An Arab Mogadishu

A report from the most violent place in Iraq.

Published April 21, 2003 9:28PM (EDT)

The donkey had lost its mind and walked in dumb circles in the dead center of the road. We nearly ran it over on our way back to Mosul, on April 13, two days after the city fell. As the damaged animal walked the same tight circle, its brain stuck in a deep rut, the sight of it made the driver Rashad laugh. A dog drank black oil from a ditch. Incomprehensible things would appear whenever we drove into this city, rising up in front of the car in a slow horror show. These apparitions have come to mark the place for me now that Mosul is fast becoming an Arab version of Mogadishu, complete with no-go areas, haphazard self-defense militias and armed criminal gangs. No one is safe.

The city is going through a violent political mutation. Various factions are combining and coming into being in the chaos of the old regime's demise, assembling out of its bitter proteins. Some former Baathists and Iraqi military men are beginning to organize underground opposition to the American occupation, collecting at mosques around the city. There are Iraqi provocateurs and on the other side American soldiers who have accidentally wounded civilians. In the middle are Iraqis who are trying to re-create a civil society. They are failing.

"The situation is so miserable, it is difficult to even discuss the details," Dr. Ahmed Miyasar said Friday at the Saddam hospital. When I asked him who he thought was behind the latest round of fighting and chaos he said: "I'm just a doctor, how do I know?" He didn't want to talk about politics, a first sign that the old regime had not completely lost its grip.

Saddam is rumored to be in the city, tucked away among sympathetic Arabs.

But like most everything here, the rumor is uncertain; perhaps it is a conspiracy theory that comes with the chaos and paranoia of social disorder. Only the chaos is certain. The New York Times has called this city of more than 600,000 "the most violent place in all of postwar Iraq," with at least 31 dead and 150 wounded in clashes in the past nine days. Arabs are fighting with Kurds. Pro-Saddam residents are fighting with anti-Saddam Arabs. And just about everyone is angry at the United States. For Americans, especially, Mosul is not a safe place.

The fall of this city on April 11 was not at all what we expected -- no victorious troops welcomed by cheering masses, no women throwing flowers from balconies, no happy families taking the tour of a free city. Even the destruction of the Saddam portraits seemed haphazard compared to Kirkuk. In Mosul, the kids worked on the portraits the hardest, simply getting into the joy of breaking things, throwing rocks that would fall back down after ricocheting off the plastic sheets. The boys were too young to hate him. On the morning of Mosul's fall, we witnessed an ancient Arab and Kurdish city abandoned and then occupied by no one. It was left to the looters and criminal gangs.

On that day, armed men, some of them Kurds, organized themselves to rob the banks while peasants and poor people from town and nearby villages ransacked the office buildings and utilities. If you asked citizens who was responsible, the Arabs blamed the Kurds and the Kurds blamed the Arabs, but the truth was that everyone was in on the action or hiding. On the morning Mosul fell, we saw Arabs in the bank and Kurds stealing cars.

People came from all over the region to get a piece of whatever they could get, in anything that moved. Begging for American troops and a modicum of security, the citizens of Mosul demanded to know when order would be restored. I told one terrified man that day: "They will be here soon." But he wasn't satisfied, he wanted to know the exact hour. Because of what we'd seen on Friday the 11th of April, we went back a few days later to see if the situation had improved with the arrival of the American forces.

On the second day after the fall of Mosul, we'd found the city calm, with people out shopping and making their way through piles of debris. There was no atmosphere of panic. Men were cleaning up, burning piles of paper on the sidewalk. Women and children were outside and that was a good sign. Near the Bab al Tob, convoys of Humvees carrying U.S. Special Forces moved to trouble spots in the outlying areas. In one building we saw U.S. soldiers chasing a sniper with the help of Kurdish forces. A few passersby saw the convoy and waved. The Americans waved back. After chasing the convoy for a few minutes and losing it we drove to the airport where crowds of Arab men gathered to ask the Americans for help and information.

Some of the men were village leaders, others were professionals. One man in a black business suit explained to the soldiers at the gate that he thought there were crowds of men near the dam who might be plotting to sabotage the city's water supply. The soldier said he would send two armed guards with him to inspect the dam. Older men in kaffiyehs came with information about ammunition dumps and asked the Americans to clear bombs and explosives from their villages. They wrote their requests on slips of paper with ballpoint pen. A few wanted to do business and offer their services and they were not rudely turned away.

Once inside the gates of the airport, I asked a U.S. Army spokesman if there would be a sufficient number of troops in Mosul to maintain order and secure the city. He told me yes, there would be sufficient troops. When I asked him how many, he looked at me and said: "Enough." After the chaos and the looting, the scene at the airport gates seemed positive, a sign that the U.S. was moving toward creating a stable government in Mosul. On our way out of town that day, boys at an impromptu checkpoint brought their father out to say hello and we were invited in for tea and a polite barrage of questions from the neighborhood. We sat in a living room decorated in a grandmotherly style without electricity or running water and felt safe with this family that was living under difficult circumstances.

The good vibrations would not last longer than three more days. During a confused and bloody series of events on Tuesday, April 16, U.S. forces in the Mosul governorate building fired into a crowd of demonstrators. Several Iraqi witnesses said they were demonstrating because they were angered by the speech of a self-appointed Iraqi political figure, Mishaan al Jabouri. Al Jabouri was supposedly welcoming the arrival of the U.S. troops, but he is a hated figure in Iraq and rumors that the Americans were installing him as the new governor may have provoked the crowd. Later, the demonstrators burned his car. On Friday, it sat in a skeletal wreck in front of the governor's office. General Brooks, quoted in the New York Times, said that the Marines only fired on the demonstrators after they had taken fire themselves.

When we drove back to Mosul on Friday, exactly a week after the city's liberation, Dr. Miyasar at the Saddam hospital said that an 11-year-old girl was the victim of an American bullet and that we could go visit her. There wasn't sufficient power at the hospital so the hallway lights were off and it was hard to see where we were going. The place had an acrid, human smell. We walked into the smell and saw bloody bandages lying in heaps. Baravan, our translator, wanted to turn around. We walked past a lady from Baghdad who was camping out in the hospital corridor with her bed roll unfurled; she wanted to chat. The attendant led us through another ward to the intensive care unit.

Amina Assad, the 11-year-old shooting victim, lay in her bed covered in flies with a chest tube in her body. She was awake and talking. Amina's father, a tomato seller, stood next to her and listened to her give us the story of how she was injured. "I was on the roof watching events when a bullet knocked me down. Mishaan al Jabouri was speaking to the people and the people were very upset. Mishaan was saying, 'We will check electricity and water and they will return soon.' Then the bullet came. People were throwing stones, so the guards took him inside the building. When Mishaan went inside he gave the order for them to shoot the people randomly."

We knew that Amina had told this story before because we weren't the first journalists she had spoken to. It was also true that she added a few spurious details about who ordered the shooting, but that wasn't the most troubling part for us. Amina, who is quite talkative, told us that the people in the crowd were shooting at Mishaan al Jabouri, near the governor's office. When she told us this, her father immediately stepped in and corrected her, saying: "They were not shooting, they were only throwing stones." Amina in her hospital bed, critically injured, had been coached on what to say. Most of it was nonsense.

The doctors and staff were hostile and wanted us to leave. Instead we stuck around and were lied to some more by patients and staff. At one point, my Dutch colleague turned to me and asked: "Aren't you getting the weirdest feeling in here?" I told her that I thought there was something deeply wrong. The lies felt coordinated to me; they all hewed to the same rubbery logic. Where were we? I think we had stumbled upon a corner of Baath-landia. Distrust of foreigners does not explain how they acted.

Truth is a deal breaker in Baath-landia. Facts are chased away like urchins. Mohamed Saeed al-Sahaf, the former Iraqi information minister, could stand on an American tank and simultaneously deny its presence in Baghdad. He could say that it was an Iraqi tank, merely lent to Ukrainians dressed as Americans. "Now you see," he would say, "they are not in the city. We are making an action film." I cheered him on during his press conferences because they were so absurd. How long could he hold out and maintain that Baghdad had not fallen? Sahaf's endurance was extraordinary and that should be a warning to the occupiers. There are some Iraqis who are so used to being exposed to the ideological radiation of the regime that they expect a replacement. What has happened to their minds? The coalition might be able to restore electricity and water but it has no answer for this problem. Winning the war was the easy part.

We left the hospital in search of a meal; we heard the mullah's call to prayer. I said we should drive to the Bab al Tob and see if we could find a place downtown where people congregated to eat. Rashad thought this was maybe a bad idea but nodded anyway and drove where I wanted him to go. When we reached the intersection that held the governorate, we saw that the downtown zone had died. No one walking. No traffic. An eerie vacuum that is invariably followed by automatic weapons fire. A full week after its liberation, the city felt less friendly than it had before, deliberated, turning against the Americans. Post-demonstration, post-Amina Mosul, the center was now a free-fire zone. Iraqi flags were flying everywhere. There was another story about the flag. The flag couldn't be touched, one man said, because it had the words "allahu akhbar" on it and lowering it was forbidden. The flag stayed up. Then more went up, until the center was blooming with Iraqi government flags.

The Americans were also missing from the picture. We turned left toward the Tigris and there was a burst of shooting and for the first time in a long time I panicked and gave Rashad bad directions. Rashad stopped the car and I demanded instead that he keep going, which was a mistake. It is always better to wait and get a good read on the situation before driving into a place, and I know this, but I was not thinking clearly. The other streets were one way in the wrong direction. To the right was a much worse choice. We figured it out and there was more automatic weapons fire from the center, men in cars driving by. The U.S. had retreated, possibly to the airport.

Rashad took us to the Kurdish quarter where a kebab place was jumping with customers, most of them armed. I caught Rashad looking at a Kurdish man dressed in black at the table across from us. The man he was watching looked around him like he was expecting trouble. Baravan looked over at the man in black and then told him to please move his rifle so that the barrel didn't point straight at him. I asked Rashad if the man was a peshmerga. Rashad didn't know and didn't think so. It would have been strange if it had been true because the Americans had ordered all the peshmerga out of the city. The question remained about this man's identity and why he was carrying a kalashnikov if he wasn't a soldier. Outside the restaurant, we asked him, "Who is your commander?" The man replied: "I have no commander." Which settled it -- he was a rogue gunman and could have been involved in any of the mayhem that plagued Mosul since its fall. Arabs claimed that they had been harassed by Kurdish gunmen dressed like peshmergas.

We drove away from the center and on the way stopped at a mosque that had piles of looted goods in front of it. We knew that mosques all over Mosul had loot piles inside their walls. The mullahs were busy collecting stolen items from the men who had looted them. The mullahs told the looters that God would forgive them if they returned the goods, and over the course of a week the piles grew. We stopped the car at the Sabrin mosque, which is a humble place with a nice assortment of heavy equipment and computer parts, thinking we could at least add a positive development to the list of events we had witnessed or heard about in the city. This mosque had office supplies and generators, building material in yellow fiber sacks. Someone had taken great care to catalog and mark each item with the name of the man who returned it and where it had come from. A sign over the gate read "Committee of al Wadha," the group of guys. The community was getting itself together.

I walked through the gates and so did my colleague; she was careful to put a scarf over her hair. As soon as we arrived, one of the older men offered me a chair and just then a procession of men carried a body on a bier into the courtyard. We stood until the body was out of sight. The men were kind, they were chatting with us, and there was nothing wrong. A man named Saleh Khalaf told me: "The peshmerga and the Americans make a civil war between Kurdish and Arabs in Mosul, but good men have control of the situation now and everything will be OK." Mr. Khalaf had faith that Kurds and Arabs could work out their differences. Other men said the same things, that the Kurds and Arabs could live in peace. They went on to talk about their system for returning the stolen things. I said the system seemed to be working. Everything was fine. Baravan translated away. The men showed me the ledgers where all the information was recorded and they were proud. They should have been; it was a big job and they had it figured out. All goods went back to their rightful owner through a trusted intermediary. No one was punished or condemned.

The crowd got larger as word got out that there were foreigners at the mosque. Soon we started getting different kinds of questions. Angry men pushed their way in from the back rows to get their statements in. A very angry man with a beard and a shaved upper lip hijacked the conversation. "Muslims are not terrorists!" he shouted. "The responsibility for this is with the American forces because they push the peshmerga into Mosul. They brought us Saddam Hussein and they destroyed everything in all Muslim countries. We will start to arm ourselves against the thieves. We won't forget what happened with the American forces and we will try to do what is necessary to the American forces." This man who was angry gave his name as Brigadier Engineer Taha Yassin. It also happens to be the name of one of the Iraqi vice presidents, a man close to Saddam. Baravan drifted to the edge of the crowd, which was still growing. Some of the angry men spoke English.

One man was a university professor in a red sweater who spoke eloquently, but I lost him in the crush of people. They asked who I was, and I told them. It did not go over well. One man accused me of being a spy and wanted to know why I was traveling with a Dutch woman. The same man yelled and demanded to know why the peshmerga were arresting Baath Party members. I told him it was the first I was hearing about it. Another man blamed the war on the Iranians, Kuwaitis and the Jews, and then I knew who the angry men were. They were Baathists who lost out and had come together at the mosque. The Sabrin mosque was their meeting point. It also happened to be the meeting point of good men who wanted to do the right thing. It was the problem of competing forces.

Someone was stirring up a problem behind us. One man reached over and slapped at my colleague's arm and she looked at him and kept writing. A man shouted: "The Americans must go out!" We stayed until Baravan came up to me. "We should leave now," he said, and he didn't look good. I accepted that because it had become impossible to work. We were walking through the gates when another man wanted to know what I was doing. I told him that I had just spoken to the other Muslim men. He was not satisfied. "Do you need anything here?" he yelled. The crowd followed. We were not walking quickly enough for Baravan who had made it to the car. Rashad had the car running. My colleague Minka from Holland got in the car and we drove out of town. Baravan said later: "Do you know why I brought you out of there?" I told him I thought it was just generally unpleasant. "No," Baravan said, "that's not why. I heard someone say 'Kahtilohom.'" I wanted to know what that meant. "It means 'Kill them.'"

[For a directory of Phillip Robertson's past stories from Iraq, click here.]

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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