In Bloody Baghdad, A Strange Belief–We Planned Chaos

BAGHDAD-“This is not a place for the military,” Hadel Adnan, 43, said, her copper eyes suddenly freezing, hard and solid. “This is not a place for the resistance. No American convoys patrol.”

Soon Hadel’s eyes will melt again, and freeze again, and keep on doing so all through a long conversation, like a pair of trick ice cubes.

With words like these, it was clear, Hadel had made herself a little nest of self-delusion. Everybody in Iraq builds these, so as to prolong as long as possible the idea that no matter what happens in other places to other people, nothing-well, probably nothing-is going to happen to oneself.

It is a hot morning in the middle of June, and Hadel is sitting in the living room of her tidy house, which itself sits on a tidy side street in the tidy neighborhood of Harthia. Neither gleamingly rich nor grindingly poor, Harthia is one of those places where the sense of nothing ever happening is so palpable that the possibility of anything ever happening seems not to exist. But on May 31, Hadel’s nest, and Harthia’s, had been blown to bits. Shortly after 1 o’clock in the afternoon, a bone-shaking explosion sounded on Al Kindi Street, the main drag. Within minutes, the sky was smoke, the storefronts were trash heaps and several pieces of charred Mercedes-here the body, there the seats, way down there the engine-lay in the street, like an absurdist exhibit in a sculpture garden. A nice-sized patch of pavement had split into a crater, and the Iraqi police were going around with plastic bags for the collection of scattered human body parts.

“Look, the stomach of someone,” my friend Mohemen murmured, warning me not to put my foot wrong.

We were only here to look for a place for lunch, and the U.S. military was closing in and shooing everyone away, so we left.

A few days later, I went back to make a small protest. This was a protest against Iraq’s relentless way of turning crushing human tragedy into Muzak. Bombings, especially relatively modest ones like Harthia’s, have long since become a blur. A week or so before, a short walk down the street from the blast Mohemen and I had happened on, there had been the assassination of Ezzedine Salim, temporary president of the since-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. A day or two later, the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan there had been targeted with a blast of such intensity that the palm trees outside appeared to have been barbecued.

Actually, this was just a headquarters; all the political parties here have claimed plenty of extra buildings. Some days later, another P.U.K. headquarters was bombed, too.

Some bombings, though, are worse than others, and the death count is only one criterion. By that criterion, the recent blast at an Iraqi Army recruiting center, which killed more than 30 people and injured many others, was much worse than the one in Harthia, which reportedly killed two people. When a politician or a political party or a supposedly pro-occupation institution, such as the Iraqi Army, gets it, plenty of totally random people get it, too; and, of course, considering that most of those who “collaborate” in coalition-related endeavors are just Iraqis in need of work, “legitimate target” is not the phrase that springs to mind.

But hey, at least there was a target. Legitimate or not, a target at least gives a person the delusion of options: stay away from the American soldiers, accelerate past the party headquarters; if the prominent Iraqi politician offers you a ride, don’t take it.

In Harthia and places like it, no one knows exactly who did it or why they did it, and no one feels that there is any way to protect themselves.

On the other hand, everybody knows who’s to blame.

“We think it is rockets, because the land is open more than one and a half meters,” says Abu Ahmed, who owns what was a restaurant very near the Mercedes. Above the doorway to the restaurant there is a surreal, yet very real, tread mark from a flying tire.

This didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that the Mercedes-made crater was, to any objective eye, your average car-bomb crater. In fact, it looked just like the crater around the corner from my apartment. (That bombing, which took place toward the end of May, was another one that seemed mysteriously aimless; the only person it killed was the 11-year-old Iraqi boy who sold cigarettes on the corner. Some people took this as a warning to the foreigners living in nearby, relatively fortified hotels; or as a quixotic attempt on the Australian Embassy; but who knows?)

What matters is that Abu Ahmed truly believes that American helicopters circled low, surveyed the neighborhood and then purposely opened fire, shattering his business.

In a way, of course, Abu Ahmed is insulting the Americans. But at the same time, he is paying them an implacable compliment. In fact, if the Bush administration is looking for people who still think that they are brilliant, they should look here. No matter how much the U.S.-led coalition bumbles and stumbles, no matter how fatally or fantastically it screws up for the next decade, millions of Iraqis will still know, deep down, that America is a genius.

Almost no one here believes that the United States is ever just plain old stupid. Almost no one believes that America does anything by mistake, or as a result of good intentions carried out badly, or because a few rogue individuals chose to violate a generally sterling system. In many Iraqi eyes, there is no madness here that does not conceal a very deliberate American method. The West can clamor all it wants to the conclusion that the coalition went into Iraq embarrassingly half-cocked and plan-free; meanwhile, more and more Iraqis are becoming crystal clear on what the plan is.

“The Americans do not like security and stability in Iraq,” explained Abu Ahmed, owner of the shattered restaurant. “They will stay a long time in Iraq because we do not have security and stability.”

Right in the middle of this conversation, four U.S. troops wandered into view, and 23-year-old Lt. Jeremy Holman of Illinois sidled up to Abu Ahmed.

“It’s very warm today,” he said, in the expansive, telegraphic way that people use with kindergartners and foreigners. “You have nice shade.”

“I’m sorry I cannot offer you tea,” said Abu Ahmed, indicating the restaurant and bursting into a regretful but lovely smile.

“Thank you, my friend,” said Lieutenant Holman.

At least after the bombing there came a cleaning crew, which did a refreshingly prompt job of filling in the crater and sweeping away the debris.

“Their trucks were from the C.I.A.,” Hadel Adnan said. In her view, the trucks came to remove evidence of the rocket attack. The charred Mercedes, she claimed, was brought in later, for show.

Perhaps the prevalence of such perceptions in such neighborhoods will give a reason-apart from the freedom-of-the-press thing-for the American military to reassess its practice of not only closing streets after bombings, but keeping them closed and making the scenes difficult for anyone to document.

“They were photographing bodies,” a soldier explained when asked why some journalists’ credentials had been confiscated. At a bomb scene? Imagine!

A moment of context: Iraq has become a veritable carnage factory. There are so many ways in which to get murdered here right now, violent death in Iraq could use its own card catalog. One big category would be for American-related deaths. There are Iraqis killed purposely by Americans because they are, in fact, doing something wrong; Iraqis killed accidentally by Americans even though they are doing nothing wrong; Iraqis killed because they work for the Americans; Iraqis killed because they are mistakenly believed to be working for the Americans. There are Iraqis killed because they happen to be someplace where there are Americans, or where there would be Americans if the bombers had gotten the timing right.

An ever bigger category would be for Iraqis who die with no Americans to be seen, not even in the minds of the murderers. There are Iraqis being killed by other Iraqis because their religious radical is not the killers’ preferred religious radical (see Moktada al-Sadr, Mahdi Army; supposedly disarming, emphasis on “supposedly”). There are Iraqis being killed by other Iraqis who want their car. There are Iraqis being killed by other Iraqis because they have been kidnapped, and their families have failed to pay sufficient ransom with sufficient haste.

The biggest category of all would belong to Iraqis who are being killed for no apparent reason, or for one or more possible reasons which are not, in the logic of murder in most places, reasons at all.

Today, I walked into a house that I believed to be the house of a murder victim whose family, it was rumored, had received a message from the perpetrators to the effect that if they wanted the body back for burial, they would have to pay; in the other words, they were ransoming a corpse. There had been a mix-up, however, and this was the wrong family altogether-but as it happened, they were in mourning, too. The previous Friday, the brother of the lady of the house had had his head blasted off by the side of the road between Al Kaim and Falluja, and his body had been buried in a hole. The only reason he had been found reasonably quickly was because an entirely different family, in search of its own missing loved one, had found him and taken him, too late, to the hospital.

Now, while the dead man’s sister wailed uncontrollably in a corner, his uncle and nephew and friend, who asked that no names be printed, sat around debating what had done him in. There were several factors, and they were discussed sadly but calmly, as if the deceased had been both a smoker and a croissant addict who had finally keeled over from a heart attack. He had been an engineer, and engineers, as reconstruction types, can be marked men these days. He had worked for Al Iraqiya television, and therefore could have been construed as working with the Americans-even though, some time before, he had given a television interview in which he blamed the Americans for killing a colleague some time before (oops, there’s another death). Most ominously in terms of a possible civil war, he had been a Shia in a Sunni-indeed, Salafi and Wahhabi-area, and these days that is well known to be enough to get a fellow kidnapped or killed, and sometimes mutilated, too.

In any event, he had been a 45-year-old father of four who had been killed on his way home from work, and no one in the room believed that anyone with any power would ever do anything to find out who did it and why.

There is, however, no mystery whatsoever as to why the powers that be-i.e., the Americans-are not doing more to curtail the murder and mayhem. This is because, many Iraqis believe, the Americans are bankrolling it. And not just chaos-stirring murders like the car bomb in Harthia: high-profile, targeted killings of their friends.

“The Americans, the Jews and Saddam killed Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim because he was a strong leader,” Sheik Faeza al-Moussawi, a 35-year-old imam of some influence told me about the assassination of the former head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who was seen as a leading Shiite supporter of the U.S.-led coalition.

As an Hakim follower, the sheik despised the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. But contrary to the assumptions sometimes seemingly made up in the Hearts and Minds Department, this had absolutely no effect upon his ability to despise the Americans fighting Moktada as well-or are they?

The Americans, he believes, have Moktada on retainer to keep stirring up things so that the Americans can kill as many Shiites as possible. “The Iraqi people lose a lot of people,” he said of fighting such as that which occurred between American forces and Mr. al-Sadr’s militia in Najaf in May. “They die from this fighting, not the Americans.”

If you think the sheik is unusually given to conspiracy theory, trust me: The average Iraqi could make mincemeat of Oliver Stone.

Such were the thoughts already on many Iraqi brains when the May 31 blast struck Harthia and sent Hadel Adnan running out her door and down the block to Al Kindi Street. It is also the address of the grander house that her family has owned since 1966 and where her widowed mother, among others, still lived. The sky was black with smoke, several cars were bright with flames, and many bodies were strewn on the ground. But all Hadel could think of was getting to her mother and her niece, who were at home, only about one door over and one driveway-length back, it turned out, from where the explosion had gone off. In the end, they suffered only minor injuries, but the bombing was reported to have killed two Iraqis and injured 20 more.

As far as Hadel is concerned, if you believe those figures, there’s a soon-to-be-demolished prison she can sell you.

“On TV, they don’t tell the truth about how many people are dead,” Hadel said. “All the neighborhood, everyone says, ‘This house, they found a finger,’ ‘This house, they found a leg,’ ‘This house, they found a hand,’ ‘This house, they found the head.'”

Perhaps because there are white polka dots on her black head scarf and some kind of paisley print on her long abaya , Hadel projects both the qualities of standing out and blending in. Perhaps because her father was a prominent jurist, she is, during litanies like this one, both passionate and dispassionate. Her eyes remain ice throughout, and she waves around a pink tissue as if it is a rebel flag at a rally.

It is when she runs out of elements to enumerate that she falters, and her eyes melt, and she uses the tissue to mop up the tears that dribble out.

All they found of her brother, Mohammed, a 42-year-old car-rental agent who should have been at work at the time of the blast, was the torso. For all the hours Hadel was running around to the hospital to have her mother checked out, she had no idea he was dead.

Hearing such stories, conspiracy theories make sense. Such people are going through such agony, it is hard to imagine anyone speaking a coherent sentence, let alone drawing neat, straight lines from cause to effect.

Another neighbor, who had come to the hospital to be treated for his own injuries, told her about Mohammed. He said that he had seen her brother get hit, then take to the air-“flying,” she says in English, dropping that word gingerly into the flow of translation like a broken doll into the trash.

Then the eyes again turn hard and very cold.