Baghdad Whines as Islam Bridles in a Freed Iraq

BAGDHAD, IRAQ, April 21-At the mosque, the war was all about Islam.

“I want to say that we hate America,” said Ahid Alah, a 39-year-old mother of five who had turned up with the throng at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Adhmya quarter of Baghdad and expressly elbowed her way to an American journalist. “We are without weapons, but in spite of that they come and enter our country and kill us.”

The war had blown a great hole in the clock tower, the sight of which was making people weep. Abu Hanifa is a Sunni mosque, but it had been announced that at midday prayers on Friday, April 19, a celebrated Iraqi imam, Ahmed Al Kebisi, would come to make a call for unity between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Long before 1 p.m., when the address was scheduled to begin, the scene was being set. Close to the gates of the mosque, great banners stenciled in Arabic and the occasional camera-conscious English phrase were being unfurled and hung, or taken up by the faithful:

“No Sunni, No Shia, all are Islam.”

“Unity of Islam.”

“America Take Your Weapons and Go.”

“No no for America.”

The women’s section inside had long since been claimed by men, and so the women were gathering to hear the imam speak through loudspeakers from a square across the street. So, too, had many men, who were prostrating themselves barefoot on prayer mats on the warm pavement, as if completely glassed in from the fumes in the air and the fury of traffic that produced it.

The youngest of Ms. Alah’s children, a 4-month-old girl who had a tiny pink face and a pink gingham ruffle ringing her tiny bottom, lay deep in sleep on her mother’s shoulder.

“When you see a U.S. Marine,” I asked the mother, “what goes through your mind?”

“I cross the street and ask God to take America out of Iraq,” she replied. “Saddam is better than the U.S. He is our president.”

“There are some people who hate the occupation so much,” I ventured, “that they think that it is O.K. even to kill a Marine, with a gun or a grenade or a car bomb.”

Ms. Alah did not hesitate.

“I would kill any Marines if I had the chance,” she said, as if she were talking about hopping off to Paris for the weekend. “But since I have children, I can’t.”

It wasn’t as if one felt the need to search for a new fragment in the vast and vastly varied rubble of Iraqi reaction to the American presence here, but Ms. Alah offered one. There are those Iraqis who openly despise the whole business; who stand outside the media-packed Palestine Hotel waving placards urging the instant end of the American occupation (and no one characterizes the present presence as anything else). There are those who positively insist upon their gratitude; even accounting, as one must, for the long history here of praising authority as a means of survival, these people are not to be discounted. (Provided with electricity, telephone service and the means to make some kind of living before their good will is betrayed, no question-but not discounted.) By far most numerous are those who watch and wait, and look over their shoulders for any lingering shadow of Saddam even as they peer into the pitch-black mystery of the future.

“I expected more joy over the regime being gone,” a pleasingly tough-minded European consultant to a humanitarian organization told me. He has lived in Iraq off and on for over a decade-long enough to know where to find ice-cold beer and a generator in this land of flashlights and warm Pepsi, and how to hold off on grand pronouncements or predictions of any kind. “There’s absolutely no jubilation …. Bottom line, [the Iraqi elites] think there is going to be a civil war and the Americans are not going to stick around.” Ms. Alah represented yet another shard of the population: those who smolder, but prefer to cross the street and pray in silence.

Later, the imam’s address and the march that followed it would be portrayed by some of the Western media as rabidly anti-American. At times, it looked and sounded that way. It did not, however, feel it. While anger was certainly present and accounted for, it was, at its most intense, anger of a highly specific and wholly understandable kind. It was anger about innocents killed and wounded, homes destroyed, jobs suspended, public order torched, services halted. The more ideologically based the anger, the less heat it gave off.

Even loosely translated, the imam’s address amounted to a pretty standard litany of the Arab anti’s.

Anti-Israel: “The only winner in this war was the Zionists.”

Anti-America: “All the people know who made Saddam enter Iran, enter Kuwait. For the Americans, you supplied him with the weapons to fight in Iran and Kuwait.”

Anti-foreigner: “Many Iraqi people tried to get rid of the regime, but the foreigners foiled these attempts …. “

Deeply though the anti’s ran through the crowd, the pro’s ran deeper.

Pro-Islamic solidarity: “Don’t be Sunni, don’t be Shia, be Islam.”

In a hint at the Islamist empowerment that the Western invasion may very well (if very ironically) bring about, pro-imam: “The government must return to the imams in every point.”

And most poignantly, pro-miracle: “Ibrahim, the prophet, they put him in the fire and God saved him. God asked the fire to be cold just to save Ibrahim. So the imam asks God to save the country.”

I was hearing all this through my translator, a lovely, soft-spoken, 25-year-old woman who worked until the war as a secretary in a Turkish-owned company that may or may not be reopening its office in Baghdad. At this point, her eyeglasses misted up and she tried but failed to keep a small sob inside her. “He asks God to save Iraq.”

A sentence or two later, the Marines showed up.

Even through the eyes of an American who has often marveled at the manners, fortitude and idealism of the Marines here, the sight of men in combat fatigues with weapons at a religious service, albeit a politically charged one, that was full of grieving Iraqis, was a very basic kind of terrible.

A number of men in the congregation went-not very aggressively-to confront the Marines. The women stayed behind, but sounded eager to give the military men a much harder time.

“This is a clean place …. How can they enter our place? … This place is for God.” My translator was taking rapid hits of verbal fire from the circle of women around her and then firing them at me. “They say that they are like a devil.”

At the abandoned food-distribution center in downtown Baghdad, the war was all about ghee.

Ghee, as described in the writing on the large, antifreeze-sized cans of it being looted as I happened by, is a vegetable oil suitable for cooking. As treated by the men, women and children high-tailing it to waiting cars, it is silver and gold put together. Also being heisted with similar desire were cases of Dielac infant formula; enormous burlap sacks of chickpeas, sugar and flour; huge, thick bars of Ghar Al-Ameen, a green soap in an incongruously dainty green-leaf-labeled box (I considered stealing some of that.) This inventory constituted one of the two least fathomable categories of looting that one comes across here. These include the looting of stuff that is so basic that people’s desperation for it breaks the heart, or so crummy that people’s desperation for it boggles the mind. Into the former category would fall the small boy, bouncing on the back of a large truck, gleefully clinging to a stolen septic tank. Into the second would fall the sight of an elderly woman, fully covered, struggling in defiance of death across an extremely busy highway with an extremely ugly metal office desk.

Weapons are always present at the scenes of these crimes, and shootings sometimes occur, particularly in the case of banks. But the daylight was so broad and the felony so frank that I felt perfectly safe to stand there with a notebook and pester selected felons: “Excuse me, sir, do you speak English?”

No one could, but everyone was so sweetly apologetic about their inability to communicate their means, motives and opportunities for committing crimes while they committed them, I might as well have caught them in the act of selling lemonade. For several minutes, in fact, I observed and took notes as a man piled a huge amount of plunder on a plastic pallet, suitable for use with a forklift, and then proceeded to try to make a land barge of it by tying two long plastic strings to the grid and pulling.

After a tug or two, the strings broke, but were still long enough, he figured, and tied them on again and pulled them again, with great patience. He tugged again, they broke again, he repeated the exercise several more times before giving up and, without undue haste, piling the sacks one by one on his shoulders and making several trips, like everyone else.

It isn’t that the means, motives and opportunities for such a crime are hard to grasp: unguarded food warehouse plus chronically hungry people equals theft. The whys and wherefores of the Iraqis’ trashing their own museums and libraries are harder to grasp-so hard, in fact, that the Iraqis themselves have come up with an explanation that hints at complications in other areas. The explanation is that it isn’t Iraqis who are trashing anything at all; unless they are Iraqis who are the low-income, high-birth-rate, often-Shia kind, who are not held to be Iraqis. Instead, it’s outsiders-perhaps Kuwaitis exacting revenge, or infiltrators trained by the U.S. in Bulgaria, or the Marines themselves, who are not infrequently accused of doing the thieving, or of opening the doors of precious places and waving the thieves in. (In some quarters, the Marines are also rumored to be giving children candy that contains whiskey and cigarettes that contain marijuana.) Whatever the particulars, the general theory seems to be that the U.S. has encouraged looting in order to make the Iraqis look like criminals, and the Americans, when they step in to quell it, like heroes.

When, a good half hour later, Pfc. Kyle Cowley, 26, arrived on the scene, he was not greeted as a hero-except, undoubtedly, by the excruciatingly bony donkey who, in the absence of American military intervention, would have been obliged to pull the enormous haul to which he was strapped somehow out of the mud in which he was stuck.

Otherwise, Private Cowley was not greeted as much of a villain, either. He was greeted more like a really spineless substitute teacher.

He confronted two looters: the one with the donkey, and one who had loaded up a large truck. At some distance, (“Run! Run!”) but they seemed unfazed.

“Take it out! Take it out!” he commanded a looter on a truck, who-with a moxie one had to admire-tried several stalling tactics, such as indicating that the items were too heavy to carry back and negotiating, by hand gestures, to keep certain items, such as the soap, provided he returned the rest.

“If you are strong enough to steal it, you are strong enough to put it back,” Private Cowley said. “Now put it all inside the fucking building.”

Fascinatingly, while the man with the truck was being watched, the man with the donkey made not the slightest move to unload his booty, and closely eyed the otherwise-engaged Marine as he held onto his donkey’s tether, as if he was going to make a trot for it. I am sure that he eventually gave in, but the last I saw him, he was still standing.

“They know we can’t do anything but fire into the air,” explained Lt. Keolagh Stokes, 29.

At the military checkpoint near the Al-Rasheed Hotel, where Al Haddad, 47, hopped out of a black Mercedes, flashing a smile and a U.S. passport, the war was all about love.

“Hey, guys,” said Mr. Haddad, sidling up to the rings of barbed wire as if it were a wine bar. His accent was half-Iraqi, half-hillbilly, on account of his having lived in Iraq until the age of 15, at which point he moved to Tennessee.

“You guys are just doing a wonderful job,” he gushed to the Army soldiers on duty, to the palpable nausea of a British photographer within earshot. “You need anything? If I had some Starbucks coffee, I would bring you some.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Haddad turned out to be a general contractor with aspirations to build outpatient clinics in the wealthier quarters of the new Baghdad. Quite surprisingly, he also turned out to be an incurable romantic-so incurable that he told the soldiers his story.

In 1999, he had brought his mother over to the U.S. for medical care, and then brought her home to Iraq. During the month that he stayed in Iraq, he found a “wonderful girl,” and they decided to get married. Alas, the brother of his heart’s desire was an official in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service, and feared that he might lose his job, if not his life, if his sister were to marry an American. Thus, the marriage was forbidden unless Mr. Haddad renounced his American citizenship, moved to Iraq and remained there for at least a year, only after which he would obtain an Iraqi passport. He refused and returned to the U.S., but kept in constant touch with his fiancée, to the tune of $3,000 a month in telephone bills. (“But she’s worth more than that,” he said.) Three years passed, and no way to unite was found.

Then, with war looming, Mr. Haddad headed for Iraq. Unable to enter legally, he got himself smuggled into northern Iraq and paid a taxi driver $250 to take him from the border to Baghdad amid the bombing. (“I said, ‘If my girl is going to die, I am going to die with her.’”) Still alive upon arrival in Baghdad, he found that his fiancée was, too-but her brother refused to let him take her away, even temporarily, for safety; war, schmar, she had a reputation to think about. But Mr. Haddad was undeterred. (“You can execute me,” he told his would-be brother-in-law. “I am going to sit in front of your mother’s house until you let me take her.”) Sure enough, as the bombing continued, he sat for hours on the sidewalk in front of his fiancée’s house, hoping to force her family into handing her over. Success eluded him, but a compromise did not: The family promised that as soon as Saddam was finished, they would let him marry her, provided that he went away until the war was over. Agreeing to this, Mr. Haddad drove to Syria amid more bombing, and then on to Amman, Jordan. The next day, Baghdad fell. (“I went to the bus terminal trying to get a bus to see my girl, but nobody would take me. I stayed in the bus terminal for three days.”) Finally, Mr. Haddad caught a ride back to Baghdad. This time, he triumphed. “I have no objection, and I have no reason to object,” his future brother-in-law told him.

On Thursday, April 24, Mr. Haddad gets the girl.