Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Bedlam by the Euphrates

A reader sends a link to a subscribers-only article in the National Journal, "Iraq -- Grief and Rage" by Tish Durkin. It's an account of what will never make the headlines: the torture and mutilation of five Shi'ite truck drivers by Sunni "insurgents", if that is the term.

The photos defy examination, let alone description: eight close-up, color images of death, as it came on June 6 to five Iraqi men. Death came after the men had been tortured, but before their bodies were mutilated and left in a city garbage dump. ... Some time after that, they were retrieved by the men's families, who took the photos for a very specific reason. "We have sent the CDs of these pictures to all the Shiite mosques, and to the Mahdi Army," said Sheik Faisal al-Janany a few days after the bodies were retrieved from the morgue, "so that they can see what the people of Sunni are doing to the people of Shia."

The pictures, even by the standard of "freedom fighter" productions, were not pretty.

In one of the photos, Faisal's 29-year-old son, Hamad, has a head that is so badly crushed that it resembles a smashed eggplant; skin that has been burned a marbled brown; and a mouth that appears to be full of ash, but almost empty of teeth. In another photo, Faisal's 27-year-old nephew, Khalad, has several thick black stripes down his back. Perhaps, an observer speculated, he was beaten with a red-hot whip; perhaps he had been pressed into a red-hot metal chair. In some of the other photos, the victims are missing one forearm.

And so on. The truck drivers had just made a delivery of furniture to the Iraqi Army when their vehicles were blocked at the Al Forat bridge in Falluja and a crowd of shopkeepers and cigarette vendors -- armed of course, as all cigarette vendors are -- pulled them from their vehicles. One of the Shi'ites, a 12 year old boy named Mohammed, escaped and ignoring the blows and injuries, reached an American checkpoint, where he was treated. The uncomprehending medic turned him over the an Iraqi policeman who promptly returned him to an insurgent in the person of imam Abdullah al-Janaby, the preacher at the Sa'ad Aby Ibn Waqas mosque, who directed other boys of about the same age to beat him prior to worse. He made his escape yet again and reached the home of a friend who spirited him away to Baghdad.

The National Journal writer concludes that incidents like these are tipping Iraq into civil war. None of the Shi'ites she spoke to believed the truck drivers were killed because of any connection to America; they believe they were targeted because they were Shi'ites. One of the other truck drivers survived by convincing his captors that he was Sunni. He had an identity card, issued by the old Saddam regime which misspelled his name in the Sunni way.

When the blindfold was removed, he saw the Asian-featured faces of his captors and in his mind registered them initially as Japanese. Instantly realizing that that could not be, he figured that they must be from Central Asia, perhaps Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, or Chechnya. There was also, he recalls, someone who looked and spoke like an Egyptian. ... He told them that he lived in the heavily Sunni, pro-Saddam city of Yousefia, south of Baghdad. He told them that he had agreed to join a convoy ... strictly because he needed the work, and that he had in his truck a dangling portrait of the Imam Ali only because he was afraid that the Shiites would kill him if he didn't.

In an ironic way, American troops are probably the sole guarantors of Falluja's survival. Many outraged Shi'ites want the place leveled, plowed and then salted. In a land filled with conspiracy theories surely the most bizzarre is the belief that the Americans are in league with Al Qaeda to kill off the Shi'ites simply because they have not incinerated Fallujah. "'If the Americans don't kill the terrorists,'" Abu Yas declared, "'we will think, 100 percent, that the Americans have a relationship with Al Qaeda.'" The theory that the United States could leave the Islamic world alone may be as wishful as the proposition that you can leave a bomb to tick in peace.

To hear Shiites tell it, Falluja is the land of the fatally false facade: The mosques are prisons, the holy men are criminal warriors, the police and the courts are lackeys of the resistance, and the merchants are double agents; at the sight of any suspicious outsider in their shop or restaurant, they dial instantly to alert the mujahedeen. "When I went into the mosque," Sheik Faisal tells me, "I saw it was not really a mosque for praying. There were many rooms inside of the mosque for people being beaten."

The road may be long and hard, but the underlying dysfunction which gave rise to September 11 -- and the mutilation of the five Shi'ite truck drivers  -- among many similar incidents, must be addressed in some way unless we can leave the planet.

There are some who believe we can put a lid on situations like these by imposing sanctions. The more extreme might argue that a naval blockade or no-fly zone will alter the situation on the ground. After all, that was policy for a decade. Still others think that "diplomacy" or United Nations legitimacy would have made a crucial difference. The more thoughtful have suggested that if the United States had sent 50,000, 100,000 more occupying troops or if these included a few Frenchmen the problems might have been averted. But how do you blockade the human heart? How do you "avert" problems 100 generations old?

Some have seriously suggested that if America pulled into a tight perimeter around its borders such men could not reach inward to hurt children; could not "IED" American travelers en route to Thailand or Germany; could not "mortar" the homeland with aircraft attacks like they mortar some military bases or the northern towns of Israel; could not infiltrate "sleepers" into the 8 million American Muslims the way they have infiltrated the Green Zone. Could not act abroad as they act at home. These solutions have been advocated by men of goodwill, experience and intelligence, but will they work?

The neoconservative assumption that Middle Eastern societies were transformable has been described as the product of excessive hope when it is really the counsel of despair. It is the remainder which 'however improbable, is all that is left after all the impossibles have been eliminated'. The fact that America, without resorting to mass murder, has kept such a fractious country intact, that many Iraqis daily risk their lives in the effort to beat back this darkness, is testimony to a quality of work which deserves better than the scorn that has been heaped upon it.

In a few weeks many social liberals will feel impelled to vote as Mahatir Mohammed suggests, for entirely different reasons but for the same man nonetheless. Some conservatives have already accepted the idea that the only proper reaction to the "bloody borders of Islam" is to recoil as Ronald Reagan did once upon a time in Beirut, hoping nothing more will follow. But there is nowhere left to run and having learned so much about the problem, nothing really before us but our trepidation.