New York Times
October 29, 2006
Iraq And Americans: One Land, Two Worlds
By Sabrina Tavernise
BAGHDAD--ABU HUSSEIN is a 31-year-old Iraqi who works on an American military base. He used to commute. But last year his life collapsed and now he lives at work.
His story is familiar. He quickly moved his family out of Iraq after his children’s doctor and a neighbor, both Shiites, were killed in their Baghdad neighborhood on the same day. His family was denied residency in Jordan, so he moved them back to Iraq, but to a southern city that had no jobs.
Now he sleeps on a cot in the base. He works day and night for two months at a stretch. He counts himself lucky. “The base is the safest place in all of Baghdad,” he said.
Last week, an intense debate was taking place in the United States about how long American troops would have to stay in Iraq to keep security. But in the view of many Iraqis, that is something Americans have never been able to offer. And the longer they stay, the less confidence Iraqis have that the Americans will be able to do so. That distrust has hardened over three and a half years, adding ever more distance between two worlds: That of the American soldiers who are trying to do a job here, and that of the Iraqis and the grim realities that they must live with and the Americans try to navigate.
Part of the problem is that the Americans cannot see for themselves how bad things get when they are not around.
No one knows this better than Iraqi workers on bases. Like stowaways from another world, they adopt a kind of American identity. They take names like Joe and Ozzy. They learn how to swear and talk American slang.
These Iraqis know all too well what life is like outside. Abu Hussein tried for years to get them to protect Iraqis coming in and out of the base by shielding the civilian parking lot to hide the license plates from the eyes of Iraqis who hate those who work for Americans. Blast walls were erected only recently. “Everybody knows I’m going to leave from the gate,” Abu Hussein said, his face tight with worry. “I have no weapon. I am isolated.”
An American soldier, on the other hand, “is in a Humvee with armor and weapons.”
Indeed, the divide is so profound that an American private had to dress in full battle armor this month to walk 20 paces outside the gate to an Iraqi employee parking lot in order to pick up a book.
When Americans move through Iraq, they do so like a giant ship cutting through a thick and treacherous sea. They move slowly, displacing the harsh reality on both sides, carving out a trough of safety around them. But after they pass, reality closes back in, in all its sucking, swirling fury.
That reality is terrifying because much of Iraq is a place without rules or laws, in which armed gangs, sometimes dressed as police officers, can come into any house and do exactly as they please.
This broad challenge for the Americans — making security last past the moment the Humvee on patrol rolls away from the house — could be seen last week in even the smallest ways in Ur, a sliver of residential blocks just north of Sadr City, the impoverished Shiite district where unruly militias are strong.
The Americans began sweeping in late in August, going house to house looking for weapons. It had been more than a year since they had patrolled Ur, and residents were surprised to see them.
The neighborhood was mostly middle class and heavily Shiite, but while the Americans were gone its northeast corner had become the site of brutal executions: Authorities found 90 bodies there in the heat of August, most of them victims of Shiite death squads that had driven into the area from Sadr City.
“They killed openly, they did not hide,” said a worker in eastern Ur who said he witnessed as many as 40 daytime executions, over several months, near a shop where he works. An Iraqi Army checkpoint was less than a mile away.
After the sweeps, fewer bodies were found, but the hard part — keeping the area clear of killings — had only just begun.
A deep fear had settled in the neighborhood’s northeastern edge, the area closest to the militia stronghold.
At dusk on a recent Sunday, Sgt. Andrew Pokora stood in a courtyard with a nervous Shiite woman. Her husband had spoken to American soldiers before and they had found the conversation useful. It was the third time Americans had come to the house in recent weeks.
“What do you need from him?” asked the wife, her voice tense. “Every day Americans are coming here. The neighbors are asking why.”
The neighbors were suspicious because the family had moved only recently from a hard-line Sunni neighborhood, Ameriya, from which Shiites were being driven out. They had not yet proved to their neighbors that they could be trusted, even though a sticker portraying a Shiite cleric was stuck to their battered white door.
Outside that door spread a vast expanse of dirt fields and garbage where gangs of men who like the cleric move. They call themselves the army of the Mahdi, a Shiite saint, and are known as brutal killers.
“Danger for us, for me, for my husband!” the woman told the Americans, standing firm as other family members wandered out into the small darkening courtyard. “They will say we are your client.”
Sergeant Pokora, a bright, young soldier from Connecticut, relented. He wrote down the man’s telephone number, thinking it best to call the husband later.
Even in safer areas, engaging Iraqis on the topic of their lives is difficult. Earlier that afternoon, the sergeant had sunk into a spongy couch in the living room of a housewife in Ur, trying to gain her confidence. “Do you feel safe when you see the police?” he asked, through a teenage interpreter.
She replied in a quiet voice, nodding slightly. Three tiny children with saucer eyes stared.
“She says she feels happy when she sees them,” a translator told him.
“Ask her how she feels when American troops come through her neighborhood.”
Another phrase in Arabic.
“Happy,” the translator said.
The sergeant smiled and squinted in mock skepticism.
“Tell her to be honest,” he said. “It’s Ramadan.”
And he didn’t give up. He urged her to come to an American base if she had a tip. He said they would pay for it.
The Iraqi and American worlds in Iraq were not always quite so separate. In 2003, Iraqis lined up at the gate of the Rustimiya base waiting their turn to ask for jobs. Now the road is empty, with discarded plastic bags swirling in the wind.
American soldiers in northern Baghdad went to a public swimming pool shortly after the invasion in 2003. The former head of the Olympic Committee, Ahmed al-Hijiya, tried to organize a soccer game between an American military unit and a semi-professional Iraqi team earlier this year, but requirements for blast walls torpedoed the suggestion. In July, Mr. Hijiya was kidnapped from his office in central Baghdad. He and 23 other victims, 20 of them guards, are still missing, according to the Olympic Committee’s office manager.
Today, the approach to the base is empty and ominous: A two-story watch tower peers down at anyone seeking entry, the guards shouting barely intelligible words in English. Guns are pointed. Nerves are keyed up.
Earlier this month, four teenagers who had worked as cleaners in Rustamiya were killed by gunmen who followed them to their homes in Nahariya, a suburb near the base, a worker who knew them said. A translator was killed the same week.
On a recent Friday morning, an Iraqi man wearing glasses stood alone near the highway outside the base, staring at approaching cars, as if he was remembering license plates.