The Rummy Club

BAGHDAD-Nobody in Iraq gives a tinker’s damn whether or not the U.S. Secretary of Defense gets fired.

That is, nobody that I’ve come across in the attempt to gauge the depth and diameter of the crater that has been blown into the Iraqi mind by those images out of Abu Ghraib.

So far, this attempt could hardly be more modest; just a couple of days’ worth of asking random folks what they think of psychotic torture. That said, it hasn’t been hard to elicit opinions from a decent cross-section of Iraqis: Sunni, Shia and secular; possessed of much, some or no money or education; and varied in their respective dispositions toward the American occupation before they saw those photos. And it hasn’t taken long for everyone’s responses to achieve the smooth consistency of well-stirred batter.

For purposes of comparing the outrage here with the outrage back home, perhaps the most striking of the Iraqi themes is that of total indifference as to whether Donald Rumsfeld is kept on, pushed out, or melted down and drizzled over porcini mushrooms.

Not that there is much to bolster Mr. Rumsfeld or the administration he serves in the uniformly stated reason why: “It’s the same if Rumsfeld will go,” shrugged Mohammed Hussain Bakr Al-Hassani, 63, a caretaker of the gold-domed shrine of Khadim, the martyr for whom the heavily Shia Kadhimiya district is named. A kindly-looking fellow, he wore a fez-shaped hat that gave him the incongruous look, no pun intended, of a Shriner. “The person who will replace Rumsfeld will be the same as him,” he said.

Once again, a crisis has prompted the quickening of one drumbeat in the corridors of Washington and a very different drumbeat in the streets of Baghdad. Once again, the dissonance between the two is the dissonance between those who want a terrible problem solved and those who want it spun; between those who care passionately how Iraq is, and those who care primarily how it looks-and not, of course, how it looks to Iraqis.

Mr. Rumsfeld may or may not end up being purged. But if he is, any sigh of relief that is breathed will be breathed in one capital only. Americans, as is our habit when nationally mortified, will count a great price as paid and move on. Iraqis will stay right where they are.

It has long since become a matter of policy here that whenever the real, long-term interests of the Iraqi people conflict with the perceived immediate impulses of any undecided voter in any swing state, the latter shall prevail. Therefore, one mustn’t delude oneself that what ordinary Iraqis say about Abu Ghraib is going to influence what official Americans do about Abu Ghraib. But just as it can be fun to fill out a fake ballot at an Oscar party after the real votes have been cast, it might be satisfying to have some counterpoints ready to say back to the Sony flat-screen when Mr. Rumsfeld next goes on Meet the Press .

As far as Iraqis are concerned, you can bet: Nobody regards the now-infamous acts at Abu Ghraib as a disgraceful minority tainting a moral majority.

“I think that the soldiers have been ordered by their officers to do so,” said Mohammed Jamhoor, 29, standing at the clothing stall he owns in the Kadhimiya market. “We have seen this during Saddam’s time-prisoners tortured on orders.”

Nobody believes that what has been exposed thus far about the torture scenario was the extent of it. “Probably what’s hidden is much worse,” said Abdul Razzak, 46, a tire-bellied baker in the Aadhimiya quarter, who had served as a colonel in the Iraqi Army until the fall of Baghdad. For many months now, heavily Sunni Aadhimiya has been viewed, not without reason, as a home base of anti-coalition resistance. (But as the fat ex-colonel vituperated, my mind flashed back to an afternoon right after the war when my hotel had no running water and I had popped into a salon just a few blocks away. The woman who washed and dried my hair refused to take any money because she was so grateful to George Bush and Tony Blair.)

Conversely, everybody thought that the world’s leading democracy had been exposed, once and for all, as the world’s leading hypocrite.

“Our orders are not to hit or torture anybody, but the Americans don’t apply this to themselves,” said Mudafer Qassim, a 21-year-old Iraqi policeman.

“For the mass graves, it was not Saddam Hussein who dug them personally,” said Ali Hassan Mohammed, a 55-year-old shopkeeper. “It was his followers who did that, and the Americans want to judge him.”

Unsurprisingly, the offense that everyone deemed most offensive was that of stripping the prisoners and humiliating them sexually. “The thing that most struck me was that the female soldier would catch the penis of a man and stimulate it,” observed Mohammed, the surprisingly frank old man at the shrine of Khadim. “That’s only done by animals …. “

Perhaps even worse, some view this sort of thing as par for the American cultural course. “That’s the way they live in America, having sexual abuses and homosexuals,” said Mujtaba Sultan, 32, who sells Islamic abayas for women at the market in Khadimiya.

People did differ on what punishment would fit such crimes.

“At least execution,” said Ahmed Hassan Nator, 22, who was sitting at the wheel of a blue-and-white police S.U.V. in the upscale Mansor district, across the street from a fancy-schmancy furniture store but right beneath a billboard featuring the looming visage of Moktada al-Sadr, channeler of the urban poor. “The most would be to hang them and cut them piece by piece.”

“Hang them or torture them in the same way that our prisoners were tortured,” suggested Harbia Abid Gigood, a brown-toothed woman who was leaning out her front door in an alleyway in Kadhimiya.

“We want to get them to Iraqi courts and judge them, because they did their crimes on Iraqi land,” said Adib the baker, who was sounding rather moderate for someone who had just finished saying that he favors the slaughter of the entire U.S. Army. “An Iraqi judge in an Iraqi court, without any American influence.”

On the question of whether any action could truly right this wrong, however, everyone came back to general agreement. “Even if the Iraqis will own all the states of America, this will not compensate for what happened,” said Mohammed.

Granted, the fact that an Iraqi says something does not make it true. On the contrary, give many Iraqis a dust particle of truth and they will not only build you a palace of conspiracy theory, but fill it with alternative conspiracy theories and spiral staircases of guilt by association and shelves of imaginary documents. This is, after all, the same place that buzzes regularly with tales of Marines giving children joints disguised as candy, or using special X-ray goggles to leer at women’s lingerie. In some Iraqi minds, the Abu Ghraib scandal is following along the well-trod path from partial reality to wild imaginings-although these imaginings are a little more wild than usual.

“A female American soldier came to him and asked him to fuck her,” Mohammed Sa’adi Numan, 30, told me of a detained Muslim cleric. Standing in the warm afternoon sun outside his candy store in Aadhimiya, Mohammed was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved T-shirt that read “Walt Mart Tip Off Fest Elk City.” So as not to offend neighborhood standards of modesty, I was wearing a black head scarf, a full-length black abaya over a long denim skirt, and thick black nylons with stout black sandals. Between what I was hearing and what I was wearing, I suddenly felt like a nun working a 900 number. Mohammed, however, continued comfortably: “He pushed her away, and she brought in guys to help her. She wore this artificial penis and she fucked him with it.”

Mohammed, it turned out, had not heard the story firsthand, nor did he know the name of the cleric. But this did nothing to dampen his faith in the truth of the tale. “This is an actual thing that happened,” he insisted.

Given such tendencies, the temptation is great to dismiss Abu Ghraib as the awful exception that proves the admirable rule: to focus on the need not to tar the many good soldiers with the sins of the few. Even as I write this, the images of the many hard-working, spotlessly decent soldiers of my acquaintance are swooping around in my head, like ghosts insistent on remembrance. And they should be remembered. But fairness to soldiers is not the main fairness.

The world-famous catastrophe of Abu Ghraib has something important in common with every little domestic political gaffe: It would not resonate unless it rang true.

The fact is, there is a lot about this Abu Ghraib stuff that does ring true. One hopes that in its particulars, this scandal will turn out to be as aberrant as it is abhorrent. But as a piece of the wider puzzle of what this occupation is like for many Iraqis, it does fit right in.

Day after day in Iraq, in countless instances great and small, America absolutely comes off as a country-club democrat, convinced that freedom, democracy and human rights are the exclusive entitlement of those with full membership in the United States, and that everybody else is lucky to be a busboy. The outrages at Abu Ghraib may constitute the most vividly revolting example of this, but other examples abound. When the coalition authorities shut down al-Hawza , the newspaper published by and for the followers of Moktada al-Sadr, the story made waves because Mr. al-Sadr did. But it was hardly the first publication to feel the controlling hand of the occupation. At a press conference held by a human-rights organization, I met a 34-year-old Iraqi journalist named Via Al-Khaledi, who writes for a newspaper called Baghdad . For several months last year, Via had published an English-language newspaper of her own called Spotlight . On two occasions, she was visited by U.S. military personnel and warned to curb the publication of certain types of articles. Partly due to such harassment, the paper folded.

Then there are the human-dignity, human-tragedy kinds of ironies that don’t approach the scale or horror of Abu Ghraib, but do a great job of wrecking people’s lives and wringing their hearts. Every reporter here has a notebook full of such stories; half-stories, really, because they are so common that one almost never has the time to nail the details down. Here’s a few of mine:

A couple of weeks ago, while I was visiting an International Red Crescent camp for refugees from Falluja, a great moan went up from the side of the road. A white pickup truck was slowly pulling away from the camp carrying a black-draped coffin, and beside it were marching a few rows of angry men, pumping their fists and chanting, “America is the enemy of God!”

An hour earlier, the loudspeaker of the nearest mosque had blared with accusation: Coalition forces had sprayed a local school with random gunfire, killing three “martyrs.” I assumed that it had been a typically depressing episode of very young men being shot because soldiers had taken them, correctly or not, as fighters targeting them. But when I went to the school, the story turned out to be very different. There had been no random gunfire, and only one person had died-but he was, by definition, an innocent. He was a 6-year-old boy who had been out playing with two of his brothers when the Americans came to detonate a bomb that had been planted. According to his mother, it had been an accident; the soldiers had warned everyone to get away, but her boy either didn’t listen or straggled or wanted to see what happened. Whether or not there was any fault to be found, this woman had had quite a day: one son killed, another son injured, a third son who saw the whole thing.

Another typical anecdote: A man was sitting in his taxicab, in broad daylight, waiting to make a perfectly legal right-hand turn. An American tank ran right over his car, miraculously not crushing him but totally crushing his car. As of a few months later, when I visited him, he had gotten no apology, let alone compensation.

And I have just heard about a well-off Baghdad woman who has never been accused of anything, but who left her home during the war to go to Jordan. Months later, she came back to find that the U.S. military had fortified her house and taken up residence in it. The house then became a target for terrorists, who proceeded to hit it. Through no fault of her own, this woman has no home.

Some people get help, some people don’t. The aggregate effect, though, is that the Americans simply do not take such problems seriously. The aggregate perception is that nobody cares what the Iraqis go through as long as Iraqis are the only ones going through it. And nobody believes what the Iraqis say if it’s only Iraqis who are saying it.

None of this, however, approaches the most shocking response I have received from any Iraqi with regard to Abu Ghraib.

“I haven’t heard about it,” said Mujtaba, the hejab-seller, when we first asked for his reaction.

“Don’t you watch television?” my translator, Shamil Aziz, asked in astonishment.

“Yes, I watch television,” Mujtaba retorted. “But the electricity is off all the time.”

The Rummy Club