To slow Iraq’s drift into total chaos, the U.S. changes its administration in the country
THE EDGE OF ANARCHY
To slow Iraq’s drift into total chaos, the U.S. changes its administration in the country
FRESH from the front lines, the 12 American soldiers under Lieut. Lars Nadig’s command in Baghdad’s Kharada district are fighting another kind of war. The enemy has melted into the shadows of the Iraqi capital’s dimly lit streets, and now the 25-year-old Virginia native is forced to try to bring peace to a city awash in chaos by solving disputes over property and seizing weapons. Live gunfire, a steady chorus, is a minor nuisance to these men. “Everyone’s got a gun,” says Nadig, pulling a loaded, silver-plated ninemm handgun out of his pocket as another gunshot sounds no more than a block away. “That’s probably just some local guy, happy that he has running water again.”
The gun glistens in the mid-afternoon sun. Nadig had confiscated it earlier in the day from a man accused of trying to take over a jewellery store. It was just another example of the anarchy in Iraq, where fear is as prevalent now as it was under the Baath regime and poverty is perhaps even more widespread. The backlash to Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression spilled out onto the dusty streets as looters scrambled to snatch any slice of material wealth they could. Now, if the chaos continues, many Iraqis fear that rival militias, already policing areas of the capi-
tal and other cities, may become too powerful. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, says the U.S. must act quickly to restore order. “If we continue this confusion,” he said in his office in Baghdad, “this wonderful victory we have achieved will turn into a quagmire.”
Worried that the Iraqi situation is spinning totally out of control, last week the White House recalled Jay Garner, the retired general who was the top civilian administrator in the country, and replaced him with career diplomat and counterterrorism expert Paul Bremer. The administration also recalled
'PEOPLE ARE ANGRY,’ one man says. ‘They were expecting improvement. Instead, the situation is worse.’
Middle East diplomat Barbara Bodine, who was in charge of reconstruction efforts in Baghdad. “Garner and Bodine didn’t have the management skills,” a State Department official directly involved with the Iraqi re-
construction program told Maclean’s. “They didn’t take charge and they didn’t make things happen fast enough. But Bremer is a ‘can-do’ guy and he’ll get the country back on its feet. We’re making a course correction.”
Perhaps not a moment too soon. Citizens of Baghdad—a city that has been weeks without water and electricity—are clearly growing impatient with their new rulers. “Nothing has improved,” says Talat, a 42-year-old accounting student who survives by selling gasoline on the black market. “People are angry because they were expecting improvement. Instead, the situation is worse.” It’s one that Nadig and his men can’t really address. “I don’t have the time or the manpower to arrest everybody on the street and take them to jail when they’ll just be released in two days anyway,” the lieutenant says. “That’s a job for the police, but they’re too afraid to come out.”
Understandably so. Many members of Baghdad’s 7,000-man police force are unarmed, and have been largely ineffective after returning to duty. Others, fearing their homes will be looted in their absence, are refusing to go to work. And the challenges they face are on display in the garbagestrewn neighbourhoods of Sadr City (formerly Saddam City), the sprawling Shia slum on Baghdad’s eastern edge. From his roadside stall, Ala, a 17-year-old street kid with all the requisite smoothness and charm, will sell you anything. You can become a house owner with a stolen deed, an official Iraqi citizen with pilfered papers, or purchase a licence, looted from government offices, for your stolen vehicle.
The line between truth and fiction has become so blurred that soldiers must rely on intuition to resolve many disputes—sometimes unsuccessfully. In one case, a Shia cleric approached Nadig with a deed to a house in the Kharada district. It was written in Arabic and seemed official, so Nadig wrote a letter authorizing the cleric’s group to move in. An hour later, residents of the largely Sunni neighbourhood arrived at the army post to complain about a religious group from the southern holy city of Najaf illegally setting up shop on their street. Nadig led a raid on the house, but the new occupants—the Shia cleric’s group—produced
the letter. Nothing could be done, despite threats from the residents that violence would ensue if the Shias stay. “There’s no authority we can go to for verification that this is legitimate,” a frustrated Nadig says. “We have to make a decision on the spot.”
But the vacuum is being filled. The posh, riverside Jadriah district, where the Baath party once housed visiting foreign dignitaries, has been looted and occupied by poor Iraqi families, who have formed their own militia and patrol with AK-47s and a firm determination to protect what they believe is now theirs. “People suffered for too long,” says Ayad, a 30-year-old newlywed in the neighbourhood. “They lived under bridges, their family members were put in jail or hanged. So I think people feel they deserve something back.”
Across town in the predominantly Shia Kadhimiya district, clerics have also set up their own force to guard hospitals and food supplies and provide general security for residents. Nearly 150 heavily armed guards, some no more than 17, patrol the streets, on the lookout for guns and looters. “We have made an announcement to the people,” explains Saeed Hashim al-Moussoui, assistant to Ayatollah Hussein al-Sadr, the area’s spiritual leader, “that anyone who has a gun, or a bomb, or any sort of weapon, to take it to the Iraqi police. After this announcement, anyone caught with a weapon of any kind is arrested.”
The militias have had some success in reducing the number of guns on the street. A local gun market, set up spontaneously on a street corner shortly after the fall of Baghdad, was recently shut down. But there is a growing concern that Baghdad is fragmenting into armed camps. “What happens when the time comes for these groups to disband?” asks Tom Slago, who commands a Bradley armoured vehicle. It is a deadly piece of U.S. equipment, shooting 25-mm depleteduranium tipped rounds at 200 rounds per minute. “This thing can fire through a mound of dirt five metres thick, penetrate an Iraqi tank sitting on the other side and take out all of its occupants,” says Slago, as he lounges in his Bradley’s shadow.
But American heavy armour cannot cope with widespread civil unrest. And it will be up to Bremer to somehow establish order with police, not artillery. The U.S. has outlawed the Baath party and Saddam’s former defence and security apparatus, including the
Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard. Now, the number of police in Baghdad will be increased over the next month. Each patrol car will carry an AK-47; police officers will be armed, and given uniforms, training and better pay than the US$15 a month most received under the former regime. And in one of his first moves, Bremer also ordered U.S. soldiers to increase their patrols in Baghdad.
But many have become tired of policing. “The next round is supposed to be better trained for a peacekeeping mission,” said
one private. “They were supposed to be here already but at this point, we don’t know what’s going on.” Slago speaks for many when he says, “The war was a lot more fun than this.” Still, the troops set out daily on their patrols, struggling to maintain some semblance of order in the city. “Whenever I go out on a call, I try to tell these people they have to become self-reliant,” says Nadig. “One of these days, I’m not going to be here.” But if the current chaos continues, U.S. forces are unlikely to be heading home anytime soon. fill
‘SADDAM IS A MURDERER-AND A SON OF A BITCH’
They arrived steadily on foot and in pickup trucks. Many carried shovels, while others used their bare hands to dig frantically into the desert sand, searching for the bodies of loved ones. Some, hoping to find evidence that would identify a relative, walked slowly through the remains removed from the biggest mass grave found so far in Iraq. At one point last week at Hillah, 90 km south of Baghdad, the site of a mass execution in 1991, there were 1,000 individual piles of bones, teeth and skulls-some with tufts of hair still clinging to them.
The killings occurred in early March 1991, following the Gulf War. The Shia had revolted in southern Iraq; determined to crush them, Saddam Hussein had many of the men rounded up, hauled to the site in trucks and shot. Last week, Ali Shahed Aun came to the grave, looking for the remains of his brother. “What can I say about this?” he said, eyes filled with anger.
“There are no words to describe this."
The exact number of people buried at Hillah is unknown, but many relatives believe the number may be as high as 3,000. The total may remain a mystery because no one has catalogued the exhumed remains and the site has been overrun by grieving relatives who have taken away some bodies for burial. Aun, who believes his brother’s murderers are still in the Iraqi army, would like justice. But in what Human Rights Watch called a “shameful failure,” U.S. troops have not protected vital evidence at the site that could be used to prosecute the killers. American soldiers who stood by said it would only provoke further tensions if they were to stop grieving Shia families from retrieving their dead. But Aun doesn’t need a trial or investigation to know who is ultimately to blame. “Saddam,” he said, “is a murdererand a son of a bitch.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.