Iraq

ORDEAL BY FIRE

ADNAN R.KHAN goes to Iraq-and Iands in the middle of a pitched battle

Adnan R. Khan April 26 2004
Iraq

ORDEAL BY FIRE

ADNAN R.KHAN goes to Iraq-and Iands in the middle of a pitched battle

Adnan R. Khan April 26 2004

ORDEAL BY FIRE

Iraq

ADNAN R.KHAN goes to Iraq-and Iands in the middle of a pitched battle

Adnan R. Khan

Maclean’s Contributing Editor Adnan R. Khan returned to Iraq on April 22 after last reporting from that troubled country in August 2003. He found a nation in chaos, as the uprising by both Sunni and Shia Muslims against the U.S.-led coalition intensifies. Abductions offoreigners are also increasing, and last week insurgents murdered one of their hostages: Fabrizio Quattrocchi of Italy. It was fate not shared, thankfully, by Syrian-born Fadi Fadel, a Canadian citizen working for the International Rescue Committee who was abducted on April 8 but released at week’s end. Khan and photographer Rita Leistner experienced the dangers facing outsiders when they found the??iselves in the middle of a frefight between a Sunni militia and coalition forces, and were then held and questioned for three hours by the insurgents. Khan filed this special report:

THE LAST TIME I was in Iraq, it was clear where the U.S.-led occupation of the country was heading. The situation was deteriorating, smouldering with the persistent heat of hatred and contempt, fuelled by an occupying force out of touch with the local population and fanned by an explosion of pent-up energies previously suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime. But the events of the past few weeks have taken even the most ardent supporters of the war by surprise. Iraq is in bedlam, as both Shia and Sunni Muslims rise up.

To me, danger is most evident on the desolate stretches of Iraq’s highways. You play the odds whenever you set out on the anarchic roads. The twisted remains of ambushed convoys litter the roadsides; plumes of black smoke from burning vehicles are becoming a permanent feature on the horizon. Coalition forces are struggling to control the violence, but on any given day there is the possibility of a bomb, a stray bullet or, most frighteningly for foreigners, a targeted attack, murder or kidnapping. With thousands of kilometres of roads criss-crossing the barren landscape, the odds are still slim that a traveller will be hit. But playing the odds can catch up to you.

It happened to me last week, on the road from the southern holy city of Karbala to Baghdad. Accompanied by my good friend, photographer Rita Leistner, I had attended the Shia holy festival Arbaeen, commemorating the martyrdom of one of the most revered saints in Shia Islam, Imam Hussein. Despite the flood of pilgrims and the raw emotions in other Shia cities, Arbaeen unfolded largely without incident, and we left Karbala somewhat perplexed. But violence found us at 3 p.m., 30 km south of Baghdad at the roadside town of Latifye.

Coming around a bend in the highway, we drove into an ambush. On the road was a burning transport truck carrying two American M-113 armoured personnel vehicles. On the shoulder to the left of the wreckage was the body of the Iraqi driver. Cars ahead of us swerved into Latifye, a Sunni community of walled homes. We followed— Rita and I got out with our cameras while our driver, Ali, drove the car to safety. The truck continued to burn, 100 m away, as did two fuel containers at the local gas station that had also been hit. The scene was deceivingly calm as a few locals casually converged on the wreckage for a look. From our position, it was impossible to take a good photograph, so I made my way to what appeared to be an abandoned house in a barren field, thinking it might offer a better vantage point.

The machine-gun bursts started as I was braced against one corner of the building, zooming in on the transport driver’s body, with the burning wreckage as a dramatic backdrop. I realized that insurgents were firing at coalition forces from inside the house I had assumed to be empty. I tried to retreat, but managed only a few steps before a fighter appeared, waving his AK-47 in my face and screaming in Arabic. I raised my arms and pleaded for my life. “Pakistani journalist,” I yelled, using the few words of Arabic I knew and relying on my non-western heritage for a reprieve. “No photo, no photo.”

I feel certain that in those crucial few seconds, it was my brown skin that saved me; the recent spate of kidnappings and attacks have targeted primarily westerners. But whatever the reason for the insurgent’s restraint, the fact remained that I was a non-Iraqi on the scene of what was quickly escalating into an all-out battle. Shots sounded from the other side of town, and they seemed to be getting closer. Minus my camera, which the insurgent confiscated, I made my way back to Rita and the gathering crowd of townspeople. On the road, someone was pulling the dead Iraqi off the gravel shoulder into a ditch. But more armed fighters appeared on Latifye’s narrow streets, some of them heading toward us. Our ordeal was not over.

THERE'S A DIFFERENCE between the Sunni and Shia uprisings in Iraq. Shias have only recently turned to violence, and haven’t resorted to kidnappings. In Karbala, one commander of the Mahdi, the adolescent militia led by firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, told me: “We are warriors and we will fight to the death if we have to, but we respect the rules of war.” (Oddly, the 40-year-old commander, who refused to give his name, had barricaded himself and his small band of child fighters inside a mosque just outside Karbala’s city centre, in clear violation of those rules.)

For Shia fighters, the uprising is largely a religious one. “It is in our hearts to fight,” one 19-year-old Mahdi member told me, while others promised they would die fighting before giving up to infidels. And there appears to be some measure of discipline and control in the Shia uprising, as evidenced by the lack of violence at the Arbaeen festival in Karbala.

The Sunni insurgency, on the other hand, has never really been a religious war. Tribal, and often xenophobic, Sunnis fight to expel an occupier. The rash of kidnappings and detentions of foreign nationals is taking place almost exclusively in the Sunni-dominated areas of central Iraq, and the killing and mutilation of four American security personnel near Fallujah on March 31 showed just how malignant Sunni hatred of foreigners is—and especially of Americans.

The groundswell of popular support for those doing the actual fighting comes in part from loyalty to place and tribe. New, previously unheard of Sunni factions are popping up almost on a daily basis, each independent of the other and each with its own tactics. Often, they exist along tribal lines, and only within individual tribes is there some semblance of command and control structures. Coalition war planners have failed to understand this culture, but during the violence in Latifye, Rita and I got a firsthand look at how the tribal structure works.

As the fighting intensified, the townspeople gathering around us seemed distressed about our predicament. “Camera, no problem,” said one man, indicating with gestures that he would personally retrieve my gear. Women rushed out of homes, offering us water and condolence. Another man demanded, gently but firmly, that we prove our stated identities. Passports were passed around—I have dual citizenship and a Pakistani passport as well—while around us the fighting escalated.

I RAISED my arms and pleaded for my life. ‘Pakistani journalist,’ I yelled, using the few words of Arabic I knew.

Eventually, the intensity of the battle forced the crowd to scatter. As people slammed their gates shut, Rita and I scrambled for cover behind a parked truck. We made a dash for an open gate but the family refused us entry. Another man shouted and waved us into his home. There, with war raging outside, he and his family calmly sat us down in the living room and brought more refreshments. Curious children peeked into the room before dashing off to another part of the house. It was like Sunday tea, but with automatic gunfire in lieu of Tchaikovsky. At the sound of a fresh burst of fire, Rita and I immediately hit the floor, only to see the family still calmly sitting on couches, watching us with bemusement. “Don’t worry,” said one of the men in broken English, “you are safe here with us.”

After a half-hour of intense fighting, the battle waned. A young man came to tell us that Ali, our driver, had come for us. We went out; Ali had my camera, but he was closely followed by the same insurgent who had earlier waved his AK-47 in my face. And the man didn’t look any calmer.

A shouting match between the insurgent and the home’s patriarch spiralled into physical confrontation. Children started screaming, women pointed at me, saying, “Sunni, Sunni.” The main issue was the fact that we had both photographed the ambush. He accused us of working for the Americans and of compromising the insurgents’ identities. The commotion attracted other fighters, who came into the courtyard and began screaming at us. One slid his forefinger across his throat. “Give them your film,” Ali pleaded. “Give them your film or they will kill you.” Handing over digital camera memory cards was not enough: that technology had not arrived in this village, and the insurgents expected to see rolls of film, not wafersized storage devices.

They seized our cameras and tried unsuccessfully to open the backs, then left with the equipment. But the man who had initially accosted me remained behind, unconvinced of our innocence and unwilling to release us without further assurances. For another half-hour he argued with Ali, and then brought out a Koran, which Ali kissed and touched to his forehead. A sacred vow had been made. Ali, who is also Sunni, had ransomed his own life to save ours. The insurgent kissed him on the cheek and left.

When we got back to our car we found other insurgents surrounding it. They had pried open the trunk, forced down one of the windows, and scattered our belongings on the ground. One of the men approached us with our Canadian passports and my notebooks. “You are journalists?” he asked in passable English. We both nodded and showed him our credentials. “Where are your cameras?” We explained that they had been taken, along with my Pakistani passport. “I apologize for all of this trouble,” he said in a softer tone. He was related to the tribal sheik of the village, and I apologized for bringing so much trouble to his community. He assured us he would have our cameras returned. “We are not thieves,” he said, before assigning one of the villagers to escort us out of town.

A few days later, back in the relative safety of our heavily fortified hotel in Baghdad, Ali dropped by with some of Rita’s camera gear. The insurgents wanted $500 for it, he explained. He also had a message from them: if the village was attacked within the next week, we would be killed. “I will return to Latifye in a few days with some other tribal sheiks to gather the rest of your equipment,” he said. “You will have your cameras back.” It would be dangerous, and we protested, but Ali insisted. Tribal honour runs deep.

Meanwhile, Rita and I aren’t taking any chances. We intend to spend this week in a safe house far from the mushrooming violence in and around Baghdad. More than anything else, it’s the unpredictability that frightens us. In the chaos that is Iraq, even the slimmest of odds can be too risky. I?]