After the Fall

The excellent Nir Rosen reports from Iraq. Where the complicit media finds an increasingly stable democracy, Rosen sees more clearly, and finds a torture state in which sect and political allegiance count for more than mere citizenship.

 Six years to the day since the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad, the war that has dominated American politics for half a decade and upturned an entire regional order is being not-so-gently forced from centre stage. Iraq specialists at the National Security Council in Washington have hung signs on their office doors declaring that theirs is now “the good war”; the Obama administration is eager to declare victory in Iraq and shift its attention to the long-neglected conflict in Afghanistan.

It is difficult to predict what will occur as the Americans reduce their troop numbers, but few Iraqis feel optimistic, despite the recent reduction in violence: whatever comes next, it is unlikely that Iraq will recover quickly from six years of chaos and bloodshed.

Iraq’s economy remains in tatters. The central government has bought a provisional peace by placing hundreds of thousands of military-age men on its payroll. But the drop in oil prices has forced the state to slash its budget at a time when it is almost the only source of employment.

The oil sector, still Iraq’s most significant industry, is plagued by a rotting infrastructure. Pipelines in Basra are being kept together by “duct tape and spit”, according to one concerned American official. “They can burst at any minute.” Most Iraqis today might say much the same about their country. They are grateful for the temporary respite from extreme violence, but certain it will not take much to reignite the flames.

I have spent most of the past six years inside Iraq, but when I returned to Baghdad last month the city had unquestionably changed. The random violence that once took anyone and everyone as its target has subsided and conspicuous displays of wealth, unthinkable a year ago, are everywhere. Baghdad’s roads are full of Hummer H3s, 4x4s and other expensive and large vehicles that cost tens of thousands of dollars in cash. New restaurants have opened, expensive eateries that cater to a new elite – or one that has been in hiding. The girls at Baghdad’s universities are dressing more fashionably than ever before, while young men have adopted the trendy styles common in Lebanon.

In years past one would never have witnessed such outward displays of affluence: anyone with money was a target for kidnappers; women in immodest dress risked being killed while men sporting western fashions were asking to be beaten. Today men congregate in newly opened bars, a sign, at least, that vigilante extremists have stopped blowing them up. Playgrounds are full of children, young men play football in new fields and people are no longer afraid to leave their houses.

But none of it feels completely real. One night I strolled along Abu Nawas street with my friend Hussein. Couples walked by the river, children played outside. Nothing special, it would seem: merely the return of normality and stability to a place that had its share of both before the war – but it was hard to accept after years of terror and occupation. Hussein told me his children play games where they blow each other up with imaginary improvised explosive devices. He gestured dismissively toward a security patrol moving through a nearby park. “All this is a lie,” he sneered. “If it was safe they wouldn’t need a security patrol.” Al Qa’eda and the other Sunni militias were just lying dormant, he said, as was the Mahdi Army. I was sceptical and told him so, and he stopped a couple walking past us in the opposite direction. “Excuse me,” he said, “my friend is a journalist. Do you feel safe now?” The young man did not hesitate when he said “no” and kept on walking.

As the American occupation nears its putative end, Iraq today feels like it is occupied by Iraqis. Roads are no longer blocked by aggressive American soldiers; now they are blocked by aggressive Iraqi security forces in military, police or civilian attire, still shouting and waving their weapons, hardly less intimidating than their American predecessors. The ubiquitous checkpoints in Baghdad, today manned by Iraqi forces, have brought a measure of security to the wartorn capital – but the price has been the creation of the world’s most heavily militarised society.

The overt sectarianism of the security forces has been tempered, and they are no longer engaged in the indiscriminate slaughter of Sunnis – but their Shiite identity is unquestionable. No Sunni passes through a checkpoint without fear; they know they can still be disappeared. One afternoon, as I was driving through Baghdad with an Iraqi friend in a car that belonged to another friend, we were stopped at an Iraqi National Police checkpoint. The policeman asked for the car’s registration.

When my friend told him that it was not in his name, the policeman became hostile and demanded my friend’s identification. But when he read the name out loud – Hassanein, an obviously Shiite name – his demeanour became sunny, and he waved us on our way. When I visited government buildings the insides were often festooned with posters of Imam Hussein, a clear sign that they were dominated by Shiites, and these posters are also visible in Iraqi police stations. On the concrete barriers outside the Baghdad assembly there is a large mural of Shiite pilgrims marching to Karbala. These examples create a sense among Sunnis that the state and the security forces are Shiite, that they do not belong.

The Americans rate the Iraqi National Police “the most improved security force”, according to an American diplomat in Baghdad. “It used to be a death squad,” he said. “Now the worst officers are fired or transferred to where they can do no harm.”

But according to Iraqis, the sectarianism has merely receded beneath the surface. I spoke to a captain in the INP in Baghdad’s Dora district, a Shiite from Shaab who was married to a Sunni. He had been an officer in the military before the war, where he was inculcated with a non-sectarian Iraqi nationalism. He refused to arrest Sunnis for ransom and insisted on targeting the Mahdi Army, which earned him the wrath of his superior officers. After refusing to arrest Sunnis without warrants, he was transferred north to Mosul in late 2008, a much more dangerous assignment. There, he said, he was framed for stealing cars – his accuser was a Mahdi Army commander in South Baghdad – and, just a few months ago, taken to a secret prison on the second floor of the Ministry of Interior’s Internal Affairs Committee building. Twenty seven people, he told me, were held in a small cell, no more than three metres by two metres; they slept standing up. All the other men were Sunni. The torture began at midnight.

“I was handcuffed and blindfolded and beaten like in movies,” he told me. His kidneys were beaten and he urinated blood. He was placed under a cold shower for many hours. A policeman named Gafar – who knew the captain from Dora and had worked with the Mahdi Army there – took particular pleasure in abusing him. “When they beat me up,” the captain said, “they asked me, ‘why do you hate the Mahdi Army?’”

His fellow prisoners, the captain said, had disappeared without their families’ knowledge. After he had been imprisoned for 22 days, they demanded a ransom of $20,000 to release him. His family negotiated the price to $7,000, and his brother-in-law handed it to a police captain outside a restaurant on Palestine Street in Baghdad. He resigned after he was released. “I served my country,” he told me, but now he felt betrayed.

A friend of mine, a Shiite officer in the Iraqi Army, was threatened by Mahdi Army commanders for refusing to collaborate with them; he had led a campaign against them in the area he patrolled. “The Mahdi Army is finished but supporters of the Mahdi Army are still in the government,” he told me. “Sectarianism is still there.” An officer targeting Sunni militias would be supported by his superiors, but one targeting Shiite militants would be disciplined or worse, he said. One of the Mahdi Army leaders he had arrested has since escaped and is said to be working as a body guard for a general in the ministry of interior. The bodyguards for the minister of interior himself, it is widely said, are Sadr loyalists.

“The sectarian system the Americans brought is still in place,” an experienced Iraqi NGO official said. “Now sectarianism is more in politics and less with the population, but you can activate the sectarian violence whenever you want.” He reminded me that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki did not fight the Shiite militias until 2008. “Now he is in an alliance with the Sadrists in a few governorates. The militias will regain power when the Americans leave.”

One afternoon in March, I was driving with two friends on Baghdad’s Saadun Street. A black sedan tried to cut us off, but my friend behind the wheel sped up to prevent him from passing, aggressively blocking the way. Angry glares and gestures ensued, until we were stopped in traffic at a checkpoint just before Tahrir Circle. The driver of the sedan emerged and blocked our path. He was a tall wide man with thick shoulders and a big belly and a moustache, the Iraqi security look. He had a shaved head and a pistol on his waist. He demanded that we get out of the car. One of my friends, a 30-year-old Iraqi Army officer wearing civilian clothes, with a pistol tucked under his shirt, got out of the car and warned the sedan driver that he was an officer. But where was he an officer? the sedan driver demanded to know. “I’m with a very dangerous ministry,” my friend said. “You don’t want to know.”

Each of them demanded to see the other’s identification, but neither would produce it, afraid to discover the other man was more powerful. They stood, shouting at one another, as other armed men at the checkpoint looked on. After about 10 tense minutes, they embraced and kissed; it turned out they knew one another. This was fortunate, because the sedan driver was in the office of the prime minister, and he easily trumped a mere army officer. The stand-off, my friend remarked later, was straight out of the Saddam era, when myriad security agencies competed for influence and authority.

It is possible now to talk of a “post-American Iraq”, but it is not without its troubling signs. Maliki has consolidated power by positioning himself as an Arab nationalist, and his popularity rises after every confrontation with the Kurds. He has placed under his command a force of elite soldiers loyal to the prime minister’s office and capable of operating without American logistical support. “It will be like the Republican Guard,” one American official told me. “He has an extra-legal counterterrorism force that answers only to him.” When they operate, I was told, the ministries of defence and interior are not informed; like the American special forces units that trained them, they are essentially above the law.

Everybody I spoke to in March expected the worst after the impending American withdrawal. “We are all afraid if Americans go, who will fill the vacuum?” my army officer friend asked. “Maybe the Iranians. The Iraqi army is strong but Shiites have power in the government and know they will take over Iraq. Sunnis want to overthrow the government and have Sunnis in power. Nobody can do anything now because the Americans are here.”

The Americans, of course, have not yet departed. An Iraqi who works with the American military in Baghdad told me that special forces units, who can still obtain clearance to operate outside the framework of the Status of Forces Agreement between the Iraqi and American governments, had recently killed more than 20 innocent Iraqis in his district. The captain of the local US Army unit was furious, he said – stuck cleaning up the mess, handing out forms for damage claim cards, trying to mend relationships wrecked by his fellow soldiers. Shots to the head and the chest, my friend complained, remained common after the slightest provocation. But conventional American units, so far as I could see, are just as free to ignore the restrictions introduced by the Status of Forces Agreement: who, after all, is going to do anything about it?

Travelling around Iraq six years “after the fall”, as Iraqis say, one encounters a deeply wounded people. None were spared from the violence. “We were in a civil war,” a doctor named Ali told me, but like many Iraqis, he remained convinced that the violence had been imported from outside. Today, he said, violence on the street was only between political parties; it was less random. “There is a lot of money,” he said, “and everybody wants his share.”

In 2005 he obtained a licence to carry a gun; doctors had been prime targets for kidnappers, and after a friend of his was kidnapped, he went everywhere with one pistol on his ankle and one on his waist. Walking to the ministry of health, he told me, he wore dirty clothes and kept his hair uncombed, to avoid attracting attention. But he has not carried the pistols for at least a year, he said, since the violence began to diminish. According to the Baghdad morgue, there are still 10 to 15 politically motivated murders each day in Baghdad alone, but this is a tremendous drop from the hundreds that arrived daily in 2006, when Iraqi women had to search through disfigured corpses to find their husbands and sons.

Despite the end of the worst violence, Ali told me, he has still not recovered. “During the past few years we faced death many times,” he said. “We became dumb. We don’t have feelings any more.”

Throughout the American occupation, metrics to determine “progress” in Iraq have been endlessly contested. One very senior United Nations official in Iraq told me that the best standard available was the resettlement of refugees. “The refugees,” he said, “are the best ones to determine the temperature on the ground. If they return, the situation is normalising. But if they don’t, there is a reason. They have returned, but not in substantial numbers.”

The numbers are not precise, but about 25,000 refugees from Iraq have now returned to the country (though not necessarily to their original homes). The UN estimates that 195,000 internally displaced persons have returned to their homes (other estimates range as high as 300,000). But even this, the UN official said, was a stark contrast to other crises he had witnessed. “In Kosovo we had two million people return,” he said. “We were delighted but overwhelmed.” The results of the provincial elections held this January, he said, made the situation clear: “we saw that the city of Baghdad had changed its colour. There was a cleansing.”

On the outskirts of Shaab, a majority-Shiite district in East Baghdad, about 2,000 families have built makeshift homes in a muddy wasteland that technically belongs to the Sunni religious endowment. It is now known as the Sadrein (meaning two Sadrs) neighbourhood. Mounds of garbage were everywhere, and pools of sewage emitted a strong stench; it was difficult to breathe.

One family I met was from the majority-Sunni Adhamiya district. They fled to Sadrein when “the events” started, but they had not registered as IDPs and received no services here. The Sadrists, they said, used to bring gas and provide services to the area, at least before the Iraqi army’s offensive against the Sadrists in 2008. Nearby I found a family of squatters, living in a concrete bunker to which they had fled two years earlier: they had “bought” it from another set of squatters and had no desire to return to the home they once owned – besides, they said, they no longer had proof of ownership. Most of the people now living here expressed no desire to return to their former neighbourhoods: some are peasants with no homes to return to; others had relatives killed and now fear for their lives.

Back in Shaab I visited the Sunni Qiba mosque, which was first attacked by Shiite militias in 2004; another night that year I was nearly killed by a drunk militiaman during another such attack on the mosque. Eight months ago, however, the mosque was reopened with the backing of a local Shiite dignitary, and a few dozen Sunnis now attend Friday prayers there. The mosque’s Shiekh fled to the north and has not returned, and his house nearby is now occupied by Shiites from Diyala. Someone has hung a poster of Muqtada al Sadr’s father on the gate of the mosque, and the caretakers are still scared to take it down.


The Shurufi mosque in Shaab, where I have often attended Friday prayers, has long been controlled by Sadrists. When I went to hear the Friday sermon, I found that the mosque itself had been shut down; weapons had been discovered inside, I was told. Hundreds of mostly young men sat on mats and prayer rugs on the street outside the building, listening to the young Sheikh Abdel Karim. Iraqi National Police were posted around the men, watching lazily.

I sat in the back with a friend who is employed by a bank but also works for the social affairs wing of the Sadrist movement. The Americans were still arresting people, he told me, and his brother was killed by the Americans as he stood outside his shop during the battles of the previous May.

For the Sadrists, Friday prayers have always been an essential means of communication, a way to defy Saddam and, later, the American occupation. It is common among the Sadrists for random men in the congregation to stand and shout slogans and this time one man stood and bellowed: “We will keep the Friday prayer that Muhammad Sadr started regardless of what America and Israel or Britain say!”

The sermon itself was a litany of complaints. It started with a religious discussion, and then Sheikh Abdel Karim asked: “Is the religious message only for the afterlife or for life itself?” It was for both, he answered and turned to the situation in Iraq today. He addressed the Islamist political parties. “You took power in the name of Islam but did you work according to Islam?” The economy was collapsing, he said, unemployment was high, and Iraq had no agriculture or industry and depended only on oil. “They talked about security reasons,” he said. “Now security is improving and nothing has happened yet. We haven’t seen any difference. People are poor and we don’t know why.” He complained about inflation, money laundering, immorality, lack of food, lack of housing and corruption.

After prayers ended a man took me to his neighbour’s home, which American troops had raided the night before. The door had been blown off with explosives. All the glass in the doors and windows had been broken. The furniture was overturned, closets emptied, items gratuitously broken. Five brothers who lived there were arrested. Their relatives complained that the Americans came with a Sudanese translator and an Iraqi informer who wore a mask, and took the family’s gold and cash, their mobile phones and their computer’s hard drive. The Americans often searched homes in the area, I was told, but not like this.


In Fallujah, about 70 kilometres west of Baghdad, I met refugees who had fled from Shiite militias in the capital. Fallujah is still sealed off, and it is not easy for outsiders to enter the city. Iraqi police stopped us at the outskirts, where we requested permission to venture inside. “Every party has its own security apparatus,” one policeman complained to me as we waited. “We could work 100 per cent if there were no political parties.” Inside the city I visited the local council, where I was told that at least 7,000 displaced families had come to Fallujah since March 2006. About half had since returned home – some to other parts of Anbar province and some back to Baghdad.

At an abandoned construction site, I found six Sunni families squatting inside an unfinished concrete shell. Old banners served as doors to makeshift rooms, whose walls were just sheets. Saud Jassim had come from a Shiite area in the south of Baghdad. His brothers, he said, had been kidnapped in 2006 at a fake checkpoint; one was still in jail and the other was simply missing. He works as a truck driver and cannot afford to rent a place for the six members of his family.

In a decrepit apartment building nearby, where chickens roamed on the balconies, I found other Sunni families from Baghdad’s Shiite areas. One woman told me that after militiamen came to try to kill her husband, her family fled here; they do not intend to return to Baghdad, because she fears for her life. Another woman, Hamad, was from Abu Ghraib in west Baghdad. She blamed the Mahdi Army for displacing her family. Her cousin had just been killed in a suicide attack in Abu Ghraib that targeted a reconciliation meeting, and she didn’t plan on returning. A Shiite family lives for free in the house she owns in Abu Ghraib, but she hopes to sell it. Not all the Shiites were bad, she insisted on telling me, just a few.

Fadhil abu Mustafa runs a charity organisation in Fallujah that supports orphans and provides vocation training. Like almost every resident of Fallujah, he was displaced in 2004 when the Americans destroyed much of the city. He fled to Baghdad, but when he returned he found Americans occupying his house; he spent four years living in other homes before reclaiming his own. The children he works with in Iraq, he told me, “are psychologically damaged from war and seeing dead bodies on the street. The smiles have disappeared from their faces.”

Thirty minutes away, the former resort at Lake Habaniya is now mostly abandoned. Internally displaced Iraqis live in trailers on a dirt lot. Farid Younis, a Sunni from the Jihad district of Baghdad, tells me that he left the capital for Fallujah two years ago after receiving threats and that the Fallujah council sent him here, to Habaniya, because he couldn’t afford to pay rent in the city.

One of his neighbours, named Mahmud Majid Mahmud, fled another Shiite neighbourhood in Baghdad, where he had lived with his wife and five children. In 2006 he received a letter condemning Sunnis and threatening to kill him. After he left, he said, the Mahdi Army began to use his house to conduct executions. I asked him about returning to Baghdad now that the worst of the violence has ended. “I don’t want to go back there,” he told me, “a place I was expelled from. I don’t want it.”
Nir Rosen is a Fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security. He is finishing a book about the civil war in Iraq.

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