent, are destined to clash. But in the absence of any government it is clear that clerics are beginning to fill the vacuum, and in many places, either they have emerged as the people in power or they are giving their approval to local committees that are starting to manage local affairs. This will surely alarm the US, since their man, Ahmed Chalabi, has made no discernible impact in Iraq so far. When I tried to visit his compound in Baghdad, some unhelpful soldiers and officials of his group, the Iraqi National Congress, just told me to go away and come back another time.
But I could not come back, since I wanted to go to Karbala, where Shiite Muslims were now converging for the climax of their annual forty days of mourning for the Imam Hussein, who was killed here in AD 680. In contrast to the few hundred who had greeted the fall of Saddam’s statue on the day the Americans arrived in Baghdad, I saw tens of thousands of pilgrims walking from Baghdad to the holy city. By the time the festival was at its height on April 22 there were hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Karbala if not a million or more. As they arrived at its golden-domed mosques, they beat their breasts and heads in mourning. Everywhere there were pictures of the Imam Hussein and Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the spiritual father of the Islamic Dawa Party, which had been founded in 1968.
Like Ayatollah Khomeini, al-Sadr was a proponent of an Islamic revolution. Between 1964 and 1978 Khomeini lived in exile in nearby Najaf. When he returned to Tehran in triumph in 1979, al-Sadr praised his victory and declared, “Other tyrants have yet to see their day of reckoning.” After this Saddam declared all-out war on the Dawa, which is almost certainly why men like Rabbiyah Khadi, whose brother was looking for him at Abu Ghraib, disappeared in 1980. Membership in the party was punishable by death. On April 9, 1980, al-Sadr and his sister were executed. (According to some reports, his cousin Moqtadah al-Sadr has been appointed to a position of authority in Iraq by a powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric now in Iran.)
Today in the overwhelmingly Shiite part of Baghdad, which was a few weeks ago called Saddam City, all of Saddam’s pictures are gone and portraits of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr are everywhere. Here radical imams are recruiting and arming militias. When one of them, Mohammed al-Fartousi, was arrested and detained for a couple of days by the Americans for such activities, a few thousand of his supporters came out to protest in the center of Baghdad and wrote slogans in blood on the road.
Real politics has been dead for so long in Iraq that it is far too early to know what most people really want. There has been no debate for at least three decades, if not longer. Views are unformed, and most people want electricity first and politics later. But just as electricity is slowly coming back to Baghdad, politics is coming back, too. In the meantime, I was told, if the US does not want to lose the initiative, especially to supporters of an Islamic state, then it needs to move fast. Professor Mouayed al-Windawi teaches modern political history at Baghdad University. He told me that he believed the Americans had perhaps a three-month grace period in which to persuade Iraqis that they were here for the benefit of Iraqis, not of the US and certainly not of Israel. General Garner and his team would, he thought, have to find Iraqis to work with them, “not as collaborators [with the US], but in the best interests of the nation.”
If the US should fail to meet this challenge, though, there is no doubt about who is arming and organizing to take over. All over Saddam City I saw graffiti declaring “Welcome to al-Sadr City!”
—April 30, 2003
May 29, 2003