Our Man in Al-Asad Sends...
An Iraqi Tale
The police commander sat behind his large desk, stained a dark mahogany and covered with the symbols of office – a small Iraqi flag, a large brass nameplate, a telephone, memo tray and a lifelike statue of a pouncing cougar. A small, thin man, he held himself with the air of a man with responsibilities, a man expected to lead his men and a man comfortable in his skin. He wore his beret with the elan of a French paratrooper, and I mean that in a smart, dapper way. In his determination to fight terrorism and crime, and in the way he held his cigarette, he reminded me of Inspector Vimes.
Speaking through a translator produces a fluid two-stage form of conversation, with each side speaking in paragraphs, not individual comments. I look at the police officer and speak normally, yet I pause at the end of every sentence to await the translator who repeats it in Arabic. The first couple sentences provide background and explain context and I only actually ask a question in my final phrase. You can't just come out and ask a question most times, as the linguistic conventions behind words and phrases are too different – it invariably leads to misunderstandings. Despite how this sounds, in practice it sometimes produces a rapid, almost lyrical conversation.
In his matter of fact tone of voice he explained that only three years ago his city was a wasteland, virtually abandoned by its citizens and completely abandoned by Iraqi security forces. He himself had fled to Baghdad, which was practically as bad. Foreign fighters and local zealots had, as he put it, driven out the residents "by denying them their tribal freedoms." The al-Qaida groups broke satellite dishes, beat women who ventured into the streets and randomly executed some to instil fear in the others.
The Sahwah (the "awakening"), and the extra 5-Brigade surge by us, brought an end to that terror. In a lot of ways it is a prime example of a "Tipping Point", as once the Iraqi Sunni's turned on al-Qaeda and the foreigners, the Islamic State of Iraq terror network in Anbar collapsed virtually overnight. Sure, it took longer in Ramadi and Fallujah, where cells had to be
dug out of neighborhoods, but they and their collaborators were killed or driven off pretty quickly. The policemen says many are still around though, especially the collaborators. And many of them are protected by powerful friends. Still, if they get out of hand, he says, "We will use the hammer on them, it is what people respect." Mayberry, this place is not.
A few days later I am in a room listening to a group of Iraqi's who have come to our Iraqi Security Force compound for help. They fill the room up with tobacco smoke as they talk, which wears on our clean American lungs, but it does have the advantage of thinning the cloud of flies overhead.
X is an old man from a city in northern Iraq. After 35-years in the trade he owns a welding company. He's been to Egypt and the Gulf States but likes home. It is where he grew up. He wears traditional clothing and sandals. It is cooler in the summer he says.
A family friend is an Iraqi police officer in the same town. Y is younger, but has the weathered face of a man who spends most of his life outside. He wears fashionable dark slacks, a clean white shirt and a black tie.
Z is a smiling young man, in his twenties. He wears an Adidas track suit and sandals. His feet are dusty. He seems bemused, like someone just told a bad joke or he's listening to something only he can hear.
All three smoke constantly. They have brown skin and thick black hair. They also carry ghosts. All three have that look in the eyes, a look of sadness, of pain and of loss. I suspect it will never go away.
Two of X's sons joined the police. In 2005-06, before the Sawah - when the Sunni tribes tired of both al-Qaida's brutality and its' hypocrisy – the Iraqi Police were called traitors or worse, for working for the apostate Shi'ia government and, perhaps still worse at that moment, siding with the infidel Americans. Both his sons were kidnapped by al-Qaida, horribly tortured and beheaded. He blames Americans for what happened, for working too closely with the police and staining them as "Crusader infidels." He says this matter of factly, without rancor or even much bitterness. We offer sympathies in the uncomfortable silence, what else can you say?
Y's father was an Imam, a kind man who walked to the mosque every day and taught his son how to live properly. In 2006 he spoke against violence and the insurgency. An al-Qaida killer (or "executor") shot him in the street and then sawed his head off with a knife.
In 2007, Z served in a very dangerous city alongside American advisors. He was forced to wear a mask every day to hide his identity. But still people knew. In a tribal society everyone knows everyone, you can tell what province, city, town, village, neighborhood, even street someone is from by the way they walk, their mannerisms and especially their voice. One day, at his police station, he received a box. He opened it. Inside was the bloody head of his youngest son, sent to him by al-Qaida. The only thing he remembers from that day is that the American Army Captain with him could not stop crying.
All three demand justice. Who can blame them?
The Iraqi police show me jihadi videos, of captured fellow policemen – dazed, hands bound and terrified – confessing to working for the apostate Shi'ia led government and then they are dragged outside and have their throats cut in a dusty trash strewn alley. The blood is bright in the sun.
They demand justice. Who can blame them?
They tell me many killers captured by the "Ameriki" were sent to Camp Bucca, the giant camp prison for Sunni's in southern Iraq, and spent a couple of years there before being set free in 2008-09. The Iraqi's say "Bucca was not really a prison, it was too soft" and that "the terrorists got off too easy." I turn to an American next to me and say "Tell that to the ACLU" and we laugh. In a way, it also says – from an Iraqi perspective – that we're still too soft. Given all the heart ache, spilled ink and ruined careers from Abu Ghraib, I imagine most Americans (and Europeans) would find the idea that the Bush Administration was "too soft" hard to digest.
Welcome to life without our kind of justice, i.e. the justice of enforceable legal codes. Makes me thankful to be an American.
They say the same murderers have been set free now that the Americans are leaving and are walking the streets, returning to their old ways. Corrupt judges let them go when they are captured again. X says he would kill the murderer of his sons, but cannot afford to buy himself out of jail. We sit in silence, the cigarette smoke pooling thick above our heads, a mirror to the storm clouds outside.