The destruction caused by the second US invasion of Falluja in November was met with quiet outrage by Iraqis. Most residents left before the invasion began, and rather than attempt to help the guerrillas inside the city (as happened during the April fighting, when the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, sent aid, arms and soldiers), other Iraqis have helped by absorbing the refugees as best they can. The refugees are spread out across the central part of the country, some staying with relatives, others in bomb shelters, camps, mosques or whatever can be found.
The camp in the courtyard of the mosque at Baghdad University is home to about 900 refugees. Some of the families here stay inside the mosque, but the rest are camped out in tents that provide little shelter from the winter wind that blows across the university. At night, temperatures dip to freezing.
As an Apache helicopter gunship buzzes low overhead, Umm Omar looks on with resignation. Continued fighting in Falluja has left the camp’s residents with the feeling that they might be there for some time. Just before the New Year, Umm Omar set up a school for about 160 of the camp’s children. Now she is asking the Education Ministry to permit her to administer mid-year exams at the camp. “If they are not able to take their exams, some of these children will lose an entire year of school. Some of them are in their last year of high school, and they want to finish this year,” she said.
Riad Hassoun, a father of four who lives with his family in the camp, went back to Falluja in early January. After waiting for hours at the city’s outskirts to receive an identification card from the US military (a process that includes a retinal scan and fingerprinting), he and his family stayed overnight but returned to the Baghdad camp the following morning.
“The houses around mine had all been destroyed,” Hassoun said. “Our house was full of smoke–it was a mess. We cleaned up the house and spent the night there, but the bombing started at 7 in the evening and lasted until the morning. There were all sorts of bombs. My children couldn’t sleep. There is no water; there is no electricity. I saw no reconstruction, just one truck trying to fix the electricity.”
Hassoun was lucky–his house was still standing.
“My house was destroyed,” said Umm Hussein, whose husband returned to Falluja in January to find their belongings unsalvageable. She cradles her sick son in her arms. “Every house in our neighborhood was destroyed. We have nothing left. How can I take my baby to the hospital?”
Sheik Hussein Abo Ahmed, who acts as a de facto head of the camp, led a demonstration in front of the Green Zone to demand greater rights for the refugees. Among their demands were unfettered return, compensation for destroyed homes and dead family members, and the right of journalists to be let into the city to film the damage.
“I saw one of the boys in the camp yesterday playing with a toy gun, and I asked him, ‘Why don’t you play with a soccer ball,’ and he said, ‘It is because I want to kill American soldiers for killing my uncle and my father,'” Hussein said.
“I have five women from Falluja and their children staying in an unfinished house I own,” said the taxi driver who took us to the camp. “They cannot go back. The fighting is still going on. I don’t understand why the Iraqi government would give the US Army permission to attack Falluja but do nothing for the people who lived there.”
Harath al-Khodary, an openly radical member of a prominent business family, consults with members of the Muslim Scholars Association, the group that has taken the lead in the Sunni boycott of the elections. He is in charge of helping channel aid to the camp from other Arab countries. The camp has refused donations from a group of Americans who have sent aid to other Falluja refugees. I cannot help but find Khodary’s hard-line stance, and the number of disenfranchised people who are susceptible to it, chilling–rather than “breaking the back” of the insurgency, it seems as though the US military has only fostered a more durable fighting force.
“The Iraqis are now divided into those who know what is going on and those convincing themselves that the Americans are liberators who are going to build Iraq and achieve freedom and democracy,” Khodary said. “The Americans are mighty; they are well armored. Why can’t they defeat a group of militia–‘terrorists’ with bad ideas?” he asks, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
As election day draws closer, the guerrillas are conducting their own “shock and awe” campaign. Using increasingly larger bombs, they destroyed a pair of Bradleys in less than a week, in one case killing all seven soldiers inside. In the first two weeks of January alone, more than 200 people were killed, including twenty-five US soldiers. Assassinations are a part of daily life. Hamoudi, a fixer I know, describes the recent carefully coordinated assassination of the governor of Baghdad province, as related by Hamoudi’s brother, who lives in the neighborhood and says he saw it happen.
“A pair went at 7 in the morning to some of the men in the neighborhood. One had a vegetable stand, the other sold cigarettes. They told the men to leave, and they did. They hid their weapons in the vegetable and cigarette stands. There were four mujahedeen on a roof of one of the nearby buildings, and when the governor drove by, they opened fire from both sides of the street. They did not kill a single civilian, but when the governor’s bodyguards opened fire, they fired wildly.”
All six of the bodyguards were killed, but the lead car, carrying the governor, escaped the ambush. “He drove away, but there was another car waiting for him. When he stopped at a traffic light, they got out of the car and killed him. It was just like something out of a movie,” Hamoudi said.
Voter registration is being done through government ration distribution centers, and stories of intimidation of managers of such shops abound.
“No one has come to threaten me, but they have killed agents and bombed their houses and their shops,” said Nahudth Hathayer, a shop manager in the west Baghdad district of Jadriyah, a generally affluent area that is well patrolled by the US military. He said members of the resistance have gone to other shops to demand that registration papers be turned over to them.
“Some of the agents had already distributed the papers, and then people came to the shops to threaten them and told them to get the papers back by the end of the day. They couldn’t do this, and then they came to their houses and killed them.”
While military operations against the vote seem to be carried out exclusively by Sunni militias, opposition to the elections is by no means solely a Sunni exercise. Wamidh Nadhmi is the former political science chair of Baghdad University and a member of the Iraqi National Founding Conference, a nonsectarian political party led by Jawad al-Khalsi, a Shiite cleric. The party decided to boycott the elections because a list of conditions they had submitted to the Independent Electoral Commission last fall, which included a withdrawal of US troops from inside cities and greater international monitoring, had not been met. They also took issue with the ability of the commission to delete candidates from the ballot.
“The right to delete names from the list is fully undemocratic, especially if that person is not a convict,” Nadhmi said, before moving on to a more serious problem. There are 111 parties vying for the 275 seats in the national assembly (only 500 signatures are required to be listed as a political party), but most Iraqis can identify few of the candidates, save for well-known party leaders–the Electoral Commission has refused to release the lists, citing safety concerns, and few candidates are campaigning openly, for the same reason.
“I don’t see how you could go into elections and vote for a list not knowing who its members are,” Nadhmi said.
The two main coalitions, the United Iraqi Alliance (a conglomeration of former exiles, including Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, former neocon darling Ahmad Chalabi and current Iraqi vice president and leader of the Shiite Dawa Party Ibrahim Jaafari) and Allawi’s Iraqi List, are expected to fare best at the polls. The UIA is the most visible coalition, using the Supreme Council’s militia, the Badr Organization, as a ready-made force for putting up posters. Almost all the posters bear the image of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s politically reticent senior Shiite cleric. The UIA claims his exclusive approval.
“They claim they are supported by Sistani, but a lot of Shiite clerics say it is impossible Sistani would approve one list,” Nadhmi says.
At the office of Sistani’s representative in the Khadimiya district, we are refused an interview–the question of elections is no longer to be addressed. There are some posters in this neighborhood encouraging people to vote, but most of them simply depict Sistani himself or other revered clerics and Shiite heroes. The real excitement surrounds a funeral celebration for a local cleric the next day; restaurateurs are already cooking huge pots of food in the streets.
As I ride back through the dark of early evening, Baghdad takes on an eerie aspect, a kind of arabesque Gotham. The power is out (on a good day, it alternates being on for two hours and off for four), and most of the light comes from the flames of restaurant rotisseries, filtered through the ever-present dust. The noise from generators is overpowering. We pass the hotel I stayed at for two months last winter, now boarded up, its trade in putting up busloads of Iranian tourists on their way to shrines in Najaf, Karbala and Samarra now completely dried up because of the increased violence.
Men in the gas lines are settling into their cars for the night; the wait can last up to two days. The irony of the fuel shortage is hard to ignore. In Iraq–which has the second-highest proven oil reserves in the world–it costs about $2 to fill a tank, and prices on the black market are roughly the same per gallon as they are in the United States. The words of Khodary ring in my ears: “I am calling for destroying all of the oil infrastructure. They are using it against us.”
At Friday prayers in Thawra, or Sadr City, the Baghdad slum that is home to more than 2 million people and is the main support base for Muqtada al-Sadr, thousands fill one of the main streets for a Friday prayer service. Fighting between the US military and Sadr’s Mahdi Army ended in September, although the Mahdi warned that it would resume attacks on US troops if they continued to arrest members of the organization. The Americans still target Sadr deputies, but militiamen have largely obeyed orders from Sadr to halt attacks.
Initially, it seemed as though Sadr was hedging his bets on the upcoming election, refusing to endorse candidates or the process, but refusing to condemn it as well. After the prayers I attended, one of his spokesmen relates Sadr’s most recent statement. “Our leader will not participate officially in the elections, because there is no real representation for all groups and because there is a Sunni boycott,” said Sheik Gheith al-Tamimi. “If [the Sunni] don’t participate, it won’t be an honest election. It won’t be a free and honest election under occupation. We want the United Nations to supervise the election.”
“Sadr is being fully watched by the Americans and the government,” Nadhmi said. “If I were in his place, I would also choose my wording, because it is not he alone who is going to suffer from what he says–it is a whole town or area. If you take the so-called Sunni areas like Mosul, Salahadin province and Anbar province as a total boycott, and then the Sadr group, it might come to a 70 percent or 65 percent boycott.”
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?”