Fear and loathing in Iraq

Nightly shootings, daily suicide attacks, deadly kidnappings and a hundred-headed insurgency have made life increasingly unbearable.

Published December 6, 2005 11:00AM (EST)

The road to Baghdad's airport, long considered the city's most notorious deathtrap, is flanked by the two neighborhoods Jihad and Amiriya. They have never been considered as exclusive as the area along the banks of the Tigris River, where the cronies of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein once lived. But the districts were nevertheless refuges for members of the Iraqi middle class, who lived there in small villas from the 1970s. At a comfortable distance from the perilous center of power, there were plenty of green spaces, shops, ice cream parlors, schools, parks and mosques. Life was pleasant in Jihad and Amiriya.

But anyone returning to the two neighborhoods these days will have difficulty recognizing the western sections of the Iraqi capital. Within half an hour after sundown, the streets are pitch-black in an area where there is no electricity, and where the only houses with lights are those with rattling, fume-belching generators in their front yards. In the old days, Baghdad's streets came alive at night, but nowadays the day comes to an end by early evening. No one dares set foot outside, since taking a walk means gambling with one's life. Shots can be heard every night, and every morning more people are dead.

Handwritten black mourning banners have been fluttering for days on Amal al-Shabi Street in Amiriya. The banners are there to commemorate Bakr Mohammed, who was shot in his grocery shop; Abu Ahmed, who was murdered while on his way to his auto repair shop; and goldsmith Sharif Abd al-Khalid, whose shop was blown up.

"In the name of God the All-Merciful," begins the obituary for "Dr. Amal al-Mansuri, Martyr," a pharmacist. According to the obituary, "she was murdered by the cowardly hands of filthy criminals. Condolence visits from November 25-28. We all come from God and we all return to God."

Only six months after the U.S.-led invasion, the last shop in Amiriya that still sold beer was forced to close its doors. Selling alcohol is a mortal sin for the gangs of young Iraqis who now control the neighborhood. In the changed reality of life in Baghdad today, even male hairdressers who cut women's hair risk losing their lives unless they abandon their profession.

The killers who forced their way into Sadia Abd al-Hussein's hair salon weren't looking for Western customers. Instead, they had their sights set on Hussein himself and his regular Iraqi customers. Three people were dead by the time the terrorists left his shop.

Many hairdressers have switched to the mobile phone business, but that too has become a dangerous profession. Mobile phones play music, and music is "haram" -- forbidden under the religious rules the fundamentalist militias seek to impose.

One in four houses in Amiriya is now for sale, as western Baghdad's once-mixed neighborhoods gradually become more segregated. Shiites are fleeing in droves from primarily Sunni neighborhoods like Jihad and Amiriya, while Sunnis are getting out of majority Shiite areas of the city as fast as they can. But none of Iraq's religious groups can feel safe as the violence in the once-peaceful neighborhoods spins out of control. "Sunni gangsters shoot faster," says English teacher Hussam Ali, a Shiite. "That's the only difference."

Three weeks ago, another section of the city saw angry protests against the Shiite-dominated government after U.S. troops discovered a secret interrogation bunker run by the Iraqi interior ministry. The soldiers freed about 170 emaciated Sunni torture victims, terrorism suspects the Iraqis had arrested weeks and months ago.

Despite the fact that the prisoners were fellow Muslims, no one in Amiriya expressed outrage over the discovery. "I didn't hear a single complaint," says retiree Muhannith Kassim, a former employee in Saddam's oil ministry. Indeed, Kassim believes that the government does far too little against terrorists in his own neighborhood. "It's not enough to torture these people in some bunker," he says. "They should be strung up on the open street, the way Saddam used to do it. They should put the fear of death into these people."

According to an American study just released, Iraq sees more than a hundred attacks a day -- twice as many as last year. Forty-six major bomb attacks, each claiming several lives, were committed in September, making it the deadliest month since the beginning of the Iraq war. About 400 people died in November 2005, more than four times as many as in November 2004.

Criminal statistics in Iraq no longer distinguish between politically motivated killings and conventional murder -- and no one even bothers to count the numbers of thefts, blackmailings, muggings and kidnappings. The abyss of violence seems bottomless, and the victims are almost always Iraqi citizens. "There are currently 48 Iraqi victims for each American death," says Kamran Karadaghi, the chief of staff of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Despite the buzz of commerce in some parts of the country, like the northern Kurdish region, Iraq today is anything but the model democratic state the Americans promised and the Iraqis had hoped for after the fall of Saddam.

Instead, today's Iraq is the scene of daily horrors. Anyone who spends time standing in front of a police station or near a public institution, a hospital, for example, runs the constant risk of being killed by a suicide bomber. Most attacks are committed by Sunnis, and most acts of revenge by Shiites. The motive of revenge is a tremendous recruitment tool for all terrorist groups in the country -- revenge for the destruction of a house, revenge for having to lie in the dust for hours in front of the occupiers, revenge for the death of a friend or relative.

The situation is so bad that some officials in Washington have found it necessary to pay for positive coverage by the Iraqi press. A Pentagon propaganda unit has reportedly made million-dollar contracts with American P.R. firms hired to place pro-American articles in Baghdad newspapers. The questionable approach toward press freedom even has many in the U.S. Department of Defense concerned.

According to Ayad Allawi, a former Iraqi prime minister and considered a leading candidate for the office again in the upcoming Dec. 15 election, there has not even been any progress when it comes to human rights. "They are doing the same things we saw in the Saddam days and even worse," he complained about the new government authorities in a recent interview with Britain's weekly Observer.

The kidnapping business is an especially dark facet of violence happening daily. Although abduction for ransom money began in Iraq in the first few days following the invasion, it was hardly noticed because the group most heavily affected was small and shrinking every day -- wealthy Iraqis who had not managed to get out of the country in time.

One of them, textile merchant Yassin al-Rubai, 49, comes from the Jihad neighborhood. After much soul-searching, Rubai finally decided to sell his business and move with his family to Egypt. He had expected the drive to the Rafidain Bank in the Mansur neighborhood to be one of his last drives in Baghdad before selling his old BMW. But he was wrong.

A few hundred meters from his house, a red Toyota pulled in front of Rubai, blocking his way. Three men got out, calmly pulled him from his car and threw him into his trunk. "Empty your pockets," said one of the men, holding a pistol to his head as he lay in the trunk. "You won't be leaving here before you pay us a lot of money." Rubai gave the men the $11,000 he had just withdrawn from the bank, and then they shut the trunk and began driving away in the BMW.

Rubai knew that his car's trunk lock was broken and he was able to open the trunk and jump out. Despite breaking one of his legs and his shoulder, he barely noticed the pain and hobbled from the scene as quickly as he was able, likely saving his life in the process.

He now knows that the men had been spying on him for weeks. Ever since the attempted kidnapping, he has been living with relatives in Sadr City, a Shiite slum on the other side of Baghdad. His leg cast has been removed, but he has already had four surgeries to repair his shoulder. Rubai and his wife have taken their children out of school, fearful that they could be harmed en route. Rubai's wife spends most of her day sitting apathetically at the kitchen table, sometimes weeping. But the family can no longer afford to flee to Egypt.

As the wealthiest Iraqis have left the country, ransom payments have come down but the number of kidnappings has not. "Ten to 15 kidnapping cases are reported to us each day in Baghdad alone," says police colonel and Interior Ministry official Adnan al-Hajali. On some days that number is twice as high and Hajali doesn't even venture to speculate over how many cases go unreported, adding that countrywide statistics are being compiled.

The Interior Ministry has established a department dedicated to tackling the kidnapping epidemic, but few believe it can solve the problem, especially now that its agents' propensity for torture has been exposed. Even Iraqi police officers have little regard for the new department. "That would be the last place I would go if someone in my family had been kidnapped," says one police officer. His comment reflects the widespread suspicion that Interior Ministry officials have their own fingers in the pot when it comes to the flourishing trade in human lives.

About half of the abduction cases Hajali lists took place in the relatively affluent western section of the city, especially in the Jihad and Amiriya neighborhoods. The typical victims are Iraqi employees of Western firms -- interpreters and employees of the U.S. military, politicians, police officers and security officers. Even children have become targets, reflecting a general decline in moral thresholds.

Saad Jamil is 10 years old and was a pupil at the Ibn al-Heitham elementary school in Adhamiya. In early November, a group of masked men abducted him while he was waiting for a school bus and took him to a warehouse in the Sheikh Omar neighborhood, where they were also holding other children. When the kidnappers called his father, an engineer, and demanded a $100,000 ransom, he barely managed to stammer a sentence, one for which he is ashamed today: "Then kill the boy. I don't have that much money." His son was released in mid-November -- for a tenth of the original ransom demand.

Over the millennia, violence has always played a major role in what is now Iraq. But kidnapping is a new and increasingly popular weapon, next to more pedestrian crimes, in the growing conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Nowadays, whenever a prominent Sunni or Shiite disappears, retaliation increasingly comes in the form of another kidnapping. The hostages in these retaliatory abductions are not always exchanged, nor do they always survive.

Iraq's booming abduction business only entered the global consciousness in April 2004, when a foreign hostage fell into the hands of terrorists for the first time. Whereas Iraqis are kidnapped almost exclusively for monetary gain, the kidnappings of foreigners are often tied to political demands, at least initially. But despite the hundreds of abductions of non-Iraqis to date, it remains difficult to discern any consistent patterns of behavior. Kidnappers are becoming as inscrutable as the terrorist milieu itself.

But almost all cases have one thing in common. Whether the kidnappers are gangs of thugs driven by money or supposedly politically motivated groups affiliated with Iraqi al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, none of them hesitate to kill, especially when their hostages are American or British.

As if to convey the message that they must be severely dealt with as punishment for their countries' invasion of Iraq, American or British hostages are not only humiliated, but their deaths seem to be a foregone conclusion from the moment they are abducted. Especially when they fall into the hands of terrorists like Zarqawi. This only heightens the sense of horror Americans feel when they see images of terrified U.S. citizens captured by terrorists, citizens like 21-year-old U.S. soldier Matthew Keith Maupin. He was abducted on April 9, 2004, in an attack on his convoy and then paraded before the world as a helpless hostage on a video taken by his captors. Since then the fate of Pvt. Maupin is unknown, at least officially, although a poor-quality video released weeks after his abduction appears to show his execution.

The more professional video images of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, 62, are quite the opposite. They reveal a perfidious effort by the terrorists to dramatize the kidnapping and its aftermath. A group affiliated with Zarqawi kidnapped Bigley, an engineer, together with U.S. citizens Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, in September 2004. In an apparent allusion to the al-Qaida detainees in the U.S. camp at Guantánamo Bay, the men, all involved in the Iraqi development effort, were forced to wear orange prisoners' jumpsuits. The murder of Bigley, whose throat was slit on live video after he had been held for three weeks, remains one of the most gruesome acts recorded during the Iraqi conflict to date.

The relatives of German hostage Susanne Osthoff hope that her close personal ties with Iraq could save her life, but they may not have reason to be too optimistic. Polish hostage Teresa Borcz Khalifa, abducted in October 2004 by a group calling itself the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Fundamentalist Brigades, probably owes her life to the fact that she had been living in Iraq for 30 years and was married to an Iraqi. After all, the Polish government refused to comply with the terrorists' demands that it withdraw all Polish troops from Iraq. But the 59-year-old British citizen Margaret Hassan's relatively strong ties to Iraq did not help her. Her kidnappers were not even impressed by the fact that Hassan, head of Baghdad operations of the British aid organization CARE International, was widely respected in the country for her work on behalf of Iraqis.

"Please help me. Please help me," stammered Hassan in a video released by her captors. Hassan, who like Susanne Osthoff, was widely seen as a person who would prove resilient under pressure, wept and appealed to the government in London to withdraw British troops, but her efforts were in vain. She was shot on live video. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the murder of the first female hostage in Iraq "abhorrent," but he rejected the idea of giving in to the kidnappers' demands, just as almost every other government affected by kidnappings has.

So far only one head of state, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, has capitulated to kidnappers. When a group called the Khalid Ibn al-Walid brigade kidnapped Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz, Arroyo came under intense domestic political pressures to meet the terrorists' demands. She announced publicly in Manila that she would withdraw 51 Filipino soldiers and police officers from Iraq "a few days earlier" than planned. Her efforts paid off for de la Cruz, who was released.

But a government's unwillingness to yield to kidnapper demands isn't necessarily a death sentence for a hostage. For example, both France and Italy refused to give in to the terrorists and nevertheless managed to save the lives of hostages. After being held for 157 days, French reporter Florence Aubenas, 44, and her Iraqi driver Hussein Hanun were released unharmed, as was her Italian colleague Giuliana Sgrena, 57. In both cases, the respective governments used their intelligence connections and also did not hesitate to deal with shady middlemen.

The shocking death of Italian agent Nicola Calipari revealed the extent to which Italian intelligence pulled strings to gain the release of reporter Sgrena. The Italians had picked up the journalist from her kidnappers near Baghdad, but Calipari was accidentally shot by U.S. soldiers at a roadblock on the way to the airport. The events surrounding the incident remain a source of tension between Rome and Washington.

Although Sgrena still believes that her kidnappers were "very political," they didn't seem to mind that Rome refused to meet their demands, which included the withdrawal of Italy's troops from Iraq. Sgrena's release was allegedly brought about primarily by the delivery of up to 8 million euros in ransom money to middlemen in Abu Dhabi. But if Susanne Osthoff has fallen into the clutches of an al-Qaida group, even Sgrena believes that the chances of her release are slim. The former hostage believes that "one murder more or less makes no difference" to people like Zarqawi.

Terrorism expert Mustafa Alani from the Gulf Research Center in Dubai believes the Sunni fundamentalist Zarqawi usually doesn't kidnap for money. "For al-Qaida, as well as for the larger groups of Iraqi insurgents, it's the propaganda value of a hostage that's so important -- both to the Western public and to their own supporters," says Alani, who is originally from the Iraqi city Fallujah.

Alani explains that Osthoff is a hostage of "little political value" for religiously and politically motivated groups, because a German isn't a particularly attractive trophy for al-Qaida or the Iraqi nationalists. "Germans have no impact on the market in this segment of the kidnapping business," he says.

Although the overwhelming majority of kidnappings and murders in Iraq are committed for criminal reasons, those crimes by both local insurgents and the religious fundamentalist terrorists will ultimately determine whether Iraq ends up slipping into the chaos of civil war. This is why it is so unsettling to see how little Iraqi officials, as well as American and British intelligence agencies, truly know about an insurgency that has been raging for two years and is increasing in intensity.

Part of this lack of knowledge arises from the fact the guerrilla movement in Iraq is not a homogeneous, national revolt. Comparisons between the Iraqi insurgency and other guerrilla wars in history are of little use. It has no Ho Chi Minh, Castro or Mao, at its helm and the specific political objectives for the daily attacks remain a mystery. The Washington-based SITE Institute, which monitors the activities of Iraqi insurgents on the basis of their publications on the Internet, counts more than 100 resistance and terrorist groups. This increasingly bewildering array of organizations has "no focal point, no leadership and no hierarchy," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert with RAND in Washington. "It's more of a constellation than an organization, and these groups have assumed a structure that guarantees them long-term survival."

The supporters of former dictator Saddam Hussein have grouped themselves under names like "Flag of Iraq" and "Islamic Army in Iraq." They liken their struggle to the anticolonial rebellion against the British in 1920. Their goal is to secure the influence of the Sunni minority, and they fear dominance by the Shiites and the Iranian mullahs with whom some Iraqi Shiite leaders have aligned themselves.

The Jordanian terrorist Zarqawi has both latched on to this insurgency and propelled it forward, and he is today considered al-Qaida's point man in Iraq. His role model Osama bin Laden has dubbed the Iraq conflict the "decisive battle" in a third world war. Zarqawi is able to commit his bombings and murders with the help of a small army of foreign volunteers, religious fanatics who have found their way to Baghdad -- and not just from the Arab world but increasingly from Islamic circles in the West. Indeed, there were likely more al-Qaida supporters in Brooklyn than in Baghdad before the war. It is a bitter irony indeed that the once very secular Iraq has become such a hotbed for the spread of jihadist fundamentalist ideology.

The remnants of that secular tradition are reflected in those Sunni groups who are just as attracted to Iraqi nationalism as to fighting non-Muslims. According to a study by the U.S. Army War College, the many-faceted Iraqi resistance movement is "more explosive than in Vietnam, a many-headed snake, incapable of unifying but difficult to kill."

Statistics on the size of the terrorist organizations in Iraq are just as confusing. According to U.S. military estimates, their numbers range anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 fighters, and they run the gamut from hotheads willing to fire a Kalashnikov or a grenade launcher for as little as $20 to highly specialized explosives experts with the skills to trigger Russian-made land mines with a mobile phone. Nowadays even children are apparently willing to die as suicide bombers. And in a recent suicide bombing near Baghdad, a Belgian woman who had converted to Islam before marrying a Moroccan became the first European woman to blow herself up for the insurgency.

To save their own skins, some Iraqis have even taken to selling the addresses of members of the new Iraqi security forces to terrorist death squads for a few dinars. The security situation has become so precarious that some Iraqi civil servants wear ski masks on their way to work.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is using generous political concessions to the Sunnis, thick bundles of cash for the Sunni clans, and offers of amnesty for Saddam's officers in an effort to thin the ranks of the insurgents. His tactics are a reflection of Washington's aim to divide the rebels. "My philosophy is that we must isolate Zarqawi and those who want to see Saddam back in power from the rest of the country," Khalilzad says. Officials are already considering issuing a wide-reaching amnesty for any insurgents that do not fall within either of those two categories.

But so far these efforts have not led to a return to normality. The one goal that unites the various insurgent groups is still too tempting: handing a devastating defeat to the American occupiers. Indeed, some Sunni nationalists claim that this is the only reason they have been willing to align themselves with Zarqawi. "Once the Americans are gone, we will fight the jihadists," promises Abu Kaka al-Tamimi, a former officer in Saddam's elite Republican Guard who now trains suicide bombers. The holy war against the infidels and the promise of a place of honor in paradise holds little allure for him and others who apparently would be perfectly happy with a decent life in this world.

The American strategy of isolating Zarqawi's core group of Islamists could still work, says terrorism expert Alani. The group of Iraqi nationalist fighters is increasingly distancing itself from Zarqawi's cohorts, because they disagree with the goals of the ally of bin Laden. According to Alani, "Zarqawi wants to start an Islamist global revolution on Iraqi soil. The fate of Iraq means nothing to him."

But the United States' divide-and-conquer strategy also has its risks. "The leaders of the nationalist groups are concerned that more and more angry young Iraqis are joining Zarqawi's group," says Alani. "They see the leaders of the nationalist resistance as too weak and too willing to compromise." According to Alani, these young recruits are attracted to Zarqawi out of a conviction that "no one can punish our enemies more effectively" than he does.

Jordan's King Abdullah II has also commented on this fundamental shift in the Iraqi insurgency. Although Zarqawi ordered the series of attacks on three luxury hotels in the Jordanian capital Amman on Nov. 9, they were carried out by four Iraqis -- as was confirmed by a woman from Ramadi, the only surviving attacker.

King Abdullah said that he believes that the al-Qaida terrorist network in Iraq, which previously consisted almost exclusively of non-Iraqi Arabs, is increasingly attracting locals. More and more Iraqis are being discovered among the ranks of killed or arrested jihadists, says Abdullah, and at some point this will also apply to the al-Qaida leadership in Iraq. "If Zarqawi is eliminated one of these days, he won't be replaced by a foreigner," the king believes. "It will be an Iraqi."

Washington's attempts to reduce the number of attacks, control crime and ultimately make the country a safer place have another significant defect: They have met with resistance within the Shiite-dominated government. Muafaq al-Rubai, national security advisor to the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, believes that U.S. concessions will only encourage the insurgents to keep up their attacks, threatening to plunge Iraq into a decades-long conflict. Influential Shiite cleric Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has even asked the U.S. to give Iraqi troops free rein to stage tough counterattacks on the insurgency.

If the Shiites are in fact given carte blanche to fight the insurgents, it would likely remove one of the last remaining obstacles to civil war in Iraq. The country would then descend into years of the kind of carnage that once consumed Lebanon, bloodshed on a much greater scale than the attacks, kidnappings and general increase in lawlessness seen today.

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, please visit Spiegel Online at http://www.spiegel.de/international or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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