In recent centuries Iraq has seen itself traded from the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire in a deal that led to an ocean of oil for the West. With boundaries settled by a League of Nations mandate in 1920, Iraq gained its independence from Britain in 1932 and was ruled by kings until the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, which happens to be the only time I was in the Middle East until this past July, a detail whose usefulness I'll try to make clear presently. There followed a series of brutal coups until the Baath Party emerged, leading in due time to Saddam Hussein's ascendancy in 1979. Moreso than his predecessors, Saddam maintained himself through what has been described as the exemplary use of violence. According to the historian Charles Tripp, Saddam "reinforced certain tendencies in the history of Iraq, building up a powerful apparatus that brooks no opposition and provides scarcely any space for political activity other than on terms set by him." Just before I left for Iraq, the UN's chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, explained Saddam's weakness to me: "He saw himself as the emperor of Mesopotamia, but unlike the Roman emperors who always kept one slave nearby to whisper to them that they were mortal, Saddam forgot to have that particular slave." Charles Tripp concludes that once Saddam is run off into history, "the contest for control of the narrative of the Iraqi state will continue, but in these circumstances there is a strong possibility that existing privileges will be entrenched and Iraqis will have good reason to fear subjection once more."
"Of course, Saddam Hussein's men tortured and imprisoned indiscriminately, that is true," said Memdi Salih, a former journalist who was my first interpreter in Baghdad. But there was a hesitancy in his tone, as well as in his use of the word "men" instead of personalizing the acts to Saddam himself as Saddam's more fervent enemies do, that pointed to Salih's own complex history. Many of the educated elite in Baghdad are tainted, if one is looking for purity, by some association with Baathists. Salih himself, a furrow-browed, thoughtful man, was in the party because, he said, "You had to be to do anything at all. We were all Baath Party members." This has rendered him unemployable by the returned exiles who Americans have put in charge of certain fields. "The new communications czar won't let any of us be hired," Salih said, "because he lived abroad and hires only exiles, who aren't really welcome by most of the public."
Salih's anger at the United States is only a membrane from the surface. He expresses it by criticizing American-appointed Iraqis, such as those members of the governing council who either lived abroad or have no following, or both. He remains even more critical of the former regime, making a transitive verb of "vanish"--"Saddam's men vanished people for no reason at all." Then he returns to his earlier hesitancy. "The Baathist crimes are statistically exaggerated. It was possible to live in Iraq decently and comfortably under Saddam if you weren't actively opposing the regime." He said he had been patient with the US-British coalition, but so far he had seen very little progress. "Right now we need someone to issue orders, pay salaries, make communications work which are so very backward, educate people to the new tasks," he said, possibly with a shade of nostalgia for the days of firm leadership. "Maybe the coalition has made a step forward with the governing council, but I'm not too hopeful."
You can find support in these postwar, pre-peace days for any prix fixe opinion in Iraq. The coalition is in trouble. Easy. The occupation is popular. Also easy. Americans should stay/go/print new money. All well represented. The occupation is increasingly unpopular. Slam-dunk. You may have to wear thicker blinders to draw the conclusion that everything is rolling along smoothly after a predictably rocky start, but you can find that if you're determined to. I was looking for something beyond opinion, something including feelings and beliefs that would point to the American footprint and the Iraqi response. As we drove into a neighborhood that has seen vociferous arguments between pro- and anti-American factions, Salih and I noticed a placard in English. Leave Us, someone had painted in red; someone else had come along and crossed it out in a splash of blue. Your guess is as good...
Sahih's own mixed opinions found another outlet; he was fond of taking reporters to the Abu Hanifa Mosque, an important shrine dedicated to one of the principal saints of Islam. It had been a center of support for the Baath Party and in fact was the last place Saddam Hussein appeared in public. I visited a number of mosques in Iraq; they are social as well as religious gathering places, especially for men, and students even come to them to study for exams. My wife, Alicia Anstead, writing for the Bangor Daily News in Maine, accompanied me to this mosque, which required some preparation. Salih took her to a clothing store and had her buy a long black dress; given that the thermometer that morning was 122 degrees Fahrenheit and rising, this amounted to a gender fine, but Alicia was willing to pay it. She also had to put on socks under her sandals and of course a hijab, or headscarf, that hooded her thoroughly.
In the cavernous hall that surrounds the mosque's sanctuary were the intricate designs of a faith that does not permit representations of the deity or of saints. On the columns, walls and ceilings every variation was present that I could imagine a line becoming--circles, squares, rhomboids, lines soaring, dipping, lines playing games with other lines, swirling, pointing, angling, sharp, soft, eight-pointed stars, winged lines, more shapes than I've ever seen. Lines and curves were raised to a level beyond mere art forms to unassailable facts of the universe. Carpets and prayer rugs were spread over the floors, their own designs of such a celestial nature that people I know would happily convert and pray the requisite five times a day to get these coverings into their living rooms.
I was permitted into the sanctuary while Alicia remained outside. This was similar to the hall but even more elaborately decorated with stars and geometric shapes on its columns and walls and in its vaulted arches and curved ceilings. The tomb of Abu Hanifa is the sanctuary's sacred altar.
In the hall before the service we were surrounded by boys and young men, who were curious and friendly. We asked them how they felt about Americans. They all spoke at the same time, but one voice, belonging to a student training to become an imam, was most authoritative. "We like you if you come as visitors and go back home," he said as Salih translated and smiled approvingly, "but we don't want you to stay as soldiers and run the country. Be our friends, not our occupiers." The young men parted to form a path as a courtly gentleman came up to us and, in impeccable English, introduced himself as the former minister of industry, retired since 1989. What did he think of the current situation? "Ah," he said, "ask the young lads here, we'll all give you the same answer." Salih nodded his own agreement as the former minister turned and passed into the sanctuary.