The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Unexpected support (15)

August 2, 2006

In the midst of this whole mess, the last place I expected to find people who liked America was west Baghdad.

West Baghdad, roughly speaking, is the Sunni part of a very mixed city, and has the distinction of being the home to a pretty nasty insurgency for the last few years – you wanna get kidnapped, go to west Baghdad, where they also shoot men for wearing shorts and women for not wearing veils.

US troops turned the place over to the Iraqi army back in December, all part of that process of Bush calls our stepping down as the Iraqis step up... Except it all went to hell so badly that in April the US army had to move back in – I don't think that was mentioned in the state of the union address.

Now, the whole capital's going to hell in a handbasket and the same process is being repeated across the city as more US troops are being rushed in. Six weeks into the new prime minister's security plan, it's worse than ever here and the Iraqi forces have shown themselves unable to control their own capital.

Doesn't bode well.

This time it's not the insurgents that are messing things up, however, it's the death squads, the militias, the sectarian killings. People don't spend much time targeting the Americans out here any more, they're too busy killing each other.

Before going on a patrol, the burly sergeant (they're always burly it seems) was giving the patrol briefing which includes reading down the "sigacts" report. What? Significant activities. So we stood there in 120 degree (45C) weather next to our humvees listening to a list of who'd been shooting who and where bombs and bodies had been turning up across the west Baghdad area.

One bit caught my attention. Up in the north, a Sunni and Shiite neighborhood were shooting mortars at each other every night. I later heard this goes on in some southern neighborhoods as well. As someone in the office later pointed out, if two neighborhoods are shelling each other, can't we call it a civil war?

So we all piled into the humvees and went on patrol through the "mean" streets of west Baghdad, and the first thing I noticed was just how nice some of these streets were. There were leafy palm trees everywhere, in one area a few people had even trimmed their hedges into topiary shapes. Brightly colored bougainvilleas spilled down garden walls into the street.

Trash, however, lay piled uncollected in any vacant lot and every block had a massive generator, festooned with wires, serving the block.

At every street corner, people had dragged rocks, bits of concrete barrier and whole palm trunks to block off their streets. The inhabitants told me it was to protect against nighttime intruders and stop drive by shootings.

The commercial streets, the public spaces, in these neighborhoods were shattered. Rows of shops with their metal shutters closed at all hours of the days. There were twisted metal frames that were once cars packed with explosives, and never any people.

It was like a reversion to medieval Islamic cities were the gates of alleys and quarters would be locked at night, dividing cities up into a series of isolated strongholds – much the way Baghdad now seemed to fragmenting.

The US soldiers obligingly stopped periodically during one patrol and allowed me to clamber out and talk to people. What they said surprised me so much that I later sent some of the Sunnis from the office to the same neighborhood to check it out.

These people wanted the Americans around. They trusted the Americans – at least not to kill them for their id cards, as one guy put it. You know the situation in Baghdad is bad when the American occupiers are preferred, better yet, considered fair and just.

And this is after the allegations marines shooting up civilians in Haditha and a soldier raping a woman and killing her family.

You knew what happened after you were arrested by an American. When you were taken away by the police, you just weren't heard from again.

The focus is no longer the Americans in Baghdad, they have drifted off to the sidelines as the neighborhoods arm themselves for the internecine battles.

There were some scary moments. One day, at the dining hall, I was sitting have lunch with this bunch of US army officers, when one captain suddenly announces how attractive he finds Condoleezza Rice.

I mean what do you say to that? There was a uncomfortable silence as we digested the remark, rather hoping it was a one-off. Instead, it gave him the opening to start describing how great he thought her legs were, and how attracted he was to smart women.

Being stuck on a base in Iraq is hard on everyone.

I met this one old Iraqi guy in a particularly nice west Baghdad neighborhood called Jamaa, or university, he talked about how his neighbors are just melting away.

"That guy was a professor, he now lives in Malaysia, I'm not sure where that guy moved, and that guy over there lives in Jordan after he was kidnapped and ransomed," he said gesturing to the leafy houses across the street with their unkempt lawns.

Everyone in this neighborhood of professors, doctors and lawyers fears kidnapping. He described how his neighbor was snatched right in the street by a pair of black BMWs. The ransom was half a million dollars

"I have two doors, one in front, one in back – I always leave the house from the back door," he said, a diminutive little man wearing just an undershirt in the summer heat. He showed me his garden, a mini Versaille of statuary and ornamental benches.

The neighborhoods got a little shabbier later when I accompanied a patrol farther south into Jihad, where a few weeks earlier Shiite militiamen descended on the neighborhood, set up fake checkpoints and just started killing people.

The Americans didn't patrol it much before. Now they do. Perhaps it was my imagination, but there was a lot more smiling and waving at Americans in this neighborhood than I'd seen in others? Half of Jihad is fairly nice houses inhabited by Sunnis while the other half is trash filled and crumbling and Shiite.

The area is patrolled by the national police, once known as the commandos, and predominantly Shiite. The litany of events that led up to the massacre is quite depressing.

The police raided a mosque known to harbor weapons and insurgents. A few days later a bomb hit a police patrol killing several. A few days later a bomb went off in front of a Sunni mosque just after prayers, killing several. The next day a huge car bomb went off in front of a Shiite mosque, shattering it and killing 12.

The next day the militias showed up.

I saw the shattered remnants of the Shiite mosque, in a poor neighborhood, in a street filled with rubble, with barricades all around to prevent new car bombs.

Graffiti nearby read "the army of the imam is the fork in the eye of terrorism".

Ten minutes drive later we were outside the Sunni mosque that was bombed, where the Shiite militia had set up a check points and started killing people in the street. Where the national police who were supposed protect the mosque had suddenly disappeared. The US soldiers pointed out to me the large dark patches of dried blood still on the sidewalk.

In the backstreets behind the mosque the graffiti said "long live the resistance and death to the Americans and the spies." But in front of the mosque on the street with the dark stains, the same graffiti had been painted over.