Incident on Khairallah Tulfa Street

A search for Sadr City's killing fields goes terribly wrong.

Published July 14, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Haidar was proud of his ride. He owned a red 1997 Nissan coupe with a six-cylinder engine, which he drove all over Baghdad listening to the same 50 Cent tape. Haidar's English was only halfway there, but he had the driving part of the job down. We took his Nissan through checkpoints, over flyways, around firefights, listening to American soldier hip-hop or Lebanese pop music. Haidar is half Americanized, one of those men who come of age during a U.S. occupation. He loved the power and style of the U.S. military, but he also had good connections with a certain militia group operating in the city. He lived in both worlds out of necessity, but didn't trade on it. I hired him on the recommendation of a colleague and friend who had spent a great deal of time in Baghdad.

Haidar's 50 Cent tape was the perfect soundtrack for the capital, now a gangland paradise brutally rewritten by explosions and the violent incarnations of greed and revenge. I found the music helped with the lethal comedy of the place. It was Haidar whom I asked to set me up with a meeting with a certain cop from Sadr City.

I wanted to talk to the cop because I wanted to find out more about a place called al-Seddeh and a mysterious figure named Abu Dereh. I'd been looking into a secret Mahdi Army court located in Sadr City, which pronounces summary sentences upon the Sunni captives who end up before it. Those same captives would later be found in shallow graves, bound and bearing signs of torture, in an empty field at the edge of Sadr City, a piece of waste ground called al-Seddeh, which Iraqis have nicknamed the "Happiness Hotel." Abu Dereh, or "Father of Shield," is a name that kept coming up in interviews about this court. One police source said he was the major figure behind the death squads and he carried out the sentences. I began to think of Abu Dereh as a dark king inside Sadr City, the face the sheiks and imams did not want exposed to the press.

The initial plan was to ride in a police convoy, take a quick look at the dumping site and then get out. In any case, a visit would have to be made with gunmen, since going alone would be impossible, and I made a decision to try the police first. An earlier police contact had stopped answering the phone, and going through Haidar and his friends was a backup plan.

On June 9, Haidar's contact told us that we had to wait for the officer, a man named Sgt. Ahmad, at a restaurant in a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood called Talbiyah. Talbiyah was under the putative control of the Mahdi Army. The cop had told Haidar, "Go to the Habaibna restaurant at 3 p.m. and call me when you get there." We were at the restaurant five minutes early. Haidar followed the instructions and called the cop and let him know we had arrived.

The Habaibna is a famous place in Baghdad. It's one of those big open-air restaurants where the men make juice drinks in the shade of the awning and the guys working the grill make decent shawarma. I've met Sadr contacts there over the past three years and have felt like it was a reasonably safe bet. The rules for the Shiite parts of town are different. I would never have waited on the street for a contact in a Sunni part of town. That would have been a death sentence.

We waited at one of the tables under the awning. Fifteen minutes went by and the cop had not arrived. It was obvious we were being watched by everyone in the place, but since we were waiting for the police, I decided to wait for a few more minutes.

We kept calling the cop, trying to find out when he was planning to arrive. He kept saying he would be there in a few minutes, a few minutes longer, I'm at the gas station, I'll be right there.

After the last of our calls, four members of the restaurant staff came over in a group and told us we had to leave. One of the restaurant men, a short man with a thin beard wearing a black shirt, said they were kicking us out was because we hadn't ordered anything, and also because we were making the other customers nervous.

After the restaurant men came over and told us to leave we walked back out in the blinding sun to the car. Instead of leaving the neighborhood, we drove to a spot about 50 feet from the Habaibna on a broad boulevard named after Saddam's beloved Nazi uncle, Khairallah Tulfa, where I could watch the arriving police patrols. A few police officers stopped and questioned us and we explained we were waiting for Sgt. Ahmad, so they led us down the street another 200 feet and told us to wait by their vehicles under a large shade tree. "The Habaibna is a bad place, you should come with us," one cop said and we followed them.

Having covered the Mahdi Army for a few years now, I was not particularly worried about serious kidnapping attempts coming from their direction. They are not particularly keen on kidnapping foreigners, and Muqtada al-Sadr has stated that he is against the kidnapping of journalists. The few Western hostages they have seized have been freed after a few days of phone calls to various sympathetic sheiks. There is one notable exception: Steven Vincent, who was murdered in Basra in 2005 while looking into militia infiltration of the police. His killers have not been caught or identified.

I was making friendly conversation with a few of the officers when an ordinary-looking man in his 40s walked over. "I have seen some suspicious men down the street. They are loading fuel into a tank in their car, I think they are terrorists," the informant said. One of the SUVs full of friendly cops immediately left to check on the tip. This meant there was only one vehicle left under the shade tree with us.

Five minutes later, Sgt. Ahmad finally showed up with two police SUVs, more than an hour late. Sgt. Ahmad was an imposing man, tall and with an angular jaw. When he arrived, the first thing he did was open the door of the police vehicle parked near us and in a low voice tell the driver to beat it. This scared Haidar and he stopped translating; he was just waiting for Ahmad to give him instructions. After sending off the last of the friendly cops, Ahmad turned to Haidar and asked him which story I was working on. Haidar told him everything -- all the details of the death squad investigation, including the names of people I had interviewed.

I could see that Ahmad didn't like it. He didn't want to hear the name Abu Dereh in Sadr City or the names of officials in the Mahdi Army whom I had talked to. Those names carried serious weight and would only mean problems for him.

Haidar shouldn't have told him all those details, but he was frightened and wanted to leave. By telling the cop what I was working on, he thought it would go easier for him.

My conversation with Ahmad lasted three minutes. The police sergeant said he had to go, but to ask any question I wanted. It was immediately clear to me that he would not answer any of my questions, and Ahmad knew I knew this. His responses were brief, useless and full of disinformation. Ahmad told me that Sadr City was fine, there were no problems there, that the police were protecting people. I thanked him. Then he walked away from us so he could make a phone call we could not overhear, more strange behavior.

By this time, I was worried. I gave up on the interview and headed for the car. Ahmad's patrol pulled away down the street, leaving us alone on Khairallah Tulfa street. We got into Haidar's car. He started the engine and was just pulling away from the curb when the attack started.

A dark sedan carrying four men suddenly crossed the median of Khairallah Tulfa going in the wrong direction, heading straight for us, trying to cut us off. When the driver hit the brakes, there was about 15 feet between our respective fenders. I remember exactly what I was thinking as our cars approached each other: "Who is this guy who can't drive?" Their car stopped and the shotgun passenger got out with a Kalashnikov. But Haidar had seen the men carrying weapons in the car a second before I did. He hit the gas, swerving around the dark sedan and the man in the road with the rifle. It was a matter of split-second timing, and the attackers had miscalculated. If they had approached faster, they would have been able to block our car.

As Haidar drove around the dark sedan, the man with the rifle opened fire. He fired a long burst, going through an entire magazine, but the bullets never struck the car, either because he had no weapons discipline or because he was deliberately shooting in the air to try to stop us. In any case, firing directly into the car might have lessened the value of a Western hostage.

I put my head down and did not look back after he started shooting, only straight ahead to the open street in front of us, listening to the loud, ripping sound of the rifle. The attackers in the sedan had wanted us to stop, but we did not stop. We finally were clear of them and Haidar hit the gas and the Nissan pulled out and accelerated down the street empty of traffic.

When gunfire erupts on a street in Baghdad, drivers find the quickest way to turn around and head away from the shooting. People drive over medians, up on the curbs, anything that will put some distance between them and the firefight. And this is exactly what the Bedouins driving the vegetable truck were doing in the opposite lanes after the men in the dark sedan opened fire on us. The driver of the truck crossed the median in front of us, heading into our lanes, completely blocking them as he executed his turn. In his fear and desperation to get away from the attackers, Haidar never touched the brakes. We hit the truck going 40.

There was the instant of the crash -- the looming truck and then the feeling of striking the dashboard, the sound of a skull hitting the dashboard and a flash of pain. Haidar's head hit the steering wheel. The front end of the car absorbed most of the energy of the collision. It was destroyed, but neither of us were seriously injured, a miracle.

A second after we hit the truck, Haidar opened his car door and sprinted into the street over broken glass and car parts. I did the same, looking back to see if we were being pursued. I saw no dark car, no sign of the attackers. After the commotion of the accident, there was no way the men in the sedan could have made a second attempt. We watched from a side street as the Iraqi police from the nearest station arrived with five patrols and blocked off the street, and immediately got into a fight over who had jurisdiction over the crash. The cops put us in an SUV and drove us out of the neighborhood, stunned and beat up from the crash.

After three hours at a local police station where Haidar was interrogated, the police took us back to the Hamra with their sirens on, firing warning shots out the windows, which is their usual way of driving around Baghdad.

Later, I was visiting Umm Hassan, a kind Shiite woman, at her modest house, and after I told her the story she said without surprise, "You should sacrifice a sheep in thanks."

We never found out who the attackers were, which group they belonged to or what they wanted with us. In retrospect, after going through a long, paranoid chain of best guesses, I decided that it was probably Sgt. Ahmad who set up the kidnapping attempt. The cop finally had to put in an appearance to make sure it went off properly. Ahmad knew where we were and what time we would be there. The guys in the restaurant were probably tipped off that something was going down, which is why they hustled us out. And the ordinary-looking 40-year-old man who told the friendly cops about the suspicious characters was in on the plan, too: He was trying to lure the friendly patrols away and leave us unguarded.

Iraqis fear kidnapping as much as they fear anything else, and with good reason. While the few Western hostages (fortunately) get a great deal of press in their home countries, large numbers of Iraqis are kidnapped every day. Lately, there has been a trend away from taking single hostages, toward taking them by the dozen. Entire buses and offices have been cleared out by armed men with unknown affiliation. Workers on the way to work, people leaving for the Syrian border by road on buses, store owners, embassy workers, Iraqis doing business with Western companies, anyone. Mass kidnappers near Taji have demanded identification from the victims and sorted them according to whether they are Sunni or Shiite, killing those who are in the opposing group. No one is immune.

Last year during a patrol in Dora with the California National Guard, we were driving down the southern highway at midnight and found the body of a man lying in the road with a single gunshot wound to his chest, the blood pouring out onto the tarmac. He'd been dumped there, possibly killed for his car, or the victim of a sectarian attack. The man's body looked broken and ruined on the road.

I remember another incident, a few weeks later on another patrol, in the Western neighborhood of Amariyah. I was with a group of soldiers when we found an abandoned white sedan, still running. A translator for a Western embassy had been driving it. The man had been captured only moments before our humvee had turned the corner but now he was definitely gone, no longer present, another one of Baghdad's ghosts.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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