EDITOR’S NOTE:This is the third in a five-part series of excerpts from In the Red Zone by Steven Vincent. Together they constitute Chapter 4, “The ‘Resistance.’”
Violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.
Nam, nam, Saddam! (Yes, yes, Saddam!)
–An Iraqi boy, Fallujah, January, 2004
One beautiful late winter morning, I found myself standing on a street corner in downtown Fallujah, surrounded by a crowd of Iraqi men, each person shoving forward to express an identical sentiment: hatred for the United States of America.
”America bad, worse than Saddam. They must leave our country at once!” one man growled.
“American soldiers no good. Life was better under Saddam!” said another.
“We have no gas, no electricity, no security. When Saddam was president, everything was fine, life was good.”
“Saddam was a good man. We hate President Bush! We hate America!”
The conversation didn’t start this way. At first, I approached two men on the corner and we engaged in a reasonable, relatively balanced critique of the U.S. presence near their city. Gradually, though, as more people joined the group, the volume of the voices rose. Each accusation against America spawned another, harsher, castigation. Newcomers entering the discussion added even more severe views, until the entire encounter took on a radical tone. It was a phenomenon I noticed several times over there, especially in the Sunni Triangle. In heated conversation, there was a rush toward the extremes: the more vehement and violent the view, the more likely it would emerge as the consensus of a group.
Not that I was particularly alarmed this morning. Anticipating a flood of anti-American invective in this ancient smugglers den thirty-five miles west of Baghdad, I identified myself as a Yugoslavian journalist, gambling on Iraqi ignorance of southeast Europe to see the deception through. It worked. No one challenged me, or asked for any documents; in fact, nearly everyone was exceedingly polite, if agitated. Perhaps the residents didn’t care where a reporter was from, just as long as he gave an ear to their complaints.
“The people here are angry,” observed Dhia, as we drove away, passing a broken-down amusement park near Fallujah’s souk. I nodded, resisting a temptation to ask him what he felt about America: the last thing I needed was to be alienated from my own driver in the heart of the Sunni Triangle.
I met Dhia in the fall when I asked the Armenian desk clerk at the Orient Palace to recommend someone to take me to the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf. A gentle, slightly effeminate man with a soft smile and feathery voice, the twenty-nine-year-old dressed in neat slacks and polo shirts, had a good command of English, and drove his own BMW. In our travels throughout southern Iraq, he proved a good and trustworthy companion. When I returned to Iraq that winter, I contacted him, asking if he could take me to the towns of the Sunni Triangle. “No problem, Mister Steve–with me, you will be safe,” Dhia promised.
And so, under his watchful eye, I assessed the intensity of anti-American sentiment. In Ramadi, a bustling market town of around 450,000 people, I conversed with a man preparing for the Friday lunch rush at an outdoor café. “America should leave now, not tomorrow,” he declared, chopping lamb into little kebob squares. “Iraq is not safe because they are here. Americans shoot anyone, they break into homes and steal money.” At a tea stand, a studious-looking young man shook his head. “At first we welcomed America. Then the soldiers began killing people.” Another crowd gathered, everyone eager to tell the inquisitive Yugoslav why they despise the U.S.: no electricity, no gas; GIs break into houses, arrest people, and “touch” women. Life was better under Saddam. I asked nine small boys gawking at me if the former dictator was a “good man.” All nine said yes.
One can perhaps understand why. Although totaling around 15 percent of Iraq’s Arab population, the Sunnis have dominated Iraq since the mid-sixteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire used the sect as a bulwark against the Shia-influenced Persians to the east. In the twentieth century, the British and Iraq’s British-controlled monarchy continued the policy of favoring the Sunnis and their well-developed administrative skills. Under Saddam, a Sunni himself, the religious sect reached the apogee of its power, thriving under a system of patronage and government benefits that awarded them top positions in all aspects of Iraqi life. In 2003, the American war machine ended their reign; suddenly, the jobs, pensions, and prestige the Sunnis used to lord over the Kurds and Shia were gone.
On a Ramadi street corner, I found a graying old man wearing a tattered brown sweater struggling to serve a small knot of men gathered around his portable tea stand. “I was a teacher, in my retirement,” he related when the rush subsided and he had a moment to talk. “I received a nice pension from the government. When the Americans came at first I was happy–no more Saddam! Then they cut my pension. Later, they gave me $30 a month, then raised it to $60. But how can I live on that much? I had to come out of retirement. Meanwhile, there is no gas, no electricity, no salaries for the people. When Saddam was in power, we had all this. My life was fine. Now look at me. I have to sell tea to support my family.”
En route to Khaldiya, we encountered a parked m-1 Abrams tank, its barrel aimed at windshield level at oncoming traffic. Dhia, however, would not enter the town itself. “They kill foreigners there,” he murmured, reminding me that a few days previously, an IED killed three GIs in the area. Instead, we stopped at a roadside vegetable stand for an earful of anti-U.S. vituperation. At one point, a young man motioned toward three Bradleys lumbering down the road. “There go the Ali Baba,” he spat. I noticed that Iraqis either sped up or slowed down to distance themselves from the convoy; one car actually drove off the road. No one wanted to be near a potential target of an IED or a rocket-propelled grenade.
It was painful to see America the object of so much hatred and fear, the very image of an oppressive occupier. It was worse when we found ourselves behind a trio of Humvees. Dhia crept several car lengths behind the rear vehicle, and I looked at the GI manning the roof-mounted m60 machine gun (Where was he from? What city? Where did his parents live?), reflecting on the isolation of these young men out here, how the Iraqis shun and avoid them, even as they face the threat that a roadside pile of debris will erupt into fire and shrapnel. This was not how the liberation was supposed to go.
–Steven Vincent is a freelance investigative journalist and art critic living in New York City. He is blogging about Iraq at www.redzoneblog.com.