How George Bush became the new Saddam
COVER STORY: Its strategies shattered, a desperate Washington is reaching out to the late dictator's henchmen.
Patrick Graham | Sep 20, 2007 | 14:04:44
It was embarrassing putting my flak jacket on backwards and sideways, but in the darkness of the Baghdad airport car park I couldn’t see anything. “Peterik, put the flak jacket on,” the South African security contractor was saying politely, impatiently. “You know the procedure if we are attacked.”
I didn’t. He explained. One of the chase vehicles would pull up beside us and someone would drag me out of the armoured car, away from the firing. If both drivers were unconscious—nice euphemism—he said I should try to run to the nearest army checkpoint. If the checkpoint was American, things might work out if they didn’t shoot first. If it was Iraqi . . . he didn’t elaborate.
Arriving in Baghdad has always been a little weird. Under Saddam Hussein it was like going into an orderly morgue; when he ran off after the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003 put an end to his Baathist party regime, the city became a chaotic mess. I lived in Iraq for almost two years, but after three years away I wasn’t quite ready for just how deserted and worn down the place seemed in the early evening. It was as if some kind of mildew was slowly rotting away at the edges of things, breaking down the city into urban compost.
Since 2003, more than 3,775 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, while nearly 7,500 Iraqi policemen and soldiers have died. For Iraq’s civilian population, the carnage has been almost incalculable. Last year alone, the UN estimated that 34,500 civilians were killed and more than 36,000 wounded; other estimates are much higher. As the country’s ethnic divisions widen, especially between Iraq’s Arab Shia and Arab Sunni Muslims(the Kurds are the third major group), some two million people have been internally displaced, with another two million fleeing their homeland altogether. Entering Baghdad I could tell the Sunni neighbourhoods, ghettos really, by the blasts in the walls and the emptiness, courtesy of sectarian cleansing by the majority Shias. The side streets of the Shia districts seemed to have a little more life to them.
As soon as I arrived, I tried calling old acquaintances. Many of these were from Falluja and Ramadi, and had once been connected to the insurgency that had raged across the Sunni Arab province of Anbar since 2003. In the past few years, though, many in the insurgency had become disillusioned with the direction of the anti-occupation fight—and concerned over the future of Arab Sunnis in Iraq. In Anbar, the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, initially a partner in the Sunni insurgency, had alienated many by trying to overthrow traditional tribal and power structures to impose an alien interpretation of Islam, a Salafist fundamentalism that had few adherents before the arrival of the Americans. In Baghdad, the militias supporting the Shia-dominated central government—in effect a sectarian regime—were cleansing Arab Sunni neighbourhoods. Now, Anbari Sunnis view the government as deeply infiltrated by their traditional enemy, Shia Iran. So with few allies left in Iraq, they began allying themselves with their former enemies, the U.S. Army—which also seems to be running out of friends.
This “Anbar Awakening” has been a slow process, beginning long before the recent U.S. “surge” that increased the number of American troops in Iraq by 30,000, to 180,000. But it is still a shaky union, a desperate marriage of convenience based on shared enemies: Iran, and the Sunnis’ former-friend-turned-foe al-Qaeda. Many of America’s new allies are former insurgents and Saddam Hussein loyalists(Saddam was a Sunni)who only a short while ago were routinely called terrorists, “anti-Iraqi fighters,” and “Baathist dead-enders.” They are suspicious of one another and strongly anti-American, although willing to work, for the moment, with the U.S. The leader and founder of the Anbar Awakening Council, Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, was recently killed by a roadside bomb outside his house in Ramadi, clearly an inside job of some kind for which al-Qaeda claimed credit. Only 10 days earlier, Abu Risha had met with George W. Bush during the President’s visit to Iraq, the photo op of death, apparently.
I kept phoning Iraqis but few answered. When I told a friend in Baghdad that no one was taking my calls, he suggested that people didn’t answer unknown numbers because they were afraid of threats. Apparently, according to Arab custom, if you warn your victim before an attack, it’s not a crime. Perhaps—but you can read too much ancient custom into Iraq. My suspicion was that they were dead. My hope was that they were avoiding embarrassing calls from girlfriends when they were with their wives. Iraqis’ love lives can be as complicated as their politics.
When I finally got through to one friend, he was in Damascus, along with several million of his countrymen. “Come to Falluja,” Ahmed said. “You can kill al-Qaeda with my troop.” It wasn’t clear how I was supposed to get to Falluja from Baghdad, although it is only 50 km west of the capital. Ahmed wasn’t sure it was a good idea to try. Passing through Abu Ghraib, a large suburban area outside the capital where Saddam and then the Americans ran a notorious prison, could be a real problem, he said. There, both insurgents and Shia militias often set up checkpoints and kidnap travellers. The Americans, mind you, have a more optimistic view of the Abu Ghraib situation. A few weeks later, I would watch Ambassador Ryan Crocker tell Congress of a real milestone in co-operation between former Sunni insurgents and their enemies in the Shia-dominated administration: over 1,700 Sunni tribesmen in Abu Ghraib were officially hired by the government as security forces. Ambassador Crocker may have been accurate—it’s just that the positive steps happening in Iraq shouldn’t be called milestones. They are more like yard-pebbles. Or even inch-dust.
“Come to Damascus—we can drive from here and the road is safe,” Ahmed said. He listed the various tribal militias controlling the 450-km road through Anbar province from the Syrian border to Falluja that could protect us. It seemed to be typical of the recent over-hyped success of the Anbar Awakening that you would have to fly from Baghdad to Damascus, and then drive six hours back across the desert, to get only 40 minutes outside Baghdad in order to see it for yourself(you could go with the U.S. Army as well, but you learn mostly about Americans if you are with Americans and end up sounding like a visiting columnist for the New York Times). Ahmed said that when he and his “troop”(his quaint word for what sounded death-squadish to me)captured al-Qaeda fighters around Falluja, they shipped the leaders to the border for interrogation by Syrian intelligence. So far, he’d sent 12. You can’t blame him—even the Americans send suspects to Syria when they want them tortured. Just ask Maher Arar.