Military history

PART TWO

Baghdad, Iraq, March 2003–

CHAPTER 4

Land of Hope and Sorrow

I’D BE TALKING to one of the Iraqis—about the situation, say, or about their lives, anything—when the conversation would take a turn. Just like that, without warning. And if I didn’t try to steer the conversation back to where I’d started, if I just listened, they would tell me everything.

One day, a couple of years after the invasion, I met Yacob Yusef, the headmaster of Baghdad College, an old Jesuit high school on the northern edge of the capital. I found Yusef seated behind a wide desk, the kind you’d imagine a headmaster would have. He looked like a principal, too, with a slightly stiff demeanor and a coat and tie where everyone else was more casually dressed.

I’d gone to Baghdad College to flip through the old yearbooks, to ask about some of the school’s long-departed students, Ahmad Chalabi and some of the others, who were vying to become prime minister in the new Iraqi state. It was December 2005. And Yusef was telling me what he remembered from the old days, before the Baathists had expelled the Jesuits. He told me about the old priests, Father O’Callaghan and Father Cronin and the rest, many of whom were buried in the yard outside. And he told me about Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, how they’d carried themselves around the school. “Qusay was very vulgar,” Yusef said. “He wore his shirt unbuttoned to his waist and walked around like a bandit.” On one of Qusay’s exams, Yusef said, he’d managed a score of 4 percent. “I could hardly read his handwriting.” Yusef started telling me about the son of Barzaan al-Tikriti, one of Saddam’s senior henchmen, when he suddenly started talking about his brother. Just changed the subject without notice, possibly in midsentence.

“One day, my brother disappeared, you know,” Yusef told me. “Saadi. He vanished. 20 March 1988. I was searching everywhere for him. I could not sleep. My mother was in a panic. It was a terrible time.

“Three weeks later, I got a phone call,” Yusef said. “I was taking my dinner. There was a man on the other end, a government official. He said, ‘Are you Yacob?’ Yes, I told him. And he said, ‘Come and get the body of your executed brother.’

“You see, someone had written that Saadi was doing suspicious activities. It was nonsense, of course, but…” And he shrugged.

“So I drove to Kut, a two-hour drive from Baghdad, and I went to the state security building,” Yusef said. “And Saadi’s body was there, in the back of a refrigerated truck used to distribute agriculture products. The man who I had talked to on the phone was there, and he said to me, ‘You are very lucky. Most people, they never get a body. You should be very grateful to us.’ He waited for me to thank him. So I thanked him.

“And then this man said to me, ‘I cannot release your brother’s body just yet.’ Why? I asked the man. And he said to me, ‘Because you must pay for the bullets that we used to kill him.’”

By this time, Yusef’s formal demeanor had collapsed and his cheeks were covered with tears.

“Two bullets they used to kill Saadi. Two bullets. And I paid for them. One hundred fifty dinars. And this man gave me a receipt. ‘Here is the receipt for the bullets used for the execution of your brother.’”

Iraq was filled with people like Yacob Yusef. They weren’t survivors as much as they were leftovers. The ruined by-products of terrible times. Once I was sitting with Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the national security adviser, and we were talking about the role of Islam in the new Iraqi constitution, how extensive it would be, whether the constitution would say that Islam would be “the source” of legislation or merely “a source,” an issue that was considered quite important at the time, when Rubaie wrapped himself into a ball to show me how he had been hung from the ceiling. He’d been rolled into a ball by his interrogators and hung from the ceiling and spun like a fan. “For many hours,” Rubaie said. They forced him to imitate a dog, too, to walk around his cell on all fours and bark.

Rubaie left Iraq after his imprisonment to become a neurologist in London. He didn’t need to return to Iraq. Sitting in his shabby office in Baghdad, he used to complain with laughter at the pay cut he had taken to become national security adviser. “My children are bankrupting me,” he laughed. One day I visited him in his home inside the Green Zone and noticed in his study an enormous bronze bust of Saddam’s head in the corner, taken from one of the palaces, its eyes turned directly toward Rubaie’s desk. I never asked him why.

Some days I thought we had broken into a mental institution. One of the old ones, from the nineteenth century, where people were dumped and forgotten. It was like we had pried the doors off and found all these people clutching themselves and burying their heads in the corners and sitting in their own filth. It was useful to think of Iraq this way. It helped in your analysis. Murder and torture and sadism: it was part of Iraq. It was in people’s brains.

Sometimes I would walk into the newsroom that we had set up in The New York Times bureau in Baghdad, and I’d find our Iraqi employees gathered round the television watching a torture video. You could buy them in the bazaars in Baghdad; they were left over from Saddam’s time. The Iraqis would be watching them in silence. Just staring at the screen. In one of the videos, some Baath party men had pinned a man down on the floor and were holding down his outstretched arm, while another official beat the man’s forearm with a heavy metal pipe until his arm broke into two pieces. There was no sound in the video, but you could see that the man was screaming. None of the Iraqis in the newsroom said anything.

I tried to recall these things when I got impatient with the Iraqis. Sometimes, when readers from America sent me e-mails expressing anger at the Iraqis—why are they so ungrateful? why can’t they govern themselves?—I considered sending them one of the videos.

A FEW DAYS after Saddam fell, when Baghdad was in flames, I asked an Iraqi I had hired whether he knew of any interrogation centers. He shrugged and steered his battered Toyota to a three-story dun-colored building nestled among a row of spacious homes in Karada, a neighborhood a mile from my hotel. The building was called Al-Hakemiya.

As we pulled up, other Iraqis were coming, Iraqis who had spent time inside. They were coming back to see the place where they had been tortured. Most of Al-Hakemiya was taken up by ordinary-looking offices, with linoleum tiles and gray file cabinets. Files were strewn about the floor, and many of the desks were overturned and the windows smashed. But the Iraqis I saw were roaming quietly through the halls, not looting or smashing anything, as people were doing in the rest of the capital at the time.

Upstairs, accessible by a back stairway, were about a hundred cells, dark and windowless, smelling of urine. In one of the cells a red light protruded from the ceiling; the walls and ceiling and floor were likewise painted red. At the end of a hallway lay a pile of bindings and blindfolds.

The only elevator led to the basement and more cells. There were shackles in one room, long cables in another. On another floor I found a small operating room, with trays of cutting instruments. Out back stood three portable morgues, metal containers the size of toolsheds, with freezer units for cold air. Inside each were six aluminum trays, each about six feet long.

I followed an Iraqi man, Masawi, as he walked through the building. He was an ordinary-looking man, with a mustache, a checked shirt and slacks. He ran his hands along the walls. He walked to the back and through a door and then up the stairwell that opened onto the corridor with the cells. Masawi stopped at number 36.

“Here it is,” Masawi said. “My cell.”

The iron door had been pried open; Masawi stood at the edge but did not step inside. He lit a cigarette and told me he’d been an importer of luxury goods, jewelry and the like, a prosperous man, he said, when the secret police had come to his door one night, blindfolded him and brought him here. Al-Hakemiya was a first stop in the Baathist detention network, a place where Iraqis were tortured and interrogated before being sent to prisons like Abu Ghraib. But the files strewn about the floors suggested something else. There were receipts for funds and stock certificates and bank ledgers. There were files of title certificates and change-of-ownership forms. Whatever else it was, Al-Hakemiya was a shakedown operation. Masawi’s family paid $ 25,000 to get him out. After six months.

“Being here gives me a doomed feeling,” he said.

It carried over, the trauma. There was a tendency among Iraqis to see conspiracy everywhere, to reject the official version of whatever was said—to never even believe their own eyes. I’d go to car bombings, and all the Iraqis would be screaming, and usually I could find the engine block from the exploded car right away, smoldering in its own crater. Then I’d start talking to the Iraqis, and one of them would say it was the Americans who had blown up the building; an Apache helicopter had swooped down and fired a missile. And then the answer would spread through the crowd like a fever and within a few minutes the whole crowd would be saying it: the Americans did it, the Americans fired a missile. After a time, the Iraqis started becoming violent, and I had to stop going to bombings altogether.

It wasn’t that the Iraqis were incapable of warmth or joy. Quite the opposite. There was no entering an Iraqi home, no matter how hostile your relationship with its host, without being embraced by a hospitality that would shame anything you could find in the West. Glasses of tea and sweets and fruits; your host would see you looking at something in his sitting room, a painting or a jacket hanging from a chair, and he’d pick it up and hand it to you. “A gift,” he’d say. It was just that the past always seemed to overwhelm the present. In those first months, anyway. Before the present became unbearable, too.

One of the most popular people after the invasion was Khalid al-Ani, the keeper of the files. Ani had been the superintendent of the secret cemetery at Abu Ghraib. The cemetery was surrounded by a fence. The guards would bring the bodies out at night. Always at night. Ani kept the death certificates.

When Saddam’s regime fell, Ani took all of his death certificates, hundreds and hundreds of them, to his home on Haifa Street in central Baghdad. And there, for many months after the invasion, Iraqis whose sons and daughters had disappeared lined up outside Ani’s house to see if there was something he could tell them.

One of the people who went to see Ani was Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi. His brother, Sadoon, had disappeared a decade before. He was an army officer and a mechanical engineer—his loyalty had never been questioned. But Sadoon’s family was Shiite; Saddam’s dictatorship was dominated by members of the minority Sunni sect. One night, Baath Party men were waiting outside his apartment as he came home from work. He was thirty-eight, the father of three children.

Razzaq searched frantically for Sadoon. The two were especially close: their father had died when Razzaq was two, and Sadoon had stepped in to raise his younger brother. “He was a knight,” Razzaq said. “He dressed me in the morning; he made sure I had my books before I went to school.”

Some time after his brother vanished, Razzaq discovered that Sadoon had listened to a cousin denounce Saddam for his reprisals against the Shiites following the 1991 Gulf War. The secret police had arrested Sadoon’s cousin. And they took everyone he had talked to.

Pleading and working whatever connections she had, Sadoon’s wife, Sundos, persuaded one of Saddam’s assistants to meet her. It was ten months after Sadoon had been taken away. Sundos pleaded with the official for help; he seemed a decent man. At one point, he picked up a telephone and ordered the execution of Sadoon to be canceled—if it had not already been carried out. Sundos’s heart leaped, but the Baath Party man couldn’t hide what he believed to be true. “I don’t know if he is alive or not,” he told her.

Nine years later, following the collapse of the regime, Ani, the file keeper, reached into his archives and found the certificate marked with Sadoon’s name. He’d been hanged six months after he was taken—which meant he’d been dead for four months on the day that Sundos had made her appeal. On the death certificate was his grave number, 303, in the cemetery behind the prison. Ani looked at Razzaq’s other brother, Qassim, and asked for forgiveness. “I had no authority,” he said. The next day Ani drove with Qassim to retrieve Sadoon’s bones. They identified them by a chipped tooth.

Following Saddam’s fall, Iraq became a theater of revenge, each murder inspiring another and then another. On Razzaq, the death of his brother had an unusual effect. He became the most gentle of souls: generous, humane, forgiving. But he walked with saddened eyes and stooped shoulders, like a man for whom life weighed too much.

I DROVE INTO Iraq from Kuwait on the day the invasion started in a rented GMC Yukon. The border had been locked down by American and Kuwaiti soldiers, but by midafternoon I was rolling into Safwan, a frontier town on the Iraqi side. I was enthusiastic and happy, eager to meet these new people whom the Americans had freed.

When I had ridden into the villages and towns in Afghanistan only months before, men threw off their turbans, kids dug up television sets. It was easy to believe that Iraq would be the same; that the people would be grateful, that they’d be pleased, that they would cheer when we arrived.

Safwan was broken and dirty and dead. The trees were gone and the grass had disappeared, and the buildings and the roads were the color of sand. As I drove in, the Iraqis stood on the roadside: slack-jawed, gaping, uncomprehending. Some of them were crying, some started moaning and cooing and ululating. A few of them cheered. Together the noises made for a feeling of grim ecstasy, happiness and sorrow rising together. People were calling to me in long guttural cries.

“Oooooo, peace be upon you, peace be upon you, oooooo,” moaned Zahra Khafi, a sixty-eight-year-old mother of five. “I’m not afraid of Saddam anymore.” Her face was dry and drained. The abaya draped over her body was as ragged as an old black flag.*4 Khafi threw her arms around me and looked up, the cheer on her face turning to shadow.

“Should I be afraid?” she said, mumbling and wiping her eyes. “Is Saddam coming back?” She started sobbing and calling out for her son.

Khafi was right to doubt her deliverance. In 1991, following the expulsion of Saddam’s army from Kuwait, the Americans had goaded the Iraqis to rise up, and they did, across the Shiite south. And Saddam’s troops had come in with their tanks and helicopter gunships and strafed and shot until their hold on the region was again secure.

Khafi’s son, Massoud, vanished two years before. Age twenty-six. “Help me find my son,” Khafi pleaded, clinging to my clothes. “Please help me.” I sat with her for a while in the dirt outside her mud-brick home, and after I got up and walked around the town she trailed after me.

I had not gotten very far when another Iraqi approached. He was young and short with intelligent eyes.

“Help me,” he said. “There, there are Saddam’s men, and if you leave me they will kill me right now.” His name was Najah Neema and he was trembling. That very morning, Neema said, he had been an Iraqi soldier. He’d torn off his uniform, thrown down his gun, and run away as the American army had poured in.

A crowd of Iraqis had filled in behind me. They were laughing and cooing and frowning, like a Greek chorus.

“Where are Saddam’s men?” I asked Neema.

“There,” Neema said, pointing a shaking hand. “Right over there. He is Mukhabarat.”†5

A middle-aged Iraqi man stood fifty paces away. He wore a checked short-sleeved shirt that seemed to have just been ironed and had a small trimmed mustache. I turned to walk over to him, and Neema, astonished, padded after me. The crowd turned and followed.

“That guy over there says you are going to kill him,” I said to the man in the checked shirt. He was a proud man, not used to such questions, and he gave me a look up and down and introduced himself: “Tawfik Muhammad,” he said. “I am the headmaster at the school here.” I could feel the breathing of the Iraqis behind me. Are you Mukhabarat? I asked him.

Muhammad turned and looked back and gave a little wave.

“God willing,” he said, “the Mukhabarat will return.”

The crowd behind me gave a nervous laugh; I was not sure for whom.

One of the men stepped from the chorus and offered to talk. He seemed more sure of himself than the others, perhaps more educated. He lit a cigarette. “The name is Haider,” he said in English. The chorus appeared uncomprehending.

“Let me tell you something, my friend. If Saddam’s government came back, believe me, many of my friends here standing around me would turn me in. In Iraq, we have learned. I don’t trust even my own brother.”

The Americans were pouring into the town, in trucks and tanks and troop carriers, young and overfed and heavily armed. They were kids mostly, nineteen-year-olds from Kansas and North Dakota. It was the first day of the invasion, and they were having a good time. They used their Ka-Bar knives to slash the canvas Saddam posters, and they tied ropes around his statues and used their Humvees to pull them down. “Feels good,” said Oscar Guerrero, nineteen, from San Antonio, running his blade through a canvas likeness of the Iraqi leader. “I wish he were here in person.”

The Iraqis stood by watching in their dumbfounded way as the Americans tore up the Saddams. Not one stepped forward to help. They looked more like children then, standing back and watching the teenagers have their fun, enjoying the spectacle but preserving their deniability should their parents come home. “How would you like it if I were to cut up a poster of President Bush?” one of the villagers asked me, but he was drowned out by catcalls.

A crowd of Iraqis descended on Safwan Elementary School, carrying out the desks and tables and blackboards. One of them pried an air-conditioning unit from a wall and loaded it into a cart. The Americans looked on and did nothing, looking at them and looking at me and giving a shrug. By sundown the Americans were gone.

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WIJDAN AL-KHUZAI’S cell phone would ring and a sinister voice would promise her a terrible end. Drop your campaign for the national assembly, the voice would tell her, or you are going to end up like the others. “Terrorists,” Khuzai would say as she snapped her cell phone shut. Sometimes as she drove around Baghdad to campaign for votes, Khuzai would glance into the rear mirror and notice a car trailing behind.

And then she would get on with her campaign. It was the winter of 2004 and hope was still thriving, even in the ruins. The first election for the new National Assembly was only a month away. There was a new secular constitution and a quarter of the seats were being set aside for women.

Khuzai, forty-seven, belonged to the Independent Progressive Movement, one of the many parties with earnest-sounding names that had come together as the elections approached. She was one of those people found in dreadful countries the world over, fearless and determined and unwilling, for reasons always unclear, to make the same calculations of personal safety as everyone else. In the 1990 s, Khuzai founded her own aid organization, a center for widows and mothers in Hillah, a Shiite city south of Baghdad. It was a brazen act; Khuzai neither asked for the government’s permission nor received it. And sure enough, Saddam’s men visited Khuzai after not very long and suggested with kind faces that she become a government informant. Khuzai could hardly have refused, so she fled to Kurdistan instead, which was by then under American protection. There she waited, for eight years, busying herself with her five children, until April 2003, when Saddam’s regime came crashing down. Khuzai returned to Baghdad and, like many Iraqis, took up the promise of liberation. She wasn’t alone; 7, 471 Iraqis signed up to run for the 275 seats in the new parliament. Not many of them, though, were brave enough to campaign openly, like Khuzai, or to travel without armed guards. It wasn’t like she didn’t know what she was up against. “These people,” she told her family, “I am their worst enemy.”

An American patrol found her body on Christmas Eve 2004, on the road to Baghdad International Airport. Khuzai had been shot five times, once in the face. Her shoulder blades had been broken, and her hands had been cuffed behind her back so tightly that her wrists had bled. “The police said she had been tortured,” her brother, Haider Jamal, told me.

I visited the Khuzai family at their home in Ghazaliya, which even then was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the capital. It was twilight, and people were milling about the street, looking at me and whispering as I climbed out of the car. “Quickly,” my driver, Waleed, told me. I sat with three of Khuzai’s sons, her brother and her sister. Sitting upright with perfect posture in a row of chairs, serving me sugary tea, Khuzai’s sister, Nada, and the rest of Wijdan’s family expressed confidence that the Iraqi police would track down Wijdan’s killers. Their optimism struck me as tragic, perhaps not unlike Wijdan’s. They were less optimistic about the country itself. “My sister figured that if she didn’t do it, then no one would,” Nada said.

People ask me what happened in Iraq, and I tell them the story of Wijdan al-Khuzai. Iraq might have been a traumatized country, it might have been broken, it might have been atomized—it might have been a mental hospital. But whenever the prospect of normalcy presented itself, a long line of Iraqis always stood up and reached for it. Thousands of them, seeing the opportunity in the events of April 2003, had set out to build an ordinary country with ordinary ways: newspaper editors, pamphleteers, judges, politicians and police officers. “Every morning, I come to work with a passion to serve my country,” Aladeen Muhammad Abdul Hamza, a new policeman in the town of Diwaniya, told me in the summer of 2003.

And they went to the slaughter. Thousands and thousands of them: editors, pamphleteers, judges and police officers, and women like Wijdan al-Khuzai. The insurgents were brilliant at that. They could spot a fine mind or a tender soul wherever it might be, chase it down and kill it dead. The heart of a nation. The precision was astounding.

EARLY ON IN THE OCCUPATION I drove to Falluja after an American helicopter had gone down in a bean field. When I arrived I could see the remains of it, gnarled pieces of torn metal scattered across the rows of beans. It had been a big Chinook, the kind with two rotors. Sixteen American marines and soldiers had been inside, on their way to their midterm leaves. The insurgents had hit it with a missile. I was standing at the edge of the bean field, with a bunch of Iraqi schoolkids, trying for a better look. The Americans had cordoned off the crash site, and a pair of Humvees rumbled up on the same dirt road where we were standing. As they rolled by, one of the Americans reached into a bag and threw out a handful of candy.

“Don’t touch it, don’t touch it!” the Iraqi children squealed. “It’s poison from the Americans. It will kill you.”

The children jumped back as if the candy were radioactive.

Falluja was like that from the start, even before the big battle in November 2004. Anything the Americans tried there turned to dust. The Americans repaired a brick factory and the insurgents blew it up. The Americans painted a school and the insurgents shot the teachers. The Americans threw candy to the kids and the kids called it poison.

A few weeks after the helicopter crashed, I drove out again on the strength of a story I’d heard. It went like this: A group of American soldiers who had been on patrol ran into an angry mob. Rather than confront the mob, they ducked into the walled compound of Sadoon Shukar Mahmood, a forty-eight-year-old father of seven. The crowd passed and the Americans thanked him.

The next day, the Americans came back, pulling up in their armored personnel carriers. They wanted to thank Mahmood a second time. They handed some candy to his children. Months passed, and then, one morning, the first of many leaflets appeared under Mahmood’s gate. “For your traitorous actions we will kill you,” one of them said.

One day sometime after that, Mahmood stepped into the street to buy eggs and cream for breakfast. A yellow sedan without license plates pulled up next to him and two masked men inside opened fire. Mahmood died in the street.

I showed up a few days later. It had been a misunderstanding, Mahmood’s family told me.

“People thought he was cooperating with the Americans,” Dari Abu Hassan, a cousin, told me in the sitting room of Mahmood’s home. “But he was not. He was not.”

And so, three months later, as I drove into Falluja, I was not expecting much. The Americans, who were still formally occupying the country, had called on the Iraqis to hold caucuses to select representatives for provincial councils. It was an entirely American idea: the councils would have neither power nor money but somehow, the Americans figured, the Iraqis would take to them just the same. The Iraqis in Baghdad who were advising the Americans dismissed the idea as fanciful. “The word ‘caucus’ does not exist in Arabic,” one of the Iraqis told me.

I drove in on Highway 10, the main drag that ran into the center of the city, and jotted down the graffiti that appeared on the walls. “Anyone who helps the Americans in any way is a dirty traitor,” it said on a wall of the Falluja Primary School, “and that person is worth killing.”

As I pulled into the Falluja Youth Center to witness the caucus, I was surprised to find not a tiny gathering but hundreds of Iraqis, lawyers and doctors and army officers and engineers, pushing and squeezing to get inside. By 10 a.m. two hundred Iraqis had made their way into the auditorium. Many of them were dressed in their best clothes.

One of the first candidates to speak was Sabah Naji, who climbed up onstage and gave a modest address.

“If you believe that I am the better candidate, then I ask that you vote for me,” Naji said. “And if you think my opponent is the better man, vote for him.”

For a moment, I felt as if I were back in Miami, at the county commission that I’d covered once as a reporter. For a moment, I wondered about the fate of the country I was in.

After Naji’s opponent, Saidullah Mahdi, gave a similar speech, the chairman of the caucus, Muhanad Ismail, took the stage to make an unexpected announcement.

“An objection has been raised by someone in the audience that Mr. Naji was a high-ranking member of the Baath Party,” Ismail said. Naji, he said, had risen to the party rank of a shuba, which made him a senior member of the party and technically barred from holding any kind of government post in the new Iraq.

A murmur swept through the crowd. Ismail had more to say. “But I also have in my possession a Baath Party document listing the names of party members who were regarded as disloyal and unenthusiastic,” he said. “And Mr. Naji’s name is here on that list.” He held the paper up over his head.

Another murmur. A man stood up in the audience.

“And Mr. Naji was expelled from the Baath Party just before the war,” the man said. “I know that to be true.”

With that, Ismail, the presider, called for a vote. Each man in the room wrote down the name of his preferred candidate on a ballot, a piece of plain paper that carried the official seal of Anbar Province. One by one they rose and dropped their ballots into a metal box.

When the votes were tallied on the blackboard, Naji had bested Mahdi by a wide margin. Afterward, many of the lawyers and engineers said they had chosen Naji for his youth and energy, and that his ties to Saddam’s party didn’t matter so much.

“What’s the big deal?” Abdul Satar, one of the lawyers, told me afterwards in the lobby. “Just about everyone here was a member of the Baath Party. And anyway, they kicked him out.”

The lone unhappy man at the Falluja Youth Center was Ghazi Sami al-Abid, a rotund Sunni sheikh who had come dressed in a kafiya and a flowing white robe. Abid owned hundreds of acres and an ornate mansion on the Euphrates with a dock and two Jet Skis. Whenever he drove to his office in Baghdad, he wore expensive Western suits.

Abid had won one of the early rounds of voting and then lost in his bid for one of the council seats later in the day. And so it turned out that this powerful sheikh who had gotten wealthy under Saddam would not be sitting on the Anbar Provincial Council after all.

“I am a wealthy man, a rich man. I deserve to be elected,” Abid told me after the vote at a lunch in his house. “And then some little money changer comes along and beats me.”

Abid paused, and then smiled as if some revelation had come to him.

“I guess that’s American-style democracy, isn’t it?”

Two months later two SUVs carrying four American contractors drove into an ambush a few blocks from the Falluja Youth Center. The insurgents opened fire at close range on two Mitsubishi Pajeros, killing all four contractors. A crowd gathered, men with guns and without, fathers with children, and they dragged the corpses from the Pajeros, finally stringing up the blackened remains of two of them on the bridge that spanned the Euphrates. Television cameras captured the Iraqis cheering, some of them slapping the bodies with the bottoms of their shoes—in that part of the world a terrible insult. A few days later, American marines attacked and then retreated, handing Falluja to a group of gun-wielding Islamists who set up something called the Mujahideen Shura. Overnight, Falluja became its own little Islamic emirate, and a car-bomb factory to boot. The Americans waited seven months, then invaded Falluja and destroyed it.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to all those Iraqis who crowded into the Falluja Youth Center that winter day. Probably they fled or were killed, but I don’t know. All those lawyers, editors, army officers, politicians, police officers, filling out their ballots with their official Anbar stamps. All those hopeful little pieces of paper.

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