Monday, April 11, 2005


Tale of a Small Town

Who is the Enemy?

During those days of chaos and lawlessness that followed the US invasion of Iraq, the locals of a small town I am familiar with successfully managed to assemble a town council.

That council was constructed in the most unseemly, undemocratic and chaotic manner of Iraqis, but almost everybody was represented and everybody was content with it. The whole process took only three days.

For more than a year, that council kept the town running: security, services, etc. They even managed to retain a small police force that restricted itself to Law & Order.

During October of last year, some "resistance" people from another town raided the local police station, threatened the small police force and took their cars away. The next day, the local "resistance" people chased the raiders and found them. They threatened them not to come near their town again, took the cars back and re-instituted the police force!

The Interim government heard of these bizarre happenings and replaced all the personnel of the local police force. Within a week, one morning, around 10, the new police were attacked by some group using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The police were cornered into the "attic" of their building. The attackers then suddenly left.

On the same day, in the early afternoon, the US army showed up in force accompanied by an Iraqi National Guard unit. The town was put under siege. According to reports from locals, the US boys were better behaved than the ING. Those shot at houses, at shops and at anyone they saw, almost at random. All night long, they toured the streets shouting obscenities like "Come out you scum… You -----"… One particular ING major was said to be more viciously insulting.

Taking advantage of the availability of a live phone line (which was a rarity at the time) I called to inquire after some people I knew. The young man I talked to told me that at the minute he was talking to me some ING men were looting his shop in broad daylight while one of them was firing bullets in the middle of the street to keep people away.

A few days later, that major was kidnapped together with two others. No trace of him was found.

Recently, as the Iraqi security forces became stronger, the situation was tackled not through the installation of administrative bodies but through raids: every few days, a section of the town or the surrounding countryside is sealed and a number of young men were arrested almost at random (or according to tips given by mostly unreliable informers or by people with personal vendettas to settle). They were locked up, interrogated with some cruelty. Most of them were then released.

Now, more than six months later, that small town is still in chaos and its people in turmoil. Last week alone, there were three violent murders and four kidnappings. Lawlessness reigned. It was only through social connections and ‘tribal’ norms that total breakdown was averted.

A few weeks ago, a new Iraqi army officer was put in charge of the area. The man quickly made a name for himself for being fair and decent. Last week, a delegation of about a dozen local elders decided to go and meet that army commander. They sought the release of 11 of their boys still in custody after more than a fortnight of their arrest. The gentleman obliged and released them all immediately!

A channel of communication was established.

During that meeting, the man said that he joined the new army because he had to support his family. Under the previous regime and the UN sanctions, he had no savings or possessions left that he could fall upon. He also said that he didn’t feel it was his duty to protect the American army. The US army was the most powerful army in the world and should be capable of looking after itself. The hint was acknowledged!

According to someone who attended the meeting, the man’s personal story brought some tears into the eyes of some of those present. His 17 year old son had been kidnapped and he had no idea by whom or for what purpose… or what happened to him. He confessed that he dreaded going home after work and face his wife. He had already lost a 7 year old son who was kidnapped and then killed several months earlier.

[Update April 18th 2005: It was confirmed today that the officer’s 17 year old kidnapped son was found murdered.]


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