|August 14, 2005
A Nation in Blood and Ink
By DEXTER FILKINS
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, a group of prominent Iraqis has struggled for weeks to complete the country's new constitution, haggling over the precise meaning of words like "Islam," "federalism" and "nation."
Out on the streets, meanwhile, a new bit of Arabic slang has slipped into the chatter of ordinary Iraqis: "allas," a word that denotes an Iraqi who leads a group of killers to their victim, usually for a price. The allas typically points out the Shiites living in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods for the gunmen who are hunting them. He usually wears a mask.
"The allas is from the neighborhood, and he had a mask on," said Haider Mohammed, a Shiite, whose relative was murdered recently by a group of Sunni gunmen. "He pointed out my uncle, and they killed him."
The uncle, Hussein Khalil, was found in a garbage dump 100 yards from the spot where his Daewoo sedan had been run off the road. Two bullets had entered the back of Mr. Khalil's skull and exited through his face.
Around the same time, someone found some leaflets, drawn up by a group called the Liberation Army. "We are cleansing the area of dirty Shia," the leaflet declared.
The rise of the allas (pronounced ah-LAS) stands as a grim reminder of how little can be reasonably expected from the Iraqi constitution, no matter how beautiful its language or humane its intent.
In 28 months of war and occupation here, Iraq has always contained two parallel worlds: the world of the Green Zone and the constitution and the rule of law; and the anarchical, unpredictable world outside.
Never have the two worlds seemed so far apart.
From the beginning, the hope here has been that the Iraq outside the Green Zone would grow to resemble the safe and tidy world inside it; that the success of democracy would begin to drain away the anger that pushes the insurgency forward. This may have been what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was referring to when, in an interview published in Time magazine this month, she said that the insurgency was "losing steam" and that "rather quiet political progress" was transforming the country.
But in this third summer of war, the American project in Iraq has never seemed so wilted and sapped of life. It's not just the guerrillas, who are churning away at their relentless pace, attacking American forces about 65 times a day. It is most everything else, too.
Baghdad seems a city transported from the Middle Ages: a scattering of high-walled fortresses, each protected by a group of armed men. The area between the forts is a lawless no man's land, menaced by bandits and brigands. With the daytime temperatures here hovering at around 115 degrees, the electricity in much of the city flows for only about four hours a day.
With armed guards in tow, I drove across the no man's land the other day to pay a visit to Ahmad Chalabi, the deputy prime minister. Unlike many senior Iraqi officials, who have long since retreated into the Green Zone, Mr. Chalabi still lives in a private home. To get there, you must pass through a series of checkpoints at the outskirts of his neighborhood, manned by guards and crisscrossed by concrete chicanes. At the entrance to Mr. Chalabi's street, there is another checkpoint, made of concrete and barbed wire, and more armed guards. Then, in front of Mr. Chalabi's house, stands yet another blast wall. When Mr. Chalabi walks into his front yard, even inside his own compound, a dozen armed guards surround him.
Inside his house, Mr. Chalabi described one of his most recent efforts, to help broker a cease-fire in the city of Tal Afar, 200 miles to the north.
"I had all the sheiks here with me," he said.
On my way home, I noticed that a car was following me. Three times, the mysterious car accelerated to get close. Two men inside: a young man, maybe in his 30's, and a bald man behind the wheel. As the car drew close, my chase car - a second vehicle, filled with armed guards, deployed to follow my own - cut the men off in traffic. I sped away.
Americans, here and in the United States, wait for the day when the Iraqi police and army will shoulder the burden and let them go home.
One night last month, according to the locals, the Iraqi police and army surrounded the Sunni neighborhood of Sababkar in north Baghdad, and pulled 11 young men from their beds.
Their bodies were found the next day with bullet holes in their temples. The cheeks of some of the men had been punctured by electric drills. One man had been burned by acid. The police denied that they had been involved.
"This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened," Adnan al-Dulami, a Sunni leader, said.
An Abandoned Swing Set
For much of last year, the soldiers of the First Cavalry Division oversaw a project to restore the river-front park on the east bank of the Tigris River. Under American eyes, the Iraqis planted sod, installed a sprinkler system and put up swing sets for the Iraqi children. It cost $1.5 million. The Tigris River Park was part of a vision of the unit's commander, Maj. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, to win the war by putting Iraqis to work.
General Chiarelli left Iraq this year, and the American unit that took over had other priorities. The sod is mostly dead now, and the sidewalks are covered in broken glass. The sprinkler heads have been stolen. The northern half of the park is sealed off by barbed wire and blast walls; Iraqis are told stay back, lest they be shot by American snipers on the roof of a nearby hotel.
The Elusive Consensus
Zalmay Khalilzad, the new American ambassador here, has publicly prodded the Iraqis to finish the constitution by Aug. 15, the date they set for themselves. On several occasions, Mr. Khalilzad has described the Iraqi constitution as a national compact, a document symbolizing the consensus of the nation.
And there's the rub. When the Americans smashed Saddam Hussein's regime two and half years ago, what lay revealed was a country with no agreement on the most basic questions of national identity. The Sunnis, a minority in charge here for five centuries, have not, for the most part, accepted that they will no longer control the country. The Shiites, the long-suppressed majority, want to set up a theocracy. The Kurds don't want to be part of Iraq at all. There is only so much that language can do to paper over such differences.
Last week, one of the country's largest Shiite political parties held a ceremony to commemorate the death of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, a moderate Shiite cleric who was assassinated by a huge car bomb two years ago. The rally was held in the Tigris River villa once occupied by Tariq Aziz, one of Mr. Hussein's senior henchmen. Nowadays, the house is controlled by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the dominant parties in the Shiite coalition that heads the Iraqi government.
Inside a tent where the ceremony unfolded, a large poster depicted three men: Mr. Hakim, the dead ayatollah; Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most revered Shiite leader; and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the late ayatollah's brother and, as the head of the Supreme Council, perhaps the country's most powerful political leader. The portraits stood as a kind of trinity, symbolizing the fusion of Islam and politics.
Outside the tent, a third member of the Hakim family stood in a receiving line. Amar al-Hakim, Abdul-Aziz's son and heir to the family dynasty, seemed in an upbeat mood. Like most Shiite political leaders here, Mr. Hakim seemed untroubled by the disputes in the constitution.
"We can all get along," Mr. Hakim said, smiling, "but I don't think we have to give anything up."
For Each a Militia
Throughout the ceremony, Mr. Hakim's compound was guarded by members of the Badr Brigade, the party's black-booted Iranian-trained militia. When the Americans were in charge here, they leaned hard on Mr. Hakim to disband it. But in one of his first official acts, Mr. Hakim publicly legalized his own private army.
With all the hubbub at Mr. Hakim's house, it was easy to miss what was going on in the house next door. Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and Kurdish leader, was getting ready to hold a dinner for the country's senior political leaders, Mr. Hakim included, to break the logjam over the constitution. Mr. Talabani's house, too, was guarded by a militia, but a different one from Mr. Hakim's. Here, it was the pesh merga who stood by with their guns, loyal only to Mr. Talabani.
The pesh merga fighters, milling about outside Mr. Talabani's villa and smoking cigarettes, said they had come all the way from the mountains of Kurdistan to protect their boss. None of them spoke a word of Arabic. To them, Baghdad was a foreign land.
'We Should Get Together'
Amid such bleakness, it is a wonder that anyone comes forward at all. Yet still the Iraqis do, even at the threat of death. One of them is Fakhri al-Qaisi, a dentist and Sunni member of the committee charged with drafting the constitution. Dr. Qaisi knows people close to the Sunni insurgency and, as such, has come under suspicion by the Americans and the Shiite-dominated government.
By Dr. Qaisi's count, the Americans have raided his home 17 times, once driving a tank into his dental office. Members of the Badr Brigade, the Shiite militia, recently killed his brother-in-law, Dr. Qaisi said, and appear to be aiming at him too. Now, because he has joined the constitutional committee, he has begun receiving death threats from Sunni insurgents as well.
"Everyone wants to kill me!" Dr. Qaisi said with a laugh, seated in a Green Zone lounge during a break from constitution drafting. "The Americans want to kill me, the Shiites want to kill me, the Kurds want to kill me and even the insurgents."
"Every night, a different car passes by my house," he said.
To protect himself, Dr. Qaisi has taken to spending nights in his car, though he allows that he sometimes stops by his home during the day to visit one of his three wives.
For all his problems, and all the problems facing Iraq, Dr. Qaisi expressed a firm belief that national reconciliation in Iraq was still possible, if leaders like himself could show the strength to give a little.
In this regard, as in so many others here, it's impossible to know. In the middle of a conversation, Dr. Qaisi stopped talking, recognizing that at the table next to him was Abu Hassan al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Brigade. That's the organization that Dr. Qaisi believes killed his brother-in- law, and the same group, he believes, that would like to kill him now.
Dr. Qaisi rose from his seat, and so did Mr. Amiri.
"It's so nice to see you," Dr. Qaisi said. "We should get together."
The two men embraced, and kissed each other's cheeks.
"Yes," Mr. Amiri said, his arms wrapped around Dr. Qaisi. "We really should."
* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company