The explosion hits just as our omelets arrive. The air shakes and conversation is brought to a stunned halt by the forceful sonic jolt. Two blocks away a small convoy of US Humvees has been attacked by a remote activated bomb, known in military vernacular as an “improvised explosive device.” Plastered into a narrow cement traffic median, the IED knocked out the windshields of two Humvees, badly wounded an Iraqi translator, killed an unlucky bystander and wounded several others with shrapnel and concrete.
The next day is New Year’s Eve, and the cold night sky is crisscrossed with the gently arcing tracer rounds from bursts of celebratory gunfire. Below, the city is calm but tense. Everyone waits for “something big.” It comes as a huge explosion with a dense angry core and wide rumbling echo. Following the path of police cars and an ambulance, several colleagues and I reach the smoldering remains of the upscale Nabil restaurant just as the first medics unload.
A car bomb has killed eight and wounded thirty-five. The scene is Armageddon in miniature. Illuminated by orange flame, the surrounding streets are strewn with debris: twisted metal, broken glass, part of a tweed jacket, a steering rod, half a human foot with toes.
Welcome to the new Baghdad, and to the vexing little war that now grips central Iraq. After a month of traveling to many of the so-called Sunni Triangle’s hot spots, seeing the fighting firsthand and spending time with both the resistance and the US military, I am left with the impression that this is a war that will neither end soon nor dramatically escalate. Instead, the conflict seems to have settled into a lopsided and contradiction-fraught stalemate.
On the one hand, aggressive new counterinsurgency tactics–including high-tech surveillance, precision artillery, constant raids, mass detention and the fencing off of whole villages–are doing serious damage to the armed underground. But these same tactics also humiliate and enrage many otherwise pro-US Iraqis, possibly expanding the pool of potential recruits for the guerrillas.
Meanwhile, the highly decentralized and secretive resistance has enough popular support and equipment to continue reproducing itself for some time to come. But the insurgency lacks the ideological coherence or organization it would need to grow into a more formidable force. And its tactics, like the Americans’, though at times effective, alienate many war-weary Iraqis.
The Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya is resistance country. The graffiti in this heavily Baathist and Sunni area strikes a defiant posture: “Saddam, in our souls and with our lives we will sacrifice for you!” Or, “God protect and guide the hand of al mujahedeen.”
The US military considers Adhamiya one of the city’s most dangerous sectors. American patrols are regularly attacked here. Two Time journalists were badly wounded by a December 10 grenade attack in Adhamiya, and when Saddam was captured three days later, the neighborhood’s streets exploded in spontaneous protest.
In Adhamiya I meet Abu Hassan, a former army captain who now imports machinery and funds resistance “operations.” He says he might introduce me to some of the fighters.
At our first meeting one of his sons shows up with a pistol. The young man empties the gun’s chambers into his palm and shows me the flat-tipped and highly destructive dumdum bullets. Abu Hassan warns me to be completely honest about my identity and tells me to bring copies of the books I’ve written. “Otherwise some people might think you are CIA,” he says with a smile.