August 25, 2003
Iraq: In the Triangle of Terror
Attacks, assassinations, robberies. Baghdad descends into chaos as US troops lose a little more control over the city each day. The attack on UN headquarters has added a new quality to terror on the Tigris, as other Western foreigners join US soldiers as potential targets.
Wherever you look, narrow, gray plumes of smoke from small fires rise into the sky over Baghdad. The city's residents are burning their trash, since garbage collection trucks haven't been operating for some time, transforming Baghdad's skyline into a horizon of flickering smoke signals.
Because the local telephone network still hasn't been repaired, the inhabitants of the Iraqi capital have taken to using the sky to tell time. The dark gray mushroom-like cloud that formed over the northeast of the city last Tuesday at precisely 4:30 p.m., following a tremendous explosion, was yet another sign that something wasn't right. "I knew immediately that it was a bomb," says Mohammed Omar, "but it was more powerful that anything I had seen before."
As an Iraqi soldier, Omar fought in both Gulf wars, against the Iranians in the 1980s and against the Americans and their allies in 1991. Omar, a 45-year-old family man who works for the UN as a driver, was able to buy his way out of the third Gulf war by paying the government 1400 dollars. In spite of his efforts to stay out of harm's way, however, he almost lost his life last Tuesday.
Omar is drinking black tea with his coworkers in the cafeteria for UN drivers when a powerful detonation blasts their teacups from the table. The massive explosion shakes the entire city. Windowpanes shake or even break as much as a few kilometers away. The city is torn out of the lethargy of a sweltering afternoon within seconds.
UN driver Omar runs for his life. The windowless cafeteria is 300 meters from the explosion site. Everywhere people are running from the Canal Hotel, which the UN has been using as its headquarters building since late May. Some are screaming, almost all are bleeding, and many cover their faces with their hands in shock. They don't know what has just happened yet. Then American Blackhawk helicopters swarm across the devastated site, scanning the grounds for possible suspects. But the helicopters have come too late.
A man loaded his truck with a 250 kilogram Soviet-made bomb, as well as with artillery grenades and other explosives, drove the vehicle directly underneath the office of UN special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and blew himself up. The Brazilian UN diplomat, whom some had already eyed as a possible successor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, died in the wreckage.
"I looked for the car with the bomb, but there was nothing left. Everything was burned," says Omar. 24 people lost their lives and 100 were wounded. The UN's flag, a white globe on a blue background, is flying at half mast in front of the UN's main headquarters building on the New York's East River.
The damage this suicide bomber has caused in Baghdad goes well beyond the loss of human life. For the United Nations, the attack is a tragedy, but it's catastrophic for the White House. Yesterday's Blitzkrieg-like invaders who, with their unstoppable march on Baghdad, wanted to prove that no despot could ever feel safe again, are now faced with a new reality: that their bold plans for post-war Iraq have gone up in smoke, at least for now.
Most of all, this devastating attack, which took place in broad daylight in Baghdad, demonstrates that in Iraq terrorists can strike wherever and whenever they wish. "The civilized world will not be intimidated," announced a visibly agitated US President George W. Bush.
The suicide bomber, apparently disguised as a construction worker, had managed to finagle his way past the Iraqi UN guards. He told them his truck was loaded with material for a security fence that was being constructed to protect the building from suicide attacks, and the guards admitted the man with a friendly wave. Investigators suspect that the attackers may have had accomplices among the Iraq guards at the UN complex.
Whether the attack was the work of supporters of deposed President Saddam Hussein or Islamic extremists, or perhaps both, remains unclear. Last Thursday, a previously unknown group calling itself the "Armed Vanguards of Mohammed's Second Army" claimed responsibility for the murderous attack. Terrorism experts are convinced that this is simply a randomly chosen name for the Iraqi terrorist organization Ansar al-Islam, and that it could quickly change again.
What is clear, however, is that the United States has managed to "transform Iraq into a hotbed of terrorism," as the New York Times wrote after the attack. President Bush' governor in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, visited the site of the catastrophe a few hours after the attack, later issuing the appeasing statement: "We have no chaos here."
No chaos? Many Iraqis are asking themselves whether the man in charge of the occupying forces' civil administration has any idea of what he is talking about and of what is happening in the country. More than four months have passed since the fall of Baghdad, and yet the Americans still have virtually nothing under control in their new protectorate.
It is certainly true that following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, "no one is getting his tongue cut out any more." In the eyes of local inhabitants, however, the progress Washington's proconsul seems to be seeing everywhere remains a dismal failure. According to an article published last week in the newspaper Iraq Today, as much as Iraqis may welcome the despot's disappearance, they have also concluded "that only a dictator is capable of ensuring that there is adequate electricity and security, peace and quiet."
Baghdad is a city under siege, where gunshots and explosions have become a matter of course. American patrols and tanks hectically rush through the city on the Tigris River, while looters and gangster continue to spread fear among its people.
Robberies are committed in broad daylight on Tahrir Square in the heart of the city, or on Saadun Boulevard, once an imposing thoroughfare. Every night criminal gangs open fire on police officers and soldiers, creating a Wild West on the Tigris, in the heart of downtown Baghdad.
Armed anarchy prevails wherever the Americans' tanks and helicopters are not constantly visible, especially in the "Sunni triangle" formed by the cities of Baghdad, Ramadi, and Tikrit. This is where the ousted regime's former strongholds and current pockets of resistance lie, and where US convoys are constantly under attack.
It's also filled with civilians. Near Ramadi on the Euphrates section of Iraq's main artery, the highway between Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, the unbridled right of plunder rules. Bandits in black BMW limousines bristling with menacing Kalashnikovs stop cars and demand exorbitant tolls. The victims must pay cash, in US dollars only. They can keep their credit cards. Der Spiegel journalist Andreas Ulrich and his colleague at the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman, were among recent victims.
Effective highway patrols could quickly put an end to this wave of organized criminality. But the Americans, otherwise eager to arrive on the scene with weapons in hand, do not feel capable of performing such protective functions. They're having enough trouble with their own security.
Paul Bremer resides on the grounds of one of Saddam's presidential palaces. The cornices of this building are adorned with bronze busts of the despot posing as an Abbasid caliph. The palace' enormous grounds on the west bank of the Tigris are protected by barbed fire fences, sandbag and concrete barricades, countless tanks, and a battalion of soldiers. Whenever Bremer leaves this fortress, generally by helicopter, he's accompanied by a security force befitting a presidential visit.
Each day the occupying forces lose more of their troops to attacks or accidents. Their convoys, always accompanied by two Apache helicopters, behave as though they were moving through enemy territory. It's distressingly reminiscent of the Soviets' behavior in Afghanistan. By the end of their adventure in the Hindu Kush, the Soviets had suffered almost 15,000 casualties.
On the outskirts of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, a black GI named Williams is dying on the pavement. A fellow soldier holds his head in his lap and strokes his terrified face in an attempt to calm him down. An American truck loaded with pallets of drinking water has collided with an Iraqi fuel truck. Was it an accident or another attack?
US soldiers with loaded machine guns bark at passersby: "Move, move!" The faces of the Iraqis on the side of the road glow with barely concealed delight.
But the Americans are especially unpopular in Tikrit. This is probably a consequence of their constant house searches and the ridiculous commotion they made on August 8, when a group of apparently panicked soldiers shot and killed three people and severely injured half a dozen others in the city's weekly market.
"This hatred of the Americans is constantly increasing," says Heide Feldmann, a German woman who has headed the Baghdad office of the aid organization "Help" for the past three months. "Help," one of hundreds of non-governmental organizations in the country, manages hospitals and helps defuse mines and repair water lines, and receives some of its funding from the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin. According to Heide Feldmann, the Americans have only themselves to blame for at least a good portion of the Iraqis' resentment, "because they behave too much like occupiers and treat people like children, instead of returning responsibility to the Iraqis."
That's a polite way of putting it. It certainly doesn't adequately describe those US soldiers who behave like kings in restaurants and walk to the restroom with pistols drawn. Most of all, the people's anger is fueled by constant raids and the Americans' generally harsh treatment of conflict situations. When in doubt, GIs, often very young, exhausted and overstressed in the searing heat, have a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. This approach cost a Reuters cameraman his life on the Sunday before last.
Hundreds of Iraqis died last week during a US commando operation, a search for resistance fighters and the figureheads of the fallen regime. Thousands of Iraqis of all ages were taken into custody, their arms often painfully bound, and their heads covered with demeaning paper bags or sandbags. The most prominent of those arrested, about 1200 individuals, are being held in a camp near the Baghdad airport.
"The Americans are terrible," curses Sheik Nadji Jabara al-Jaburi, the new mayor of Tikrit and an avowed opponent of Saddam. He adds that at least Iraqis "lived in safety, and there was work for everyone" under Saddam.
In their own way, the conquerors had also promised the Iraqis a "blooming countryside," or at least a life of freedom and prosperity. Almost none of this has come true. 90 percent of the population are currently unemployed. By outlawing the former ruling party, civil administrator Bremer took away the livelihood of tens of thousands of former Baath party members. More than half a million officers and soldiers of the disbanded Iraqi army are also unemployed, barely surviving on the meager wages the occupying power agreed to pay them following protests in which they threatened that the next time they would "arrive with explosives on our belts."
Virtually all public services in Iraq have collapsed, and most ministries and research institutions have closed their doors. Baghdad's municipal transportation authority has been replaced by private companies charging exorbitant prices. Citizens spend hours waiting in line at gas stations, and this in a country that boasts the world's largest oil reserves. People travelling by train can never be sure when and where they will arrive, or how much their trip will cost. Thieves masquerading as conductors are also digging into the pockets of passengers.
Under Saddam, the power supply for this city of five million was unreliable at best. But now electricity is only available sporadically, so that refrigerators and air conditioners are barely capable of functioning properly, and this at daytime temperatures of 48 to 50 degrees Celsius (about 118-122�F). Nighttime temperatures of 32 degrees Celsius (about 90�F) bring little relief to a population that lives in sweltering concrete houses and apartment buildings. Under such conditions, even staunch opponents of Saddam begin to question the so-called freedom imported by the Americans.
Every morning, the occupying authority dispatches cleaning crews to paint over graffiti that's appeared overnight on walls and houses. Some of the slogans read "No Iraq without Saddam," "No dignity under the Americans," or "We demand from our imams a call to jihad."
No American would dare set foot in some of the quarters and streets in the north of Baghdad. Shops continue to sell pictures of Saddam and homemade picture disks showing his last public appearance on April 9th. At that time the dictator, accompanied by this son Qusai, walked calmly across the square in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque, cheered on by his supporters, even though the Americans had long since captured the airport and parts of the city.
A few hours before the attack on the UN headquarters, US forces had bagged their biggest prize since the deadly shoot-out with Saddam's two sons. As a result of efforts by Kurdish intelligence, they had managed to capture 65-year-old Taha Yassin Ramadan in Mosul, who was essentially the number two man in the former regime. The general, who felt securely protected by his Kurdish-Arab Jaswari tribe, was part of Saddam's top leadership for three decades. During the months leading up to the war, when the rais, or great leader, was becoming more and more removed from the realities of the situation, Ramadan was the acting head of the government and its principal point of contact for state visitors, negotiators, and UN weapons inspectors.
Like his boss, Ramadan vehemently rejected the possibility of exile. "We are not well-born Efendis, but are deeply rooted in this country," Ramadan brusquely informed all emissaries who were attempting to arrange a peaceful ouster of the Baghdad clique shortly before the US military attack. "No, we will not run away. We will die in this country."
This sounded impressive and decisive. Ultimately, however, Saddam's deputy did choose living under the occupying power over heroic death, allowing himself to be arrested without resistance.
Saddam's cousin, 65-year-old Ali Hassan al-Majid, also survived the armed resistance against the Americans, contrary to initial reports of his having perished in a bomb attack. The general, who had failed miserably in his duty to defend southern Iraq, was captured last Thursday with his bodyguards. Al-Majid, who had made a name for himself by slaughtering the Kurds, was number five on the list of most-wanted Iraqis. He earned his nickname, "Chemical Ali," when he ordered a 1988 gas attack on the city of Halabja that killed 5,000 Kurds, including many women and children.
The Americans now hope that by capturing Majid and Ramadan, they have taken the most important commanders of the resistance out of commission. Ramadan had loudly boasted of guerilla attacks and the use of thousands of suicide bombers, saying "these are our new weapons; there will be a firestorm in the entire region" (Der Spiegel, June 2003).
Once the microphones were turned off, this post-socialist general was able to take a more realistic look at the future. Although he knew that the Baghdad regime under which he had served was doomed, he took comfort in the idea that "the Islamists and bin Laden thugs will take over from us."
And that's exactly the way things seem to be going. Iraq is threatening to become the new battleground between the West and Islamist terrorists who, according to intelligence sources, are "systematically" filtering across the country's hard-to-control borders with Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Diplomats are noting with concern that terrorism in Iraq is taking on a new form, one that is no longer limited to the Americans. Now almost all foreigners are targets, or at least those who are considered Washington's allies. A car bomb tore apart 17 people in front of the Jordanian embassy, the Italians have come under mortar attack, and hand grenades were tossed into the garden of the Turkish ambassador's residence in Baghdad.
Not surprisingly, the Jordanians are relocating their embassy personnel to Faludja, a city in the Sunni triangle considered a stronghold of Saddam supporters. "Here, in the tribal area, we feel safe," Amman's charg� d'affairs tells colleagues. What he is really saying is that the Jordanians believe that it is not activists of the deposed regime, but presumably Islamists who are behind the bomb attack.
This theory seems relatively plausible. The Sunni Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, which is supported by conservative Iranian mullahs, has now claimed responsibility for the attack on the Jordanians, and it is its activists who are said to be launching attacks under other names, as well. Their leader Mullah Krekar, who lives in exile in Norway, recently announced on Lebanese television: "The attack on the Jordanian embassy was the response of devout Muslims to the anti-Islamic activities of the king and his collaborators." The chief of this extremist group, who still enjoys political asylum in Oslo but is being threatened with expulsion because of his open support for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, predicts "even bigger attacks."
Were the UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel also one of the group's targets? Security experts estimate that the Iraqi arm of Ansar al-Islam consists of about 150 well-trained fighters who are willing to do anything. Flyers that are being taken very seriously by diplomats in Baghdad contain threats of attacks against foreigners ("Heretics in the employ of the anti-Islamic media").
If one were to apply the Islamists' muddled logic, the fact that these terrorists targeted the UN, of all things, could also be attributed to the values that have been imported by the infidels. Moreover, many Iraqis associate the UN with the thirteen years of international sanctions that brought them shortages of food and medications. Finally, the UN weapons inspectors were also once headquartered in the Canal Hotel.
According to the newspaper Baghdad Bulletin, the US occupation authority had asked the UN mission to reduce the general security level from four to three just a few days prior to the attack. By doing so, Bremer's team wanted to create the impression "that their troops are getting the security situation under control." In return, the UN was promised greater latitude.
Aside from terrorists, religious fanatics also present a daily challenge to the US occupying forces, and this does not bode well for the noble democratization plans of Washington's strategists. Agitated Muslims have set on fire two breweries in Baakuba northeast of Baghdad, murdered owners of liquor stores in Basra, and threatened to kill owners of movie theaters. In some parts of Baghdad, imams are demanding that women wear "chaste clothing" and no makeup. In the Shiite city of Kerbela, they're attempting to bar women from driving. In many places, images of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini have been pasted over posters of Saddam.
But where is this despot who seems to have vanished underground? He seems to flit about the country like a Jinn, an evil spirit. One day he's supposedly sighted near his hometown of Tikrit, then near Ramadi or in the mountains east of Mosul. On Wednesday night, the Americans stormed a house in Baakuba where they believed the dictator was hiding. But, like so many times before, all they found were some of his more or less distant relatives.
The media, primarily in the United States, are broadcasting gripping stories about Saddam's supposed retreat into an idyllic Bedouin lifestyle. But this theory is belied by the astonishingly frequent taped messages the vanished dictator has managed to get to Arab TV networks Al Jazeera or Al Arabija. In one of his last messages, Saddam called upon "the youth born in 70/71" to join the mujaheddin of Ramadi, an effort for which they would be paid one million dinars, or about 600 dollars.
Gruesome stories from the tyrant's final days are now coming to the surface. According to one account, Saddam had the severed heads of fallen GIs brought to his palace after the first US attack on Baghdad's airport had been repelled.
Saddam's cousin, 60-year-old Sheikh Mahmud Nida Hussein, who complains that Saddam had long since stopped listening to advice, now believes that Iraq is a country "where nothing is valid or true anymore."
The tribal leader sits alone under the arched ceiling of the reception hall in his mansion in Saddam's birthplace, the town of Audja near Tikrit. Blood relatives of the deposed dictator aren't exactly at the top of Iraqi society these days. "The worst thing about the defeat is the humiliation," says the morose Hussein, a chain-smoker, "but the Americans will suffer greatly here - and so will Iraqis."
On a dusty hill not far from the sheik's villa lies a cemetery with the clan's family plot. Saddam's sons Udai and Qusai, as well as his 14-year-old grandson Mustafa, all of whom died during the five-hour battle with US special commandos in Mosul, were the last to be buried here.
The cemetery is guarded by members of the 101st Airborne Division, almost as if they expected Iraq's most-wanted man to pay them a visit. Two Texans are asked when they think Saddam will be lying in this cemetery. They answer without hesitating: "We hope it's soon, so we can all go home."
Translated by Christopher Sultan