Relocation, Iraq, 2004
There are only a couple of months when the weather is pleasant in South Central – when my brain is not starting to boil from the heat or when I'm not forced to bury into a pile of Iranian blankets at night and cocoon within them against the desert cold.
April is one of them. What green there is shows itself then. The black water begins to subside, and lovely Zeena the gatekeeper sits on the swing at lunchtime in her pastel hijab reading her Jane Austen. Or wide-eyed Salam, the communist, bounces through the gate in his “I have a dream” T-shirt – his newest promotion.
Yes, signs of renaissance. But sadly against the backdrop of other, more ominous developments. It had been a year now, and still we were the only independent development workers in South Central. Across the river, unemployed men grumbled for want of income. The parade of infrastructure contractors paid out of the $21 billion congressional supplemental had yet to materialize – all tied up north in the Sunni Triangle, it seemed. There were fewer expats in the Baghdad restaurants. We felt more vulnerable there and now seldom left South Central. The price on our heads had risen, I had heard, to 50K for an American. That was the street value. Captured, he or she was worth a million as an advertisement for Al-Qaeda.
Both ran parallel – the blossoming of those curious young minds and the advance of the sullen men across the river who were confused and threatened by the “new Iraq,” a nation too disturbing for their current dispositions.
Since the salve and transformation summit, we had shed expats, now down to a dozen. The security man, Chris, left, handing over his paramount duties to me. He had lived with Paul and me for six months, this evangelist for “acceptance strategy.” This ardent ex-cop from Austria with his shaved head and those camel lashes had dared to build our safety upon a local Iraqi embrace and a cadre of local believers, who now, he assured me, would step up. It had been a great mix – us living together. Chris who had the street cop’s technical knowledge and protocols, Paul the Arabist, and me the veteran manager. But now, we expats were single-minded as we were passing over our duties as fast as possible. On one hand, we were telling the nationals, “This is your country; you need to own this work.” And, on the other, preparing ourselves for both a new Iraq and for one that would sink into the abyss. Either way, this message translated into, “If an Iraqi can do it, the pale face should get the hell out.”
God only knew where the country was going. Those spring days, my colleagues and I swung from hope to despair and back again several times a week, sometimes several times a day. And, all the while, like a Greek chorus, the international press corps kept wailing at the top of the hour from the Palestine hotel in Baghdad – a sort of drumbeat on the daily violence.
We somehow chose to keep hopeful. I told townsfolk about the imminence of the supplemental legislation in the US and that part had been assigned to Kut – over 200 million US dollars for major infrastructure. During the spring, we ran a cleanup campaign across the city, called “Kut – City of the Future.” We hired more Iraqi women, and we fired contractors who looked for personal gain. By the end of March, we had established over fifty “Platforms for Learning.”
As development workers, we had prided ourselves about knowing what was going on. “Finger in the wind” is how we phrased it. After all, we attended local funerals, joined in Hajj lunches, raced the boys down the streets on their bikes. We were Mr. David, Mr. Paul, and Mr. Chris to our neighbors. There were only a handful of expats who lived like that in Iraq. So in retrospect, we should have seen it coming. The giant T barriers were being raised by the Coalition Forces around the old Baath party building – the concertina wire strung around it, the imported security forces, and then the installation of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA – a US created interim government). Their 4x4s were scooting around the area with the first official emissaries of Jeffersonian democracy going from neighborhood to neighborhood with their coterie of shooters, preaching to wary folk about participatory democracy. They were especially wary since, as the days got warmer, evidence of my promise of the imminent largesse offered up by the US congress had yet to appear on our horizon.
“And these are our friends,” I had complained earlier to those visiting congressmen from Virginia and Connecticut. The Shia, I had meant, “who comprise 65% of the population.” Then, more recently, my friend, Sheik Sattar of the quiescent tradition, had warned me about the American conception of an Interim Constitution. “We will never accept the Kurdish veto,” he said. “We will not be cheated by Baghdad and the North. We want a popular vote now. The Governing Council has nothing to do with us.”
Change came down on us faster than any of us had imagined. The Coalition Forces (CF) decided to go after the populist Cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. He took refuge in the holy site of Najaf. He, a wayward firebrand with an incomparable Shia lineage through his martyred and revered father (Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr). He, who these days spoke to and for the sullen, the outlaws, and the marginalized. And, who publically disrespected the hierarchy of the quiescent Shia Clerics. By April 5th, his street militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi had replaced the local police forces on the roads out of Kut. So now, the Shia street, so recently liberated from Saddam’s clutches, was transitioning into the hands of the rabble, provisioned by Iran. While they were far less violent toward folks like us than Zarqawi and the Sunni extremists, certainly they represented an ominous turn for the worse.
On the following day, I got a call, desperately, it seemed, insisting I travel to our branch office in Diwaniyah, about two hours west, which meant slowly struggling by car through the streams of pilgrims as they traipsed on foot during Arbayeen for their annual mourning at the holy city of Karbala. Among them, I noted, were the militias of Muqtada al-Sadr.
I found the staff there very fearful, huddled in the reception area. The ex-pat in charge was upstairs packing out. Jaysh al-Mahdi had taken over the town; the new police, trained by the Coalition Forces, had melted away. We all knew that those tainted by their association with the West should beware. I remember asking them to stay calm for a while and to let me take us through the logic of the situation. Then there was an outburst at the door and a couple of Jaysh broke in, very wild eyed, and wove across the room gyrating their AKs at me, stopping, fitful, about an arm’s length away and invecting “Jew.” My instincts, as far back as Vietnam, told me that any second I would feel some very high velocity rounds tearing up my body just before my lights went out. I stared at the tiles, since the zealot’s eyes held nothing for me, and lit a cigarette...and then another...sucking those babies down to the butt in great inhalations. I waited, on that fearful edge, interminably, it seemed, as the national staff fawned shamelessly and begged the assailants for mercy for what was, despite the obvious, a friend of their people.
Meanwhile, as fate would have it, Ahmed, one of Chris’s security deputies, unseen in a back room, had jumped the back wall and found some of the more traditional Sadr Sheiks to intervene. With time, they distracted the Jaysh long enough into the yard outside for me to sneak out into the back, over the wall, and run down an alley, along with the other expat in tow, soon after to slip into Ahmed’s car who eventually got us to Kut.
That night, my national staff took us into their houses to sleep.
At work the next day, I remember Zeena being whisked home by her brothers and Salam looking glum. Then we found a knife of mysterious origin stuck in Paul’s bedroom door, with a bullet and keffiyeh laid beneath it. A note told him to get out or die.
On April 8th at about 0130 hours, I heard the automatic fire begin around the CPA complex about a kilometer away from the home where I had been hidden. I moved my mattress closer to the wall. Strange, it was almost cozy, like having shelter in a hard rain. The fire lasted about an hour and then stopped. The next morning, I was told that the CPA building was in the hands of Jaysh al-Mahdi.
The nationals gathered around me and told us that it was time to leave, that the Jaysh was out of the control of their leaders and would hurt us. So, over the next few hours, we sent the expats north in stages to Khanaqin along the Badrah Road. In the end, about noon on the 8th, only a Jordanian and I were left. I remember thinking that I should leave then when the streets were empty and the folks at lunch.
But the neighborhood elders would not yet allow it. “You must eat with us before you travel,” they told me – and many courses at that – while I, doing absolutely no justice to the food, nervously watched the sun recline outside their window.
Finally, they invited some Sadr friends to escort me out to the Badrah Road where, quite anxious, our drivers, the Jordanian, and I worked our way over the dirt piste along the Iranian border toward Khanaqin where the other expats had already congregated, seeing me turn into the office at last after dark.
“All the cows in the barn,” was transmitted by the manager there to the HQ in the States.
Want to read more from David Holdridge? Buy his memoir, The Avant Garde of Western Civ, winner of Prize Americana – here.
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