Iraq: The Chaos Deepens
A pair of Bradley vehicles sit on the curb in front of a gas station at one of Thawra's main intersections. Mobs of children surround the armored personnel carriers, attempting to pull off or unscrew any piece of hardware that is unsecured. Occasionally the back hatch of a Bradley lowers and an angry US soldier runs out, giving chase at top speed as the children scatter. It's a game, but he does not look happy. Another soldier grabs one of the kids and holds him up against the side of a Bradley. It's not unlike the game I've seen played by Israeli troops and Palestinian children--the soldiers give chase at top speed, acting as though they are pursuing a real enemy. The kids get a rise, the soldiers get to blow off steam.
The Bradleys are joined by a trio of US Humvees on patrol. A couple of soldiers step out of the lead truck to survey the scene. One goes no farther than the cover of the armored door he has just opened. "We've been shot at by a sniper in this area," he says as the soldiers in the other two Humvees scan the surrounding buildings.
Nearby, an Iraqi man (presumably part of the Iraqi Army contingent also guarding the gas station) with an assault rifle and camouflage jacket gives wild chase to some of the kids, occasionally hitting them with the butt of his rifle and pointing the muzzle threateningly.
"Is he Iraqi Army?" I ask a US soldier.
"We're not really sure."
"Hey, watch that guy, he likes to hit women," one of the other soldiers shouts. The crazed man runs up to me and brandishes his rifle in my face, gesturing wildly at my camera, and then begins chasing the kids again.
On the other side of the street, three young men glare at the soldiers and swear that if the Iraqi Army were not backed up by the US military, the men would have begun fighting them already.
"They let their friends cut in the gas lines," one says.
"They hit women," another says.
The men also say they will not vote in the election, and then decline to continue speaking.
At the old Defense Ministry complex, a looted shell on the city's east side, families squatting in the buildings look on as members of the Salam unit of the Iraqi Army drill. The ministry spokesman tells me they expect to have 70,000 soldiers ready by election day. The Salam unit has been moved from the relatively quiet Maysan province in the south to Baghdad. The men from this unit do not seem to have joined the army out of the same desperation that causes many of their counterparts in Baghdad to risk assassination for $200 a month.
"I am one of the members of the former Iraqi Army," said Deputy Officer Salim Rahim when asked why he joined the new army. "One of those who have been treated badly by the previous regime. My father and my brother were killed by Saddam in 1991 during the intifada."
Following the statement to its logical end leaves one standing on the edge of just one of the growing rifts in Iraqi society that could lead to more serious warfare. Another correspondent voiced it perfectly while we were having dinner a few nights ago: "What are we going to do when real chaos breaks loose?"