By Baghdad Burning
29 March, 2006
late last night switching between Iraqi channels (the half dozen or
so I sometimes try to watch). It’s a late-night tradition for
me when there’s electricity- to see what the Iraqi channels are
showing. Generally speaking, there still isn’t a truly ‘neutral’
Iraqi channel. The most popular ones are backed and funded by the different
political parties currently vying for power. This became particularly
apparent during the period directly before the elections.
I was trying to decide between
a report on bird flu on one channel, a montage of bits and pieces from
various latmiyas on another channel and an Egyptian soap opera on a
third channel. I paused on the Sharqiya channel which many Iraqis consider
to be a reasonably toned channel (and which during the elections showed
its support for Allawi in particular). I was reading the little scrolling
news headlines on the bottom of the page. The usual- mortar fire on
an area in Baghdad, an American soldier killed here, another one wounded
there… 12 Iraqi corpses found in an area in Baghdad, etc. Suddenly,
one of them caught my attention and I sat up straight on the sofa, wondering
if I had read it correctly.
E. was sitting at the other
end of the living room, taking apart a radio he later wouldn’t
be able to put back together. I called him over with the words, “Come
here and read this- I’m sure I misunderstood…” He
stood in front of the television and watched the words about corpses
and Americans and puppets scroll by and when the news item I was watching
for appeared, I jumped up and pointed. E. and I read it in silence and
E. looked as confused as I was feeling.
The line said:
“The Ministry of Defense
requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or
police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces
working in that area.”
That’s how messed up
the country is at this point.
We switched to another channel,
the “Baghdad” channel (allied with Muhsin Abdul Hameed and
his group) and they had the same news item, but instead of the general
“coalition forces” they had “American coalition forces”.
We checked two other channels. Iraqiya (pro-Da’awa) didn’t
mention it and Forat (pro-SCIRI) also didn’t have it on their
We discussed it today as
it was repeated on another channel.
“So what does it mean?”
My cousin’s wife asked as we sat gathered at lunch.
“It means if they come
at night and want to raid the house, we don’t have to let them
in.” I answered.
exactly asking your permission,” E. pointed out. “They break
the door down and take people away- or have you forgotten?”
“Well according to
the Ministry of Defense, we can shoot at them, right? It’s trespassing-they
can be considered burglars or abductors…” I replied.
The cousin shook his head,
“If your family is inside the house- you’re not going to
shoot at them. They come in groups, remember? They come armed and in
large groups- shooting at them or resisting them would endanger people
inside of the house.”
“Besides that, when
they first attack, how can you be sure they DON’T have Americans
with them?” E. asked.
We sat drinking tea, mulling
over the possibilities. It confirmed what has been obvious to Iraqis
since the beginning- the Iraqi security forces are actually militias
allied to religious and political parties.
But it also brings to light
other worrisome issues. The situation is so bad on the security front
that the top two ministries in charge of protecting Iraqi civilians
cannot trust each other. The Ministry of Defense can’t even trust
its own personnel, unless they are “accompanied by American coalition
It really is difficult to
understand what is happening lately. We hear about talks between Americans
and Iran over security in Iraq, and then American ambassador in Iraq
accuses Iran of funding militias inside of the country. Today there
are claims that Americans killed between 20 to 30 men from Sadr’s
militia in an attack on a husseiniya yesterday. The Americans are claiming
that responsibility for the attack should be placed on Iraqi security
forces (the same security forces they are constantly commending).
All of this directly contradicts
claims by Bush and other American politicians that Iraqi troops and
security forces are in control of the situation. Or maybe they are in
control- just not in a good way.
They’ve been finding
corpses all over Baghdad for weeks now- and it’s always the same:
holes drilled in the head, multiple shots or strangulation, like the
victims were hung. Execution, militia style. Many of the people were
taken from their homes by security forces- police or special army brigades…
Some of them were rounded up from mosques.
A few days ago we went to pick up one of my female cousins from college.
Her college happens to be quite close to the local morgue. E., our cousin
L., and I all sat in the car which, due to traffic, we parked slightly
further away from the college to wait for our other cousin. I looked
over at the commotion near the morgue.
There were dozens of people-
mostly men- standing around in a bleak group. Some of them smoked cigarettes,
others leaned on cars or pick-up trucks... Their expressions varied-
grief, horror, resignation. On some faces, there was an anxious look
of combined dread and anticipation. It’s a very specific look,
one you will find only outside the Baghdad morgue. The eyes are wide
and bloodshot, as if searching for something, the brow is furrowed,
the jaw is set and the mouth is a thin frown. It’s a look that
tells you they are walking into the morgue, where the bodies lay in
rows, and that they pray they do not find what they are looking for.
The cousin sighed heavily
and told us to open a couple of windows and lock the doors- he was going
to check the morgue. A month before, his wife’s uncle had been
taken away from a mosque during prayer- they’ve yet to find him.
Every two days, someone from the family goes to the morgue to see if
his body was brought in. “Pray I don’t find him… or
rather... I just- we hate the uncertainty.” My cousin sighed heavily
and got out of the car. I said a silent prayer as he crossed the street
and disappeared into the crowd.
E. and I waited patiently
for H., who was still inside the college and for L. who was in the morgue.
The minutes stretched and E. and I sat silently- smalltalk seeming almost
blasphemous under the circumstances. L. came out first. I watched him
tensely and found myself chewing away at my lower lip, “Did he
find him? Inshalla he didn’t find him…” I said to
no one in particular. As he got closer to the car, he shook his head.
His face was immobile and grim, but behind the grim expression, we could
see relief, “He’s not there. Hamdulilah [Thank God].”
E. and I repeated the words in unison.
WE all looked back at the
morgue. Most of the cars had simple, narrow wooden coffins on top of
them, in anticipation of the son or daughter or brother. One frenzied
woman in a black abaya was struggling to make her way inside, two relatives
holding her back. A third man was reaching up to untie the coffin tied
to the top of their car.
“See that woman- they
found her son. I saw them identifying him. A bullet to the head.”
The woman continued to struggle, her legs suddenly buckling under her,
her wails filling the afternoon, and although it was surprisingly warm
that day, I pulled at my sleeves, trying to cover my suddenly cold fingers.
We continued to watch the
various scenes of grief, anger, frustration and every once in a while,
an almost tangible relief as someone left the morgue having not found
what they dreaded most to find- eyes watery from the smell, the step
slightly lighter than when they went in, having been given a temporary
reprieve from the worry of claiming a loved one from the morgue…