Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Monday, May 30, 2005
Oh my.

Remember Muhsin Abdul Hameed? He’s the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party in Iraq- a Sunni political party that was basically the only blatantly Sunni party taking part in post-occupation politics in Iraq. For those who have forgotten, Abdul Hameed was chosen as one of the rotating presidents back in 2003. Mohsin was actually, er, Mr. February 2004, if you will.

The last couple of days, we’ve been hearing about raids and detentions in various areas. One of these areas is Amriya. We’ve been hearing about random detentions of ‘suspects’ who may be any male between the ages 15 – 65 and looting by Iraqi forces of houses. It’s like the first months after the occupation when the American forces were conducting raids.

We woke up this morning to the interesting news that Muhsin Abdul Hameed had also been detained! A member of the former Iraqi Governing Council, a rotating puppet president, and *The Sunni*. He is The Sunni they hold up to all Sunnis as an example of cooperation and collaboration. Well, he’s the religious Sunni. There is a tribal Sunni (supposedly to appease the Arab Sunni tribes) and that is Ghazi Al Yawir and there is the religious Sunni- Muhsin Abdul Hameed.

The Americans are saying Muhsin was “detained and interviewed”, which makes one think his car was gently pulled over and he was asked a few questions. What actually happened was that his house was raided early morning, doors broken down, windows shattered and he and his three sons had bags placed over their heads and were dragged away. They showed the house, and his wife, today on Arabiya and the house was a disaster. The cabinets were broken, tables overturned, books and papers scattered, etc. An outraged Muhsin was on tv a few minutes ago talking about how the troops pushed him to the floor and how he had an American boot on his neck for twenty minutes.

Talabani was seemingly irritated. He wondered why no one asked him about the arrest before it occurred- as if the he is personally consulted on every other raid and detention. The detention is disturbing. Now I am not personally fond of Muhsin Abdul Hameed- he looks somewhat like a dried potato, and he’s a Puppet. It is disturbing, though, because if this was really a mistake, then just imagine how many other ‘mistakes’ are being unfairly detained and possibly tortured in places like Abu Ghraib. Abdul Hameed is one of their own and even he wasn’t safe from a raid, humiliation and detention. He was out the same day, but other Iraqis don’t have the luxury of a huffy Talabani and outraged political party.

Was it meant to send a message to Sunnis? That’s what some people are saying. Many people believe it was meant to tell Sunnis, “None of you are safe- even the ones who work with us.” It’s just difficult to believe this is one big misunderstanding or mistake.

On the other hand, watching the situation unfold was somewhat like watching one of those annoying reality tv shows where they take someone off of a farm, for example, and put them in New York and then watch how they cope- what was it called? “Faking It”? How will Muhsin feel about raids and detentions now that he’s been on the other side of them?

Sunday, May 29, 2005
Shia Leaders...
In Baghdad there's talk of the latest "Operation Lightning". It hasn't yet been implemented in our area but we've been hearing about it. So far all we've seen are a few additional checkpoints and a disappearing mobile network. Baghdad is actually split into two large regions- Karkh (west Baghdad) and Rasafa (east Baghdad) with the Tigris River separating them. Karkh, according to this plan, is going to be split into 15 smaller areas or sub-districts and Rasafa into 7 sub-districts. There are also going to be 675 checkpoints and all of the entrances to Baghdad are going to be guarded.

We are a little puzzled why Karkh should be split into 15 sub-districts and Rasafa only seven. Karkh is actually smaller in area than Rasafa and less populated. On the other hand, Karkh contains the Green Zone- so that could be a reason. People are also anxious about the 675 check points. It's difficult enough right now getting around Baghdad, more check points are going to make things trickier. The plan includes 40,000 Iraqi security forces and that is making people a little bit uneasy. Iraqi National Guard are not pleasant or upstanding citizens- to have thousands of them scattered about Baghdad stopping cars and possibly harassing civilians is worrying. We're also very worried about the possibility of raids on homes.

Someone (thank you N.C.) emailed me Thomas L. Friedman's article in the New York Times 10 days ago about Quran desecration titled "Outrage and Silence".

In the article he talks about how people in the Muslim world went out and demonstrated against Quran desecration but are silent about the deaths of hundreds of Iraqis in the last few weeks due to bombings and suicide attacks.

In one paragraph he says,

"Yet these mass murders - this desecration and dismemberment of real Muslims by other Muslims - have not prompted a single protest march anywhere in the Muslim world. And I have not read of a single fatwa issued by any Muslim cleric outside Iraq condemning these indiscriminate mass murders of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds by these jihadist suicide bombers, many of whom, according to a Washington Post report, are coming from Saudi Arabia."

First of all- it's not only Kurds or Shia who are dying due to car bombs. When a car detonates in the middle of a soug or near a mosque, it does not seek out only Shia or Kurdish people amongst the multitude. Bombs do not discriminate between the young and the old, male and female or ethnicities and religious sects- no matter what your government tells you about how smart they are. Furthermore, they are going off everywhere-… not just in Shia or Kurdish provinces. They seem to be everywhere lately.

One thing I found particularly amusing about the article- and outrageous all at once-was in the following paragraph:

"Religiously, if you want to know how the Sunni Arab world views a Shiite's being elected leader of Iraq, for the first time ever, think about how whites in Alabama would have felt about a black governor's being installed there in 1920. Some Sunnis do not think Shiites are authentic Muslims, and they are indifferent to their brutalization."

Now, it is always amusing to see a Jewish American journalist speak in the name of Sunni Arabs. When Sunni Arabs, at this point, hesitate to speak in a representative way about other Sunni Arabs, it is nice to know Thomas L. Friedman feels he can sum up the feelings of the "Sunni Arab world" in so many words. His arrogance is exceptional.

It is outrageous because for many people, this isn't about Sunnis and Shia or Arabs and Kurds. It's about an occupation and about people feeling that they do not have real representation. We have a government that needs to hide behind kilometers of barbed wire and meters and meters of concrete- and it's not because they are Shia or Kurdish or Sunni Arab- it's because they blatantly supported, and continue to support, an occupation that has led to death and chaos.

The paragraph is contemptible because the idea of a "Shia leader" is not an utterly foreign one to Iraqis or other Arabs, no matter how novel Friedman tries to make it seem. How dare he compare it to having a black governor in Alabama in the 1920s? In 1958, after the July 14 Revolution which ended the Iraqi monarchy, the head of the Iraqi Sovereignty Council (which was equivalent to the position of president) was Mohammed Najib Al-Rubayi- a Shia from Kut. From 1958 - 1963, Abdul Karim Qassim, a Shia also from Kut in the south, was the Prime Minister of Iraq (i.e. the same position Jaffari is filling now). After Abdul Karim Qassim, in 1963, came yet another Shia by the name of Naji Talib as prime minster. Even during the last regime, there were two Shia prime ministers filling the position for several years- Sadoun Humadi and Mohammed Al-Zubaidi.

In other words, Sunni Arabs are not horrified at having a Shia leader (though we are very worried about the current Puppets' pro-Iran tendencies). Friedman seems to conveniently forget that while the New Iraq's president was a polygamous Arab Sunni- Ghazi Al-Yawir- the attacks were just as violent. Were it simply a matter of Sunnis vs. Shia or Arabs vs. Kurds, then Sunni Arabs would have turned out in droves to elect "Al Baqara al dhahika" ("the cow that laughs" or La Vache Qui Rit- it's an Iraqi joke) as Al-Yawir is known amongst Iraqis.

This sentence,

"Some Sunnis do not think Shiites are authentic Muslims, and they are indifferent to their brutalization."

...Is just stupid. Friedman is referring to Sunni extremists without actually saying that. But he doesn't add that some Shia extremists also feel the same way about Sunnis. I'm sure in the "Christian World" there are certain Catholics who feel that way about Protestants, etc. Iraqis have intermarried and mixed as Sunnis and Shia for centuries. Many of the larger Iraqi tribes are a complex and intricate weave of Sunnis and Shia. We don’t sit around pointing fingers at each other and trying to prove who is a Muslim and who isn't and who deserves compassion and who deserves brutalization.

Friedman says,

"If the Arab world, its media and its spiritual leaders, came out and forcefully and repeatedly condemned those who mount these suicide attacks, and if credible Sunnis are given their fair share in the Iraqi government, I am certain a lot of this suicide bombing would stop"

The Arab world's spiritual and media leaders have their hands tied right now. Friedman better hope Islamic spiritual leaders don't get involved in this mess because the first thing they'd have to do is remind the Islamic world that according to the Quran, the Islamic world may not be under the guardianship or command of non-Muslims- and that wouldn't reflect nicely on an American occupation of Iraq.

Friedman wonders why thousands upon thousands protested against the desecration of the Quran and why they do not demonstrate against terrorism in Iraq. The civilian bombings in Iraq are being done by certain extremists, fanatics or militias. What happened in Guantanamo with the Quran and what happens in places like Abu Ghraib is being done systematically by an army- an army that is fighting a war- a war being funded by the American people. That is what makes it outrageous to the Muslim world.

In other words, what happens in Iraq is terrorism, while what happens to Iraqis and Afghanis and people of other nationalities under American or British custody is simply "counter-insurgency" and "policy". It makes me naseous to think of how outraged the whole world was when those American POW were shown on Iraqi television at the beginning of the war- clean, safe and respectfully spoken to. Even we were upset with the incident and wondered why they had to be paraded in front of the world like that. We actually had the decency to feel sorry for them.

Friedman focuses on the Sunni Arab world in his article but he fails to mention that the biggest demonstrations were not in the Arab world- they happened in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also fails to mention that in Iraq, the largest demonstration against the desecration of the Quran was actually organized, and attended by, Shia.

Luckily for Iraqis, and in spite of Thomas Friedman, the majority of Sunnis and Shia just want to live in peace as Muslims- not as Sunnis and Shia.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005
The Dead and the Undead...
…She stood in the crowded room as her drove of minions stood around her...…A huddling mass trying to draw closer to her aura of evil. The lights flashed against her fangs as her cruel lips curled into a grimace. It was meant to be a smile but it wouldn't reach her cold, lifeless eyes… It was a leer- the leer of the undead before a feeding...

The above was not a scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer- it was just Condi Rice in Iraq a day ago. At home, we fondly refer to her as The Vampire. She's such a contrast to Bush- he simply looks stupid. She, on the other hand, looks utterly evil.

The last two weeks have been violent. The number of explosions in Baghdad alone is frightening. There have also been several assassinations- bodies being found here and there. It's somewhat disturbing to know that corpses are turning up in the most unexpected places. Many people will tell you it's not wise to eat river fish anymore because they have been nourished on the human remains being dumped into the river. That thought alone has given me more than one sleepless night. It is almost as if Baghdad has turned into a giant graveyard.

The latest corpses were those of some Sunni and Shia clerics- several of them well-known. People are being patient and there is a general consensus that these killings are being done to provoke civil war. Also worrisome is the fact that we are hearing of people being rounded up by security forces (Iraqi) and then being found dead days later- apparently when the new Iraqi government recently decided to reinstate the death penalty, they had something else in mind.

But back to the explosions. One of the larger blasts was in an area called Ma'moun, which is a middle class area located in west Baghdad. It’s a relatively calm residential area with shops that provide the basics and a bit more. It happened in the morning, as the shops were opening up for their daily business and it occurred right in front of a butchers shop. Immediately after, we heard that a man living in a house in front of the blast site was hauled off by the Americans because it was said that after the bomb went off, he sniped an Iraqi National Guardsman.

I didn’t think much about the story- nothing about it stood out: an explosion and a sniper- hardly an anomaly. The interesting news started circulating a couple of days later. People from the area claim that the man was taken away not because he shot anyone, but because he knew too much about the bomb. Rumor has it that he saw an American patrol passing through the area and pausing at the bomb site minutes before the explosion. Soon after they drove away, the bomb went off and chaos ensued. He ran out of his house screaming to the neighbors and bystanders that the Americans had either planted the bomb or seen the bomb and done nothing about it. He was promptly taken away.

The bombs are mysterious. Some of them explode in the midst of National Guard and near American troops or Iraqi Police and others explode near mosques, churches, and shops or in the middle of sougs. One thing that surprises us about the news reports of these bombs is that they are inevitably linked to suicide bombers. The reality is that some of these bombs are not suicide bombs- they are car bombs that are either being remotely detonated or maybe time bombs. All we know is that the techniques differ and apparently so do the intentions. Some will tell you they are resistance. Some say Chalabi and his thugs are responsible for a number of them. Others blame Iran and the SCIRI militia Badir.

In any case, they are terrifying. If you're close enough, the first sound is a that of an earsplitting blast and the sounds that follow are of a rain of glass, shrapnel and other sharp things. Then the wails begin- the shrill mechanical wails of an occasional ambulance combined with the wail of car alarms from neighboring vehicles… and finally the wail of people trying to sort out their dead and dying from the debris.

The day before yesterday, a bomb fell on Mustansiriya University- Khalid of Secrets in Baghdad blogs about it.

We've been watching the protests about the Newsweek article with interest. I’m not surprised at the turnout at these protests- the thousands of Muslims angry at the desecration of the Quran. What did surprise me was the collective shock that seems to have struck the Islamic world like a slap in the face. How is this shocking? It's terrible and disturbing in the extreme- but how is it shocking? After what happened in Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons how is this astonishing? American jailers in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown little respect for human life and dignity- why should they be expected to respect a holy book?

Juan Cole has some good links about the topic.

Now Newsweek have retracted the story- obviously under pressure from the White House. Is it true? Probably… We've seen enough blatant disregard and disrespect for Islam in Iraq the last two years to make this story sound very plausible. On a daily basis, mosques are raided, clerics are dragged away with bags over their heads… Several months ago the world witnessed the execution of an unarmed Iraqi prisoner inside a mosque. Is this latest so very surprising?

Detainees coming back after weeks or months in prison talk of being forced to eat pork, not being allowed to pray, being exposed to dogs, having Islam insulted and generally being treated like animals trapped in a small cage. At the end of the day, it's not about words or holy books or pork or dogs or any of that. It's about what these things symbolize on a personal level. It is infuriating to see objects that we hold sacred degraded and debased by foreigners who felt the need to travel thousands of kilometers to do this. That's not to say that all troops disrespect Islam- some of them seem to genuinely want to understand our beliefs. It does seem like the people in charge have decided to make degradation and humiliation a policy.

By doing such things, this war is taken to another level- it is no longer a war against terror or terrorists- it is, quite simply, a war against Islam and even secular Muslims are being forced to take sides.

Monday, May 02, 2005
Saved by the Carrots...
These last few days have been explosive- quite literally. It started about 4 days ago and it hasn't let up since. They say there were around 14 car bombs in Baghdad alone a couple of days ago- although we only heard 6 from our area. Cars are making me very nervous lately. All cars look suspicious- small ones and large ones. Old cars and new cars. Cars with drivers and cars parked in front of restaurants and shops. They all have a sinister look to them these days.

The worst day for us was the day before yesterday. We were sitting in the living room with an aunt and her 16-year-old son and listening patiently as she scolded the household for *still* having our rugs spread. In Iraq, people don't keep their carpeting all year round. We begin removing the carpeting around April and it doesn't come back until around October. We don't have wall to wall carpeting here like abroad. Instead, we have lovely rugs that we usually spread in the middle of the room. The best kinds are made in Iran, specifically in Tabriz or Kashan. They are often large, heavy and intricately designed. Tabriz and Kashan rugs are very expensive and few families actually have them any more. Most people who do have Tabriz rugs in Baghdad got them through an inheritance.

We have ordinary Persian rugs (which we suspect aren't really Persian at all). They aren't expensive or even particularly impressive, but they give the living room that Eastern look many Iraqi houses seem to have- no matter how Western the furniture is. The patterns and colors are repeated all over the rugs in a sort of symmetrical fashion. If you really focus on them though, you can often see a story being told by the flowers, geometrical shapes and sometimes birds or butterflies. When we were younger, E. and I would sit and stare at them, trying to 'read' the colors and designs- Having them on the ground is almost like having a woolly blog for the floor.

So my aunt sat there, telling us we should have had the rugs cleaned and packed away long ago- like the beginning of April. And she was right. The proper thing would be to give the rugs a good cleaning and roll them up for storage in their corner in the hallway upstairs, to stand tall and firm for almost 7 months, like sentinels of the second floor. The reason we hadn't gotten around to doing this yet was quite simple- the water situation in our area didn't allow for washing the rugs in April and so we had procrastinated the rug situation, until one week became two weeks and two weeks melted into three... and now we were in the first days of May and the rugs faced us almost disapprovingly on the floor.

Within 20 minutes, the aunt decided she was going to stay and help us remove said rugs the next day. We would go upstairs to clean the roof of the house very thoroughly. We would drag the rugs to the roof the next day and one by one, beat them thoroughly to get out the excess dust, then wipe down the larger ones with my aunts secret rug-cleaning mix and wash the smaller ones and set them out to dry on the hot roof.

Her son couldn't spend the night however, and he decided to return home the same day. It was around maybe 1 pm when he walked out the door, planning to walk the two kilometers home. He listened to my aunt as she gave him instructions about heating lunch for his father, studying, washing fruit before eating it, picking up carrots on the way home, watching out for suspicious cars and people and calling as soon as he walked through the door so she could relax. He shook his head in the affirmative, waved goodbye and walked out the gate towards the main street.

Three minutes later, an explosion rocked the house. The windows rattled momentarily and a door slammed somewhere upstairs. I was clutching a corner of the living room rug where I had pulled it back to assure my aunt that there were no bugs living under it.

"Car bomb." E. said grimly, running outside to see where it had come from. I looked at my aunt apprehensively and she sat, pale, her hands shaking as she adjusted the head scarf she wore, preparing to go outside.

"F. just went out the door..." she said, breathlessly referring to her son. I dropped the handful of carpeting and ran outside to follow E. My heart was beating wildly as I tried to decide the direction of the explosion. I sensed my aunt not far behind me.

"Do you see him?" She called out weakly. I was in the middle of the street by then and some of the neighbors were standing around outside.

"Where did it come from?" I called across the street to one of the neighborhood children.

"The main street." He answered back, pointing in the direction my cousin had gone.

"Did it come from the main street?" My aunt cried out from the gate.

"No." I lied, searching for E. "No- it came from the other side." I was trying to decide whether I should go ahead and run out to the main street where it seemed more and more people were gathering, when I saw E. rounding the corner, an arm casually draped around my cousin who seemed to be talking excitedly. I turned to smile encouragingly at my aunt who was sagging with relief at the gate.

"He's fine." She said. "He's fine."

"I was near the explosion!" F. said excitedly as he neared the house. My aunt grabbed him by the shoulders and began inspecting him- his face, his neck, his arms.

"I'm fine mother..." he shrugged her off as she began a long prayer of thanks interspersed with irrational scolding about how he should be more careful.

"Did anyone get hurt?" I asked E., dreading the answer. E. nodded and held up three fingers.

"I think three people were killed and there are some waiting for the cars to take them to the hospital."

Back in the house, E. and I decided he'd go back and see if he could help. We gathered up some gauze, medical tape, antiseptic and a couple of bottles of cold water. I turned back to my cousin after E. had left. He was excited and tense, eyes wide with disbelief. His voice was shaking slightly as he spoke and his lower lip trembled.

"I was just going to cross the street but I remembered I should buy the carrots" He spoke rapidly, "So I stopped by that guy who sells vegetables and just as I was buying them- a big BOOM and a car exploded and the one next to it began to burn... If I hadn't stopped for the carrots..." The cousin began waving his arms around in the air and I leaned back to avoid one in the face.

My aunt gasped, stopping in the living room, "The carrots saved you!" She cried out, holding a hand to her heart. My cousin looked at her incredulously and the color slowly began to return to his face. "Carrots." He murmured, throwing himself down on the sofa and grabbing one of the cushions, "Carrots saved me."

E. came home an hour later, tired and disheveled. Two people had died- the third would probably survive- but at least a dozen others were wounded. Every time I look at my cousin, I wonder- gratefully- how it was that we were so lucky.

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