Military history


The Turning

FOR ALL THE ANARCHY of the place, it was sometimes easy to miss the changes. A new checkpoint went up on Sadoon Street, Al-Qaeda crept into Adamiyah: those were easy. The deeper changes were more difficult to spot: the shifts in the culture, the turnings inside people’s brains. The confusion lay in the violence. After witnessing a car bomb, or wading through a bloody emergency room, I sometimes forgot that the violence in Iraq had a shape; that it had direction, that the violence had purpose. So much violence and so many purposes, all of them competing and crashing into one another, reshaping the country in their own distinctive ways. In the madness, it was sometimes hard to see.

And so it was one afternoon in late 2005 when I drove to the Um al-Qura Mosque to see Harith al-Dhari, the head cleric there. The Um al-Qura, just off the airport road in western Baghdad, stood as the unofficial headquarters of the Sunni insurgency; Dhari, an austere, humorless figure, was its voice. On the surface, the Um al-Qura maintained no connection to the young men with guns, but the mosque served as the closest thing the movement had to a political headquarters. Dhari and his like-minded imams regularly called press conferences to denounce the Americans and demand that Iraqi prisoners be released. Iraqis came from miles around to demonstrate in the mosque’s parking lot. The Um al-Qura itself was a sprawling, ornate complex, constructed during Saddam’s time; its minarets were built to resemble the Scud missiles the dictator had fired into Israel during the first Gulf War. American soldiers regularly raided the Um al-Qura and detained its clerics, including Dhari. The back-and-forth, between occupier and occupied, seemed to go on with no end in sight.

Then one winter day while waiting to see Dhari I noticed a crowd of Iraqi women gathered around an office next to the mosque. I moved in a little closer. Their faces hung slack and gray. They were holding little photos, and when they saw me they surged.

“The police took my son and he is gone!” a woman shouted, her eyes bulging red.

“Do you know anyone who can release one of my sons?” another moaned.

A woman held three fingers in the air.

“They took my three sons!” she said.

The cries rose and multiplied until they became a collective hysteria. The women were shouting: at me, at no one, at everyone, waving their photos. My son! In the tumult there was nothing to do, not even listen, and I left the grieving mothers in the office by the mosque.

But their message was clear, and I would go back to the little office again and again. The civil war was under way. It had taken months to get going and even more months to spot. After the elections in January 2005, the Shiite hard-liners who had taken power stuffed the ministries with their own gunmen, gave them uniforms and identification cards, and turned them loose. It was only then, in the cold of the Baghdad winter, in an office next to a Sunni mosque, that the evidence at last began to reveal itself, in the form of wailing mothers.

And hollow-eyed fathers. One of them was Ahmed al-Jabouri, whose son, Ali, had been taken away a few weeks before the father came to see me. There was open warfare now inside the Sunni neighborhoods, making them more or less off-limits. I sent Iraqis I worked with into the neighborhoods, where they could travel more safely, to bring people like Jabouri to me. It was safe inside our compound, comfortable and a little strange. It’s not often that you listen to a crying father tell you the story of his disappeared son while sipping tea on an expensive couch.

“They came at 5 a.m.,” Jabouri said as we sat together. He was missing teeth and his face had a pinkish cast. “They had three cars with dark windows. They were wearing uniforms. One of them was wearing a mask. They kicked open our gate and they began kicking the door, and that’s when I answered it. I asked them if they had come to loot my home, and they said, No, we are from the Ministry of Interior.

“They threw me onto the floor, and one of them put a boot to my head. And four of them went immediately for my son; it was as if they knew where his bedroom was. He was in his underwear. I was hoping they would allow his wife to look decent first but they did not wait. He was recently married.”

The Times’ cook, Alan, entered the room with a tray of tea and biscuits. Without looking, Jabouri took a cup.

“The man with the mask came in and pointed at my son and said, ‘Yes, this is the guy,’” Jabouri said. The police roughed him up for a while, Jabouri continued, and then they took him away.

“There were Ministry of Interior insignias on the doors of the cars,” he said.

“My son was not a member of the resistance—he was a guard for a British company,” Jabouri said. He spoke listlessly now, as if he knew that it did not matter.

“The next day,” Jabouri went on, “someone called and told me to come to the morgue. That I would find my son there.”

When he got there, Jabouri recalled, the bodies were piled high, bodies fresh and bodies old. He looked at the faces and also at their right arms, where his Ali wore a tattoo. It was a good thing, the tattoo, because the faces, Jabouri said, had been burned. “They were mutilated so that you could not recognize them,” he said. His son was not among them.

A few weeks later, Jabouri said, his telephone rang again. This time it was the police.

“‘Your son is with us,’ a voice said. ‘We want $ 40,000. If you talk to anyone, we will cut your son into pieces and throw him at your front door.’”

Then, Jabouri said, the kidnappers played a tape of Ali’s voice over the phone.

“Mother and father,” Jabouri recalled the voice saying. “It is Ali.”

Jabouri’s face was still pink as he told his story, and, remarkably, his eyes still dry. I thought perhaps he had told the story many times already.

“And so I sold my house,” he said. “For $ 20,000. It was not enough but I begged them.”

After many phone calls and much negotiation, Jabouri drove to an intersection in a Shiite neighborhood, where he met a group of men he did not recognize. They were not wearing uniforms. In the car next to them was a young man.

“It was not my son,” Jabouri said, and he had finally begun to tear. “I collapsed right there.”

Not long after I spoke with Ahmed al-Jabouri, I drove to the offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the big Sunni political party. The party’s compound was in Yarmouk, a mixed neighborhood that then was still relatively safe. There, in a small office on the second floor, I met Omar al-Jabouri.

Omar wasn’t related to Ahmed, but he wore a troubled look just the same. At the door of his office stood a line of grieving parents not unlike the ones I’d encountered at the Um al-Qura mosque.

We talked for a while, then Omar rose from his desk and walked to a cabinet. He returned with a large book. It was a photo album. The first page was a tableau of photographs, of corpses with shriveled skin.

“These people were burned with acid,” Omar said, pointing with his index finger.

Omar flipped the page. Another terrible photograph.

“This man, they used an electric drill,” he said.

Another page.

“Can you see this?” Omar said, turning the book so I could see. “They drove nails into his head.”

Finally, Omar sighed.

“They have invented new methods,” he said.


ELECTRIC DRILLS were a Shiite obsession. When you found a guy with drill marks in his legs, he was almost certainly a Sunni, and he was almost certainly killed by a Shiite. The Sunnis preferred to behead, or to kill themselves while killing others. By and large, the Shiites didn’t behead, didn’t blow themselves up. The derangements were mutually exclusive.

With all that brutality, you might conclude that the sectarian war that swept the mixed cities of Iraq was a collective fever, a psychosis of ancient hatreds. It certainly became that. But in the beginning, the sectarian violence and the ethnic cleansing were almost entirely calculated. They were planned and mapped like a military campaign. The ethnic cleansing, for instance, was initiated by the Sunnis, who started expelling Shiites from their homes in the countryside around Baghdad. Then they moved in closer, into the mixed neighborhoods on the fringes of the capital.

The theory advanced by the Shiites in the government was that the Sunni insurgents were cleansing the mixed villages so they could operate more freely. A Sunni city cleansed of Shiites would be free of informers. “Intelligence-free zones,” one Iraqi official called them.

To test the theory, I drove to a camp in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Shoala, where Shiite families had fled from outside the capital. Only a few months before, the camp had been a vacant lot. The day I arrived it contained about six hundred people, all of them living in tents.

One of the newly arrived was Kharmut Hanoon, a forty-year-old farmer from Abu Ghraib, the Sunni city west of Baghdad known for its prison. Hanoon had abandoned his home and wheat fields after masked gunmen, driving Opel sedans, started killing Shiites in the neighborhood. “You cannot see their faces,” Hanoon said to me, “just their eyes.”

Hanoon was sharing a pair of tents with fourteen of his family members, including three grandchildren. Degradation was new to Hanoon, a proud and prosperous man. So was humiliation. Even in his tattered circumstances, he offered me a cup of tea. “Can you imagine that anyone would ever leave his home, for any reason?” Hanoon said, waving a cigarette as he spoke. “Only bad people and gypsies live in tents. What can you say about women having to live here? What can you say about the food?”

Whatever the motives of the people who expelled Hanoon, the effect on his own views seemed lasting and deep. His brain was turning. As he packed his belongings and prepared to leave his ancestral home, Hanoon said, not a single one of his Sunni neighbors stopped by to say goodbye.

“It’s in their genes,” Hanoon said. “It’s a disease. They hate the Shiites. I don’t think things will ever go back to normal between Shiites and Sunnis.”

Once it got going, the sectarian war in Iraq developed its own vocabulary, its own rituals. Often, for instance, the cleansing of a neighborhood began with notes slipped under people’s doors. Many of the refugees inside the camp in Shoala had been expelled this way. Ismail Shalash, for instance, was telling me his story when he reached into a folder and produced a note. Shalash was a father of three from Dora, a violent neighborhood on the edge of Baghdad that the insurgents had taken over.

“To the family of Abu Faisal,” the note said, using Shalash’s nickname. “You have to leave our neighborhood in forty-eight hours. This is your final warning.” The note was signed: “The Islamic Army in Iraq.” When he fled his neighborhood, Shalash had carried with him his most valuable belongings: his diploma, the family gold—and the little slip of paper that drove him away.

At the same time, a new bit of Arabic began slipping into the chatter of ordinary Iraqis: “allas.” Literally, “one who chews.” The word had come to denote an Iraqi who led a group of killers to their victim, a denouncer of sorts. Typically, the allas pointed out the Shiites living in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood for the gunmen who were hunting them.

“The allas is from the neighborhood, and he had a mask on,” Haider Mohammed, a Shiite from Abu Ghraib, told me. “He pointed to my uncle.” So the gunmen chased his uncle, Hussein Khalil, who had been driving in his Daewoo sedan. The gunmen ran Khalil off the road and shot him twice in the back of the head. Mohammed found his uncle facedown in a garbage dump.

Allas came into use during the summer of 2005, at the same time that Iraq’s leaders were gathering in the Green Zone to write the country’s new constitution. The constitution, of course, was all about words: “Islam,” “federalism,” “nation.” Words that empowered nobody, restrained no one. All the while, outside the Green Zone, men with masks were busy pointing, creating whole new vocabularies of their own.

ONE DAY IN the spring of 2006, as I drove to the compound of Abdul Aziz Hakim, a small but startling change caught my eye. Hakim was the fish-eyed, Marlboro-smoking chief of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, one of the big Shiite parties. Whenever I’d gone to his compound before, I had to allow myself to be searched by Hakim’s guards, members of the Badr Brigade, SCIRI’s Iranian-trained militia. It wasn’t difficult to tell that the Badr gunmen were professional: when they were just standing around, for instance, they kept their index fingers locked straight above the triggers. Their camouflage uniforms were clean and pressed.

Now, the same guards were standing around out front. They carried the same Kalashnikovs, and they wore the same camouflage uniforms. Their fingers were over their triggers. The only difference was that patches had been sewn onto the shoulders of their tunics. “Ministry of Interior,” they said.

“Self-incorporated.” That was the phrase an American official used when I told him what I saw. Two thousand Badr gunmen, once employed by the Supreme Council, had just donned police uniforms. Or sewn patches onto the uniforms they already had. “The chain of command is basically intact,” the American official said. “They answer to SCIRI.”

That’s how the civil war worked: the death squads became official. The Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, the two big Shiite militias, just joined the police forces of the Shiite-led government. It was like a revolving door, always spinning. One woman told me that her son had been taken away by the Iraqi police, and then, the next day, she’d received a phone call from a man claiming he was with the Mahdi Army. He said he had her son. He wanted ransom. She never got him back.

Another Iraqi woman recalled the night she watched from her window as a group of eight men wearing Iraqi army uniforms pulled up and parked their two cars, a black sport utility vehicle and a white sedan. From the back of the SUV, the woman said, the men in army uniforms hauled out a blindfolded passenger, who appeared to be alive, and moved him to the trunk of the sedan. Then the men shed their army uniforms, tossed them into the vehicles and drove away. “It’s such a terrible situation,” she said.

That the Shiites had turned the tables was not exactly lost on the Sunnis. One afternoon that same summer, word spread that a battalion of Shiite police were on their way to the Sunni neighborhood of Adamiyah. So the locals went for their guns. They dragged fallen date palms into some of the streets and piled bricks across others.

When the Shiite commandos finally came, wearing government uniforms, the men of Adamiyah were waiting for them. An all-night gun battle erupted, with dead on both sides. The commandos finally retreated. I couldn’t go to Adamiyah anymore, so I had one of our drivers bring some of the Adamiyah locals to me.

“For us, as Sunni people, we know that if the police take you, they will interrogate you and shoot you,” Mohammed Jaffar told me. He was twenty-four, educated and well-groomed.

It seemed straightforward enough: they just didn’t want to die. And then, without prompting, the young Jaffar plunged into conspiracy theory. “The Shiites have a secret fifty-year plan to turn Iraq into an Islamic state like Iran. There will be very few Sunnis left in Iraq, and they will not be able to resist.”

“Are you sure?” I asked him.

“Oh, yes,” Jaffar said. “We know this from the Sunnis who live in Iran.”

It wasn’t just the Shiites frothing with revenge. The Sunnis had their own death squads, even the Sunnis in the government. The Iraqi government had given each of its twenty-seven ministries its own “facilities protection forces,” 145,000 gunmen in all. Some of them were Shiite, some were Sunni. One such group, the 16th Brigade, was charged with guarding the oil pipeline that ran into the refinery at Dora. The 16th Brigade was mostly Sunni, and it started carrying out assassinations of local Shiites. When their commander, Colonel Mohsin Najdi, tried to stop them, they killed him, too.

Among those who gathered in the Green Zone to write the constitution were Shiites, Kurds, current and former militia commanders, sheikhs in white robes and sayyids in black turbans, and even a representative of a tiny group that was said to worship angels. And, remarkably enough, there was a group of Sunni Arabs, too. One of them was Fakhri al-Qaisi.

Qaisi had an ear-to-ear beard, and he was a dentist with an easy laugh. The first time I met him, he was seated at a white plastic table in a café inside the Green Zone during a break from constitution drafting. Among the Sunnis, Qaisi was something of an anomaly: he was an adherent to the ultraconservative Salafist wing of Islam and he maintained links to the insurgents. But, unlike many of his Sunni cohorts, Qaisi was willing to deal with the Americans if he thought he could speed their departure from the country.

“Everyone is trying to kill me!” Qaisi said, shaking his head and laughing. “The Americans, the Shia, the Sunnis—everyone!”

It seemed probable enough. Qaisi being a Sunni fundamentalist with links to the insurgency, the Americans thoroughly mistrusted him. Seventeen times, Qaisi told me, the Americans had raided his office and homes. “The Americans even drove a tank into my dental office,” he said, laughing again.

And Qaisi was being targeted by Shiite death squads. Only a week before, his brother had been gunned down in Baghdad. Qaisi suspected the Badr Brigade, the militia controlled by SCIRI. “I know for a fact that it was Badr,” Qaisi told me.

As a Sunni cooperating with the Americans, Qaisi was being hunted by Sunni insurgents, too. The same week I met him, two of his Sunni colleagues on the constitution-drafting committee had been shot dead in the street.

Indeed, it was amazing how Qaisi survived at all. He lived in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Gazaliya, one of the city’s most dangerous, without armed guards. To save himself, Qaisi had begun sleeping in his car, a white Toyota with a front seat that reclined. He had four wives, all of them in separate houses, and he typically dropped in on one of them during his drives around the capital.

“I keep my enemies guessing,” he said, brightening again.

As Qaisi and I talked, a group of four Iraqi men sat down at a plastic table next to ours. One of them I recognized immediately: Hadi al-Amari, the head of the Badr Brigade, the very militia Qaisi believed had murdered his brother.

Suddenly I felt an animal electricity in the air. Qaisi and Amari were eyeing each other.

Qaisi stood up; so did Amari. I wondered if they were armed.

“My friend,” Qaisi said, “it is so good to see you.”

“Yes, it has been a long time,” Amari said.

The two men embraced and kissed each other on their bearded cheeks.

“We really must get together,” Amari said.

“Yes, really, we must,” Qaisi said.

THAT SAME SUMMER, I rode into the area of the Green Zone known as Little Venice. The neighborhood, once home to Saddam’s senior officials, was so called for the canals and bridges that crisscrossed its streets. It was now the place where Iraq’s new leaders lived, including Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister. Salih, an Iraqi Kurd, was one of the straightest, hardest-working civil servants in all of Iraq. As the nation around him imploded, Salih, through savvy and will, was still able to make the government work. I was going to see Salih about the latest rumors of corruption that were racing around town, of Iraqi leaders spiriting hundreds of millions of dollars out of the country.

I walked into the courtyard of Salih’s home, which was carpeted in bright, cropped grass, defying the summer heat. He was standing in the walkway, talking into his phone. He looked up and waved, as if to say, Not now.

“Yes, of course I understand, madam,” Salih said into the phone. “We will do whatever we can.”

He listened to the voice at the other end. Then he put his hand over the phone and spoke to one of his aides, Taha al-Hashemi.

“Take $ 5,000 out of the contingency budget,” he said. “Cash.”

Hashemi nodded and made a phone call, and Salih put the phone back to his ear.

“I am very sorry, madam,” he said. “We will do whatever we can.”

Then he hung up.

“It’s a woman; her son’s been kidnapped,” Salih said to me. “He’s thirteen. They’re going to kill him today unless she pays them $ 5,000.”

The woman, crazed with grief, had gone to a local mosque, where she’d spotted an Iraqi reporter for a Baghdad radio station. She begged and pleaded, and the reporter had given her Salih’s number.

Salih laughed bitterly.

“I am the deputy prime minister of Iraq,” he said, “and this is how I spend my days, paying ransom for mothers whose children have been kidnapped. You would be amazed how much time I spend on things like this.”

In places like Dora, Gazaliya and Sadiya, the insurgents had taken to killing the garbagemen. It seemed strange at first that they would do that, kill a man who collected the trash. Then they started killing the bakers. In those places, naturally enough, the garbage piled up in the streets, heaps of it, mountains of it, and there wasn’t any bread. Then they started killing the teachers, and the teachers stopped going to the schools. And the children stopped going, of course. So: no bread and no schools and mountains of trash. Ingenious, I guess, if you wanted to stop the functioning of a neighborhood.

Not long after, I talked about these things with Yusra al-Hakeem, one of the Iraqi interpreters I worked with. Yusra was one of my best Iraqi friends. She was bright, funny and loud, one of those Iraqis who had taken immediately to the new freedoms. And yet in the past year life had changed dramatically for Yusra, and Yusra had changed herself. A Shiite and a liberal, Yusra had begun wearing a long black abaya, which she loathed but which was necessary, she believed, to protect her from the militias in her neighborhood. Yusra usually tore it from her head the second she walked inside the Times compound. “Stupid thing,” she’d say, hurling it onto the couch.

And now Yusra had decided to leave the country. At first she joked in her usual way. “After 1, 400 years, the Shiites have had their chance, and look at the mess they made. The Shiites, they cannot govern Iraq—bring back the Sunnis!” And then a laugh. Yusra didn’t mean it—she loathed Saddam. But the danger was different now, debilitating in a way it had not been during the years of Saddam.

“I am so tired,” Yusra said. “In Saddam’s time, I knew that if I kept my mouth shut, if I did not say anything against him, I would be safe. But now it is different. There are so many reasons why someone would want to kill me now: because I am Shiite, because I have a Sunni son, because I work for the Americans, because I drive, because I am a woman with a job, because”—she picked up her abaya—“I don’t wear my stupid hejab.”

She took my notebook and flipped it to a blank page. This was Yusra’s way of explaining her situation and, sensing the limitations of language, she would sometimes seize a reporter’s notebook and diagram her predicament. She drew a large circle in the middle.

“This was Saddam,” she said. “He is here. Big. During Saddam’s time, all you had to do was stay away from this giant thing. That was not pleasant, but not so hard.”

She flipped to another blank page. She drew a dozen circles, some of them touching, some overlapping. A small galaxy. She put her pen in the middle and made a dot.

“The dot in the middle, that is me—that is every Iraqi,” she said. “From everywhere you can be killed, from here, from here, from here, from here.” She was stabbing her pen into the notepad.

“We Iraqis,” she said. “We are all sentenced to death and we do not know by whom.”

And so she would leave Iraq. For Jordan, for Syria—and then, if she was lucky, for America. All she was waiting for, she said, was for her son to graduate from university. He had one semester to go.

“And then,” Yusra said, “my responsibility as a mother will be complete.”

And we laughed.

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