An Iraqi Letter to W. Boosh

Despite pervasive anger at the U.S., public opinion in Iraq has crystallized around the conviction that the Americans need to stay until the situation stabilizes.

BAGHDAD - Getting to Iraq was almost too easy. Across the Allenby Bridge to Amman, and then, in a $25 service taxi, a 12-hour, all-night ride with four Iraqi passengers across an interminable desert to Baghdad. Somewhere in the middle of the desert lies the Jordanian-Iraqi border, an arbitrary invention of the British.


I had expected questions, thought I would have to produce documents proving that I was a journalist, or had come to help the reconstruction effort. Two U.S. Marines were on duty, lanky big-eared teenagers from the Midwest. Their job, they told me, was to insure that Iraqi customs officials didn't pocket bribes and then let trucks pass with their cargo unexamined. They had no control over who received visas. Inside a dusty office, an Iraqi clerk who couldn't read English stamped my U.S. passport, no questions asked. I was in.


This was my first surprise. The second was the extent to which I felt welcome, even celebrated, in Iraq as an American. Far from the taciturn, angry society I was expecting to find, everyone was willing to talk. It was Ramadan, and in Amman all public spaces were free of food and cigarettes, but here, in Baghdad, everyone offered me cola, tea, cigarettes, even if they themselves were fasting.


I had read reports of widespread hostility toward Americans in Iraq. Arab, European and even American news agencies were writing about the Iraqi resistance as if a substantial portion of Iraq's people supported the terrorist attacks on U.S. troops, Iraqi policemen, and Iraqi civilians that had begun several weeks before. Even more disconcerting, the reports made it seem as if the resistance was gaining momentum, had the potential to erupt into a popular movement, an intifada that would drive the American troops out of Iraq and with them the hope for a democratic revolution in the Middle East. But what I found, in dozens of conversations with Iraqis in the Shi'ite south, in Baghdad, and in the Kurdish north was that the bomb blasts had pushed people in the other direction, crystallizing public opinion around the conviction that the Americans needed to stay in Iraq until the situation stabilized.


On October 27, the day I entered Iraq, a series of five suicide bombings, including one at the Red Cross building, had killed 40 people in Baghdad, all but one of them Iraqi citizens. The precise coordination of the attacks, along with other evidence, confirmed what investigators already suspected: that remnants of Saddam's supporters had linked up with Al-Qaida-type operatives who had poured into Iraq from other Arab countries.


Within a few days of the attacks, a devastating poster appeared in Baghdad and other cities: Saddam as a bride in a wedding gown, standing next to a taller, beaming bin Laden, the happy bridegroom. Yasser Arafat, on board a tank, raced toward the wedding celebration. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, their faces beaming, looked on from either side, like proud parents of the bridal couple.


Conspiracy theory

A few days after the attack, I visited the destroyed Red Cross building, and spoke to a couple whose home had been shattered by the bomb. Fawzi Kadam Jama, a Sunni taxi driver, was at home with his wife, Shuann Halil, when the bomb went off, crumpling Fawzi's car and bursting the water main. The kitchen and other rooms were still flooded, and we walked through several inches of water, past a shattered television set as we talked.


"We think America liberated our country, but now they have brought terrorism to our country," Fawzi told me. "We thought there would be democracy and freedom, but in this democracy we have been injured. We blame those people who entered our country - Syrians, Saudis, Algerians - but we also blame America for not controlling our country and especially the borders. Now they must seal off the borders and stay until a strong Iraqi army is established," he said.


There was a subtext to what Fawzi was saying. As my translator, Zimkan Ali, a 23-year-old Kurd from northern Iraq explained to me, there was a new conspiracy theory that had gained popularity in Baghdad since the terrorist bombings began. According to this theory, the United States had deliberately drawn Al-Qaida operatives into Iraq, in order to shift the arena of the war against terror away from Western cities and targets. Bush wanted a showdown with bin Laden, and had chosen Iraq as his venue, inviting terrorists in by failing to adequately supervise the borders. In blaming the United States for bringing terrorism to our country, Zimkan told me, Fawzi was hinting at the possibility that the conspiracy theory suggested.


But the potentially anti-American sting of this theory was, at least in part, mitigated by another object of blame and anger. The connection between Saddam and bin Laden was not an American invention. It was already implicit in the anti-Western worldview propounded by the Arab media, which Iraqis were being exposed to for the first time. Satellite dishes were forbidden in Saddam's Iraq.


"I hate Al Jazeera and Al Arabia," Fawzi blurted out, referring to the two competing news channels. "They lied during the war and were on Saddam's side. Now they call this Iraqi resistance." Fawzi indicated, with a sweep of his hand, the cracks in his walls and roof and the plaster strewn across the floor. "Not one Iraqi supports the terrorists. Not one. Only the people who benefited from his rule. Only those that ate from Saddam's hands. America must stay until this is over."


After 10 days in Iraq, I began to understand that its citizens have experienced several phases since Saddam's ouster. The first phase was a reaction to sudden freedom from tyrannical rule, and thus was focused on the past. There was jubilation and looting, and it was during this period that the graffiti one sees scrawled everywhere was installed on the walls of Baghdad: "Saddam is the son of a whore"; "Uday, kidnapper of Baghdad's women"; "Qusay, criminal punk" or "Saddam to the trash bin of history."


In the second phase, Iraqis sobered up, left the past behind, and took a long hard look at the present. They didn't necessarily like what they saw. Tall buildings that once housed government ministries were now burnt-out shells. Bandits roamed the highways and controlled the streets of the big cities at night, hijacking cars at gunpoint with impunity. The electricity worked only intermittently, as bad or worse as in the days of Saddam. There was no telephone service. Ethnic conflicts in places like Mosul and Kirkurk, predominately Kurdish cities that Saddam had arabized by bringing in poor Shi'ite families from the south, began to boil over. As renowned clerics returned from exile in Iran or London, the Shi'ite community seemed ready to implode with violent internal conflict.


Iraqis were convinced that America was all-powerful, that their technology and weaponry could solve any and all problems if only the Americans desired. Waves of anger and blame, directed at the United States, hung in the air like threatening clouds. Nowhere was this threat more palpable than in Sadr City, a giant Shi'ite slum that was part of Baghdad and had been called Saddam City until the war.


Time of disillusionment

The Sadr in whose honor the neighborhood had been renamed, was Ayatollah Sadik al-Sadr, whose sermons preaching resistance to Saddam had attracted tens of thousands of listeners. Sadr was gunned down by Saddam's secret service, along with two of his sons, while leaving a mosque in the holy city of Najaf in 1999, an incident that had sparked rioting in Shi'ite cities and neighborhoods across Iraq.


During this second phase, the phase of disillusionment, it was Ayatollah Sadr's remaining son, Moktadah, a 30-year old firebrand, who seemed the most dangerous threat to the stability of Iraq. Moktadah, whose men had surrounded and threatened Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's most venerated Shi'ite scholar and a political moderate, demanded that U.S. forces leave Iraqi soil immediately. Moktadah signed up thousands of young men to his Army of the Mahdi, named after the messianic 12th leader of Shi'ite Islam, who the faithful believe is to reappear at the end of time. The Army, Moktadah said, was only waiting for his word, to begin their resistance to American forces.


But by the time I got to Sadr City, the atmosphere had changed, as it had throughout Baghdad. The security situation - aside from the terror - had improved, and the chances of being robbed in broad daylight had substantially diminished. The infrastructure, people could see, was slowly being rebuilt. The 25-member governing council appointed by U.S. authorities, including 13 Shi'ites, five Sunnis, five Kurds, a Christian and a Turkmen, contained seasoned politicians as well as several resistance heroes. But most of all, especially in Sadr City, it was the terrorist attacks that had changed people's minds, creating a new kind of Iraqi consciousness.


No to Al-Qaida

Sadr City is flat and dusty, its streets strewn with garbage, its landscape artificially brightened by huge, colored posters of martyrs and ayatollahs from the near and distant past. Some of these are so garish that they look almost as if they had been torn from the pages of a comic book. A small crowd gathered around me in a little photo shop, listening to my discussion with the owner, Hadya Musa Sadun, a slight, handsome 30-year-old, with shining eyes and a trim beard. Hayda spoke adamantly. "There is no support for Al-Qaida among the Iraqi people, only the remnants of the former regime. Al Jazeera says that the explosions are from the Iraqi resistance? Resistance to whom? To the Americans? No! The Americans didn't arrest me and take me to jail. They liberated me from that bastard regime! And do you know what Al-Qaida and the Wahabi did to Shi'ites in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Just like Saddam. Slaughtered thousands of us!"


Amir Sahib Rushak is listening in. Lean and muscular, Amir is a Thai kick-boxing expert who competes in tournaments and does odd jobs to survive. He identifies himself as a follower of Moktadah Sadr, and remains unconvinced by Hadya's pro-American rhetoric. "You know most Iraqis think Saddam was a CIA agent. The Americans could find and destroy Al-Qaida if they wanted. They don't have our best interests at heart. The Americans are keeping Saddam. They know where Saddam is. They arrested other people, but have not tried them. They have disappeared. Where are they? Where is Chemical Ali? They need to be tried here, because they sucked the blood of Iraqi children."


And yet even Amir is conciliatory. "Sadr does not want to rule Iraq. We don't want an Islamic government. We want democracy. Not like Iran. We want a multiethnic democracy, Kurds, Sunni, Shi'ites. Sadr wants Iraqi children to be educated, intellectual. The terrorists are trying to steal our children's future. Everyone is staying home from school because they are afraid of the bombs. We hate the followers of Osama bin Laden." And the Army of the Mahdi, of which he was a member? Hadn't it been recruited to resist America? Amir shook his head vigorously. "The Army of the Mahdi is not built to fight America, but to protect Iraq from the terrorists."


What about the veil? I asked. Will the women have to wear the veil?

"No one will have to practice any religion they don't want to," Amir answers. "Of course in my family, our women will wear the veil. We are not attracted to women without a veil."

"Speak for yourself," one of the other young men interjected. "Islam is in the heart. It's not about covering the face."


The crowd of young men parted, and an older man entered, introducing himself as Faher al-Saraje. "You are a journalist?" he asked. "Then please come with me. I want to show you something." He took me to a water main, and turned the tap. No water came out. "We have two rivers in Iraq, the Euphrates and the Tigris, but we have water here only a few hours a day."


Faher unfolded a document seven or eight pages long that he had written in longhand, and began to read it to me. The angry young men quieted down and listened thoughtfully. The document contained no mention of religion or ideology, nor any conspiracy theories - just facts and suggestions: The water in Sadr City is bad. Children are getting sick from it. Winter is coming, but the price of fuel has risen too high for the poor people to afford it. Something will have to be done. The municipality is corrupt. We had to pay one of the officials a bribe to fix our electricity line. Our children come back from public school after an hour. The teachers have left, gone to teach for money in a private school. Same with the doctors - they've left the public clinics. If you don't have money for a private hospital, you can die here.

On and on the list continued, mundane and practical. Finally, toward the end, Faher came to the subject of security: Saddam's Fedayeen and Ba'ath party loyalists are still around, everywhere. In Saddam's time, all the administrators were Ba'ath people. They are still in place, still reporting back to Saddam. They need to be disarmed. They must be tried for their crimes.


Faher paused, and looked at me. "I spent nine years in an Iranian prison camp. Now I am a free man, an Iraqi citizen." He said "citizen" as if it were the most beautiful word in the dictionary. "I can write this letter. I am not afraid. But who can I send it to? Who will listen to me? The governing council?" I glanced at the top of the document. It was all in Arabic letters, except for the first three words, which read "To W. Boosh."


`Liars, big liars'

The next day, at Baghdad's Technological University, we found an example of Faher's Ba'ath administrator, still in place as he had predicted, in the person of Issam Mustafa. We were interviewing students across from the university gates, in front of an Internet cafe called The Future. Terrorist groups had called for a three-day general strike starting on Saturday, and warned of reprisals for those who chose to ignore it. Many of the students, mortified by the spate of bombings, had stayed home for two days. But by Monday, the third day, most had returned to classes.


As I finished talking to a group of students, I saw a well-dressed, middle-aged man walk by. I called him over, and he agreed to talk. Issam Mustafa was an administrator in a two-year college. Still working at the college, he was also wanted by American troops. They were given bad information, he told me. Someone says you are a terrorist, and they come to arrest you. So you are against the bombings? I asked.


"I am against them if they hurt Iraqis," Issam said. "But if the attacks are against Americans, I am happy." Then he corrected himself. "Not all Americans. I mean just soldiers." I nodded, acknowledging my gratitude that he did not include me among his targets for murder.


"In the beginning I was happy to be rid of Saddam. I tell you that truthfully," Issam said. "But then I saw that the Americans are liars, big liars. We elected a council in our village. But the Coalition Forces erased the election results, and installed their own people. Iprotested this change and the Americans didn't like it."


Maybe, I suggested, it was because they had elected Ba'ath people, supporters of Saddam. He recoiled as if stung. "Many Ba'ath live among us," Issam said mysteriously. "Some of them are now pro-American. Others who suffered under the Ba'ath are still suffering now. I refuse to let the Americans make our policy. I refuse to let them divide us into Shi'ites, Sunnis, and so on. We are all Arabs. I tell you that if America continues here, we will see a situation worse than Saddam.


But what about the Internet, I ask, pointing toward the cafe in back of us. And the satellites, the mobile phones, the uncensored international lines? Don't they symbolize anything to you?

"So what?" he answered. His lips curled with distaste, pushing his red mustache upward. "So a phone line is everything?"

First of two parts