EDITOR’S NOTE:This is the fourth in a five-part series of excerpts from In the Red Zone by Steven Vincent. Together they constitute Chapter 4, “The ‘Resistance.’”
In Fallujah, Dhia and I visit the headquarters of the Islamic Political Party of Iraq. There, I asked a Sunni cleric seated on his diwan, or long couch, why he thought his Shia brethren had proven more cooperative with the U.S. He offered a mirthless smile. “The Shia think America liberated them from Saddam. But America did not come to liberate, they came for oil. America must leave immediately.” But without the presence of U.S. troops, wouldn’t Iraq slide into terrorist violence? “Let the soldiers leave, peace will come,” the cleric replied, fingering his prayer beads. “They are the terrorists who kill the Iraqi people.”
He has a point. Heavily-armed American soldiers, untrained for the kind of constabulary work that urban combat demands, are guilty of killing Iraqi civilians. In April, 2003, for example, 82nd Airborne troops in Fallujah shot and killed eighteen, apparently unarmed Iraqis; in September, 2003, troops mistakenly killed eight policemen just west of the city. In every town through the Sunni Triangle, similar incidents have taken place. (The military claims it does not keep statistics on civilian deaths.) Moreover, the day-to-day aspects of the American presence are infuriating: roadblocks, bridge closings, curfews. House searches can be brutal: doors kicked in, furniture overturned, rooms ransacked, whole families rousted. In the Sunni Triangle, American troops truly are an occupier.
Over the next couple of weeks, Dhia and I crisscrossed the area, popping out of his car in towns west of Baghdad, as well as in Samarra, Baquba, and Tikrit (hometown of Uncle Saddam) to the north, to interview tea sellers, waiters, students, clerics, and unemployed Baathist-supporting thugs. Again and again, I heard the same litany of complaints about U.S soldiers–civilian casualties, thefts from houses, vague accusations that “they touch women.” The charges sounded serious–a number of them were no doubt true. But could they all be true? Had each of these Iraqis actually seen or experienced such abuses, or were they simply repeating rumors?
In Fallujah one afternoon, I chatted with three guys at a corner tea stand who swore that, just the day before, they saw a U.S. soldier shoot a woman dead in the street. A week earlier, they continued, another GI killed a man and his son who were working as night guards in a garage. My heart sinking, I asked for directions to the scene of the woman’s murder, and within minutes, Dhia and I were at the vacant street corner, where, by good fortune, a policeman was walking by. No, the men in the teahouse were wrong, the cop explained to my relief. The woman’s slayer was a local man whose father had been murdered by her son. “Revenge,” he shrugged. “She was Kurdish,” he added, as if that explained something
With his intelligent eyes, ruddy complexion, and barber-shop-quartet moustache, the officer struck me as a decent fellow able to separate fact from rumor when it came to reports of American crimes. I asked him about the father and son killed at the garage.
“Oh, yes,” his jaw clenching, “that was done by an American soldier.”
“What happened to the soldier?”
“Nothing! Nothing ever happens to the soldiers who kill us.”
“Does it happen a lot?”
The policeman’s face turned crimson. “Americans have killed thousands of Iraqis since they came here. Do you hear me? Thousands! They killed my brother’s thirteen-year-old son, his only son!” I had struck a nerve: faster and faster spilled the man’s words, a kind of reverse-image of the pro-American Shia cab driver I had met in Baghdad three months earlier.
“The Americans hate the Sunnis and insha’allah, we hate them. Believe me, this is why the people kill the soldiers! We were kings when Saddam was president–now what? Nothing! Life is so expensive, there are no jobs–especially for Sunnis! This is what George Bush brings us! Nothing! Saddam’s shoes are better than George Bush!” Trembling with rage, he thrust a finger in my face. “In Fallujah, there are 135 mosques! This is a Muslim city. It is forbidden for Americans to be here. The people of Fallujah say, ‘You must leave!’ Especially to the American soldiers, for they are all Zionists! And they are here with fighters from other Arab countries, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia. All here with Zionist America to steal from Iraq!”
Just when I feared the policeman might explode, his feverish anger seemed to break, and he blinked and looked at Dhia and me as if noticing us for the first time. Then he invited us for lunch.
It was the Iraqi temperament all over again. The policeman began reasonably enough, accusing the GIs of civilian deaths. But Arab anger is a volatile force, one that easily “sweeps over the dam of self-control and in an astonishingly short period of time transforms the entire personality,” as Patai writes. From denouncing U.S. soldiers, it was a short step for the cop to declare his support for Saddam, anger at the “infidel” and hatred for Zionists, the whole ascending scale of rage climaxing with his view of Iraq as the victim of a worldwide conspiracy. (Although, in fairness, his mention of the Arab fighters was a tantalizing reference to foreign jihadists operating in the Sunni Triangle.) Then, just as suddenly, he calmed down and seemed to emerge from his fury.
I felt sympathy for him, as I did for most of the Sunnis I spoke with. And yet, the same question kept nagging me: What do they want? What is the point of this “Resistance?” From Tikrit to Ramadi, whenever I asked people what they thought killing American troops would achieve, they voiced the hope that the bloodshed would drive the hated foreigner out of Iraq. When I suggested that perhaps an easier way to attain such an end would be to form a stable democratic government that would then ask the U.S. to leave–giving America no pretext to remain in the country–people looked at me with a blank expression.
Even more startling, at least for me, were the Sunni responses when I asked them what kind of government they envisioned if the U.S. suddenly did up and leave. Nearly everyone declared their interest in a new Saddam (“Only more democratic,” one Baquban qualified) or a reconstituted Baath Party. Never mind that neither of these alternatives was likely, given armed Kurds to the north, armed Shia to the south, and American interests in the country, not to mention Saddam’s impending trial for war crimes. Nor did these Sunnis express the slightest misgivings about agitating for the return of a dictator who modeled himself after Stalin and a political party based on the National Socialists. They felt no responsibility for the crimes of the tyrant they wanted returned to power. Rather, it was the idea of the resurrected “strong man” they liked. It acted like a comforting balm on their sense of “rage”–that blind, amoral, unforgiving thirst for vengeance that fed on its own indignation until it drove many to violence.
This vague, inchoate “rage against the foreigner” is nothing new in the Arab Middle East, of course. Especially in the aftermath of World War II, as David Pryce-Jones observes in his 1989 study of Arab culture, The Closed Circle. When Arab leaders began advocating nationalism, he writes, they “restricted themselves to the one-dimensional platform of evicting the Europeans,” while at the same time refusing to “discuss what social and political institutions they might consider appropriate in the event of independence. One and all incited nationalism and then exploited it as the surest way of arousing the mob on their behalf, frightening the authorities, demoralizing the Europeans, and so levering themselves as their successors into the positions of supreme power holders. What would actually happen in the event of their seizing the state, they left undefined.” Fifty years later, the situation is the same, only now anonymous ex-Saddmites seek to demoralize and evict the United States in their hopes of transforming a slice of Iraq into a miniature caliphate.
But this is not all that stokes the fires of Sunni hatred. Beneath Iraqi religious and political affiliations lies a complex web of family, clan, and tribal associations that knits the country together in a tradition-based social order. Whereas in Shia-dominated Iraq, religious leaders tend to command more respect than tribal sheikhs, in the Sunni Triangle, kinship groups like the Dulaym federation, the Shammar, the al-Jaburi, and Saddam’s own tribe, al-Bu Nasir, have for centuries wielded considerable, if poorly-understood, power. Although the Ottomans, the British, and even the Baathists tried to circumscribe tribal authority, it has stubbornly persisted, especially in the form of behavioral codes derived from the earliest inhabitants of the desert. This “Bedouin substratum,” as Patai terms it, affirms as its highest principles hospitality, courage, loyalty and, above all, honor–a concept which itself comprises virility, dignity, and martial valor. “All these different kinds of honor,” Patai writes, “interlock to surround the Arab ego like a coat of armor.”
And if this psychic chain-mail is breached? The Arab, he continues, “must defend his public image. Any injury done to a man’s honor must be revenged, or else he becomes permanently dishonored,” Pryce-Jones writes. “Shame is a living death, not to be endured, requiring that it be avenged.” For my part, I discovered this cultural and psychological phenomenon throughout the Sunni Triangle. While conversing with dozens of residents, I felt much less the anger of a population that was “occupied,” “oppressed,” or “enslaved” than the self-loathing of a people in disgrace. After decades of imperious rule, the Sunni Baathists were crushed by America–shamed, humiliated, they felt they had lost something perhaps even more precious than jobs or political power: honor.
Dishonor. This, I came to understand, was a huge factor that propelled the Sunni insurgency and gave it such an air of pointless, self-destructive violence. It is also the reason, I believe, why non-Middle Eastern observers have such trouble understanding the nature of this conflict–particularly Americans, who have no real experience with those extended families called tribes. Nor do we feel any longer a visceral connection between honor and self-respect, or the necessity of the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye,” or, as an Arab proverb has it, dam butlub dam, “blood demands blood”) to avenge humiliation. But the militants in the Sunni Triangle do. In order to reclaim their personal, family and clan reputations, these Iraqis seek to kill American troops, for only American blood can redeem their honor. The roadside ambushes and barbaric immolations correspond to archaic tribal codes where self-respect is restored only through violence and loss of life.
No wonder the insurgents–and many other Iraqis as well–seem to dwell on the edge of a bottomless chasm of rage: the shame they experience from the American invasion eats away at them. No wonder, too, that the insurgents’ movement seems so vague. In my travels through the Sunni Triangle and my time in Baghdad I never once saw any symbols, propaganda, or call letters (FLN, NLF, IRA, and so on) that might refer to an organized “liberation front.” These “resistance” fighters–or, à la Moore, Iraqi “minutemen”–seemed to have no leaders, issue no communiqués, propound no programs, or even have a name. But why should they? Their primary interest is their own “honor.” They may claim they are “patriots” fighting for Iraq–many are, in fact, soldiers and officers from the old Iraqi Army–but at heart they see themselves as tribal warriors engaged in the venerable tradition of honor killings against the biggest tribe of all: America.
By failing immediately to occupy and pacify the Sunni Triangle during the war, the U.S. allowed the affiliation between tribal groups and the Baath Party to reform and reassert itself. Gradually, a combination of embarrassment, humiliation, disgrace, and dishonor, fueled by a genuine diminution in the Sunnis’ quality of life, compelled these Iraqis to seek revenge rather than political negotiation. Attacks on U.S. soldiers produced American counter-responses, killing Iraqi civilians and initiating further cycles of honor and revenge slayings. Gradually, the Sunni’s tribal mentality drew the U.S. into a new kind of war: an unreasonable war fought not for familiar goals like territory, riches, or ideology, but for the irrational, intangible prizes of honor and self-respect.
–Steven Vincent is a freelance investigative journalist and art critic living in New York City. He is blogging about Iraq at www.redzoneblog.com.