The most dangerous people
Contemplations on life and death in an Al-Qaeda lair in the very heart of Baghdad.
“Today we're about to visit the most dangerous people in Iraq.” The look on my 43-year-old interpreter Najat's face is very serious. She doesn’t like the fact that I'm smiling; nobody smiles in Iraq today, especially when talking about danger. She wants to convince me that I must be serious and careful.
She tells me I will have to wear a black Shi’ite overcoat, because the people we are about to visit are very religious.
She already told them over the phone that I am a Turkish journalist. I protest – both against the black cloak and against being a false Turkish journalist. After all, the rendezvous is not taking place in a mosque, and Shi’ites do not force non-Muslim women to wear the black cloak outside sacred places. The cloak is the property of a Muslim woman, not a mandatory uniform to be worn when communicating with Muslims.
I had been introduced as a “Turkish journalist” several times before. I don’t like lying, even for the sake of the profession. Several times I had given my card – deliberately or out of forgetfulness – and I could see people's reaction to Russians and all others. Russians are treated the best. But Najat is unyielding: “They will cancel the rendezvous if I tell them you are from Russia,” she says.
What should I do? I told her yesterday I would stop working with her if the meeting in Sadr City fails. Working with her is not easy. Najat is a Shi’ite. But even though she is a Shi’ite, she still thinks that the Shi’ite Sadr City is home to dangerous people. And those we are about to visit are the most dangerous of all.
”It’s not Al-Qaeda we’re going to, after all,” I snap angrily. Not a hint of a smile on Najat's face – Al-Qaeda is exactly how people here call those we are going to. They kidnapped and killed people.
Helpless lost souls
She has no proof, only an opinion. And she won't budge from that opinion, even if an angel came down from the heavens and tells her, “Those people are innocent!” That’s how a human mind works in a ravaged country.
Like many of her fellow compatriots I have talked to, Najat is a mirror that reflects the fears which propaganda and rumours have instilled in the nation. Such people are especially susceptible to propaganda. This is not her fault at all. People who have lived for seven years in a destroyed country cannot control the destruction of their own minds and personalities. She is an educated woman, majoring in political sciences at the university. At the same time, she cannot evaluate information. She is a regular, miserable person in a miserable country.
The Al-Qaeda grove
There are plenty of those like Najat in the literate stratum; I have talked to some 20 such people in Iraq. She believes in the most terrible things. She believes that Al-Qaeda kidnapped and killed her relatives. She shows me a palm tree grove that her uncle used to own and from which he was ousted by Al-Qaeda. Her uncle has not returned to his grove for five years, even though there is no Al-Qaeda there anymore.
“Why won't he come back?”
“Don’t you understand? His neighbours won't let him in there.”
“Are they Al-Qaeda members?”
“No, but they are Sunni, and he is a Shi’ite.”
“Wait. The Shi’ites are in power in Iraq now. Can't your uncle get his grove back in court?”
“You don’t understand. It's an Al-Qaeda zone.”
“But there's no Al-Qaeda there anymore?”
There is no point in continuing this conversation. When she began telling me about Al-Qaeda hanging people on palm trees, I asked her how she imagined that being done technically. Najat went sulky, and we drove on in silence. There are lots of videos on the internet that show insurgents blowing up American armored vehicles and tanks. Perhaps these facts annoy Americans. Militants did the same to them in Vietnam, and now they are doing it in Afghanistan.
There are videos about this very grove that is located halfway from Baghdad to Karbala. There are, however, no videos where militants would say in an interview that they are Al-Qaeda, or show Shi’ites being hanged on palm trees.
We are going to Sadr City. The moment we enter the neighbourhood, our bodyguard gets very scared. Pale in the face, he asks me not to take pictures and not to loom in the window with my non-local looks. He worries while we wait for our guide. He is worried that we are standing on a busy street and that I get out of the car to sit in the rear seat. He was just as nervous when I sat in the front one, though. The more nervous he gets, the more clearly I realize that he is worried for himself, not for me. That's because I am in no danger. He believes in Al-Qaeda and dreads it. I don't.
Our guide arrives and we drive into the block. The guard gets even more nervous. His hands and chin are shaking; he is pale and smokes one cigarette after another.
Medieval literature has many descriptions of how ordinary people are afraid of warriors; they are petrified at their sight. The people I meet with are exactly those who make ordinary people freeze in horror. After that, to justify their fear, they make up legends about them. I meet those people – young and middle-aged. They tell me that political decisions are made by the Shia military and political organization “The Mahdi Army”, and how they – the armed branch of the organization – enforce those decisions on the streets.
What I see is good organization and a clear delineation of authority. People with combat experience have undisputed authority among all others. If there is a decision to fight the Americans, they fight. If there is a decision to maintain a truce, they do. If there is a decision to assign candidates for the elections, people will vote for them. When asked what they think about Al-Qaeda, they say that it consists of Sunnis and laugh when I ask them, “Aren't you al-Qaeda?” It is like asking a Westerner whether republicans are for monarchy or against it.
“Do you hate Sunnites?” No, they don’t hate them. They live next to then. In Sadr City, which the entire world regards as Shi’ite, there are Sunnis as well. Sunnis and Shi’ites are often members of the same tribe. They all make pilgrimages to the same sacred places.
“Did you persecute Sunnis after those bombings of Shi’ite mosques?”
“No. We quickly realized that someone was trying to make mischief between us.”
How to prevent a religious war
When all TV channels in the world were talking about the terrible religious massacre breaking out in Iraq, Sunnis and Shi’ites were exchanging delegations, celebrating Sunni-Shi’ite weddings, and explaining to all Muslims that pilgrims and mosques are bombed not by Muslims, but by those who cooperate with the occupants. Those people were caught in the act of planting explosives. Iraqis learned to inform each other of what is really going on via SMS. That way, they evaded the threat of a civil war.
Outside Iraq, everyone is still convinced that a civil war is raging there. I ask Shi’ite partisans:
“If you are not Al-Qaeda, do you know who they are?”
“The whole world knows Al-Qaeda was created by the Americans.”
“Is it present in Iraq?”
“It is everywhere now, and in Iraq too. But there are only Sunnis in it.”
It is explained to me that there are Sunni militants who fight Americans. Shi’ites have close connections with them. Sadr City is home to the highly-respected family of Sheikh Askhar al Duleiman. He was killed by American troops; Shi’ites and Sunnis honour his memory as a both a Mujaheddin and a shahid.
I am told there are military groups that terrorize the population; they are Al-Qaeda. They don’t act against Americans – only against Iraqi people.
Who blows up mosques?
Though our initial agreement was that I shouldn’t ask about anything but the troubles faced by the population of Sadr City, none of my questions aroused any protest.
“Who needs instability?”
“There are three forces interested in that: the Americans, Al-Qaeda, which is connected with them. There are former Ba'ath members in Al-Qaeda units. And there are some parliament deputies who are pursuing their own goals.” (Ba'ath was the ruling party under Saddam).
“Who blows up explosives-laden cars near mosques, churches, markets, and among pilgrims?”
I am told that Iraqis managed to catch the attackers in three cases. Those were mercenaries of the occupying forces. Once they were caught in Basrah, then in al-Madain, and the third time was in Nashid al-Wahid near Baghdad. The international media are silent about that.
“Do you use kamikaze bombers?”
“No, the Mahdi Army does not use kamikazes – neither men nor women. They have enough weapons or combat-skilled men. However, the mercenaries acting in coordination with the occupying forces use mentally-ill people as kamikaze bombers. The global media don’t talk about that either.”
I look at Najat, thinking she should change her views now. When we leave Sadr City, she bends to me and says: “Those people kidnapped and killed people. Do you understand?”
Meanwhile, at a roadblock ahead of us, policemen stop an ambulance, make the driver open the doors and begin to search the old lady lying inside. Najat and our guard exchange glances.
“Don’t you know Al-Qaeda has been planting explosives in sick people's beds? The police are checking now…”
P.S. I would like to take this opportunity to say hello to the people I talked to in Sadr City and apologize for being introduced as Turkish journalist Nadiya Rufat.
Nadezhda Kevorkova for RT, Iraq