Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The Signing of the Iraqi Constitution, Discussing a Shia Theocracy in Iraq with Sunni Friend Hussein, Shooting a Civilian Car in a Misunderstanding

Read more, see video, and buy the book at www.American-Interrupted.com.

9 March, 2004 2100

I’m sitting at my desk with a hot pot of Ahmad Tea and an uneasy stomach. I’ve been sick for a week now. I’m not sure why, maybe some bad water or something. I’m getting better though. I need to catch up though on some remarkable things. Nothing big happened today.
Yesterday I was at the Al-Rashid hotel for lunch. It just happened that the new Iraqi constitution was being signed that same afternoon right across the street. I wanted to go in to see the signing, but we didn’t have access due to the agreement there would be a low military presence. SGM Walker thought the constitution had already been signed. The night before, the Al-Rashid and CPA were hit by rockets in an attack. I ate lunch in the well appointed dining facility, and noticed the usual CPA civilian types. One woman ran in and said she saw some people running and wearing flak jackets. I didn’t hear an explosion, so I figured it was just a precaution.
I walked out of the dining facility and past a little Iraqi store (also called Hajji stores) in the hallway. I saw some Americans and Iraqis gathered around a small TV. It was the signing of the new constitution. I realized this was a historic moment. ‘If this actually works, this could be the beginning of a new era in the Middle East…if it works,’ I thought.
The Iraqis watched intently at the screen. Some American soldier with a large build and disproportionately small pin-head was blocking our view. He looked mutated or retarded. “Ha! Goddamned long ass name and he signs only a scribble, ha! Mr. Haba la-la-la,” he kept making stupid comments while the signing was going on. I ignored him, and the Iraqis tried to.
I went outside and looked at the outside of the buildings where the constitution was being signed and noticed all the TV trucks and luxury cars.
I went back to my truck and talked to our Sunni translator, I call him Hussein. I can’t remember his name, but he is the best educated of all the translators. ‘What do you think about the new constitution?’ I asked.
“I think it’s fantastic. We’ve got so many rights under this new document. You know if it works, it could be better than the United States,” he smiled.
I heard some heavy caliber machine gun fire going off not too far away. My stomach was turning in knots. I just wanted to lie down and let my stomach rest. We still had to make it through downtown Baghdad back to camp. I wonder what it was like in World War II when a soldier was extremely sick?
Hussein the translator is a Sunni, and a very agreeable person, fluent in English and educated in politics. A few days ago we were eating at regiment and got into a little discussion about the Shia practice of whipping oneself with chains. We talked a lot about the Shia. ‘Why do so many Shia have so many children?’ I asked.
“Well, many of them are poor, or farmers. The Koran says if you have children, do not worry about who feeds them – God will figure it out. But, God also gave me a brain, so I know not to have more children than I can provide for – that means college and the like,” he answered candidly. “Sunni are reasonable. You don’t see Sunnis demanding things from Americans – only Shia. You can’t trust them at all. They are backstabbers, and now they are tricking America.”
‘I was wondering, if Iraq slips into civil war, will neighboring countries absorb each sect, for example Sunni supported by Syria and Shia by Iran? I know Iran has an interest in destabilizing Iraq in order to prevent the U.S. from going into Iran (which I believe is very likely to happen unless reforms take place),’ I asked. I believe more that Iran may be sheltering Al-Qaeda or have a marriage of convenience with them to cripple American activity. Change in Iran would be good for Iraqi unity and Shia moderation – looking within instead of to Iran for leadership. Also Iraqi Shia may be more radical about their religion now that they are free to practice it after years of oppression. This works to the Iranian’s advantage. Weakening Iran or encouraging a change in government there is almost necessary to avoid civil war in Iraq and to prevent Iraq from falling into the hands of a religious leader. ‘I’m afraid Iraq could turn into another Iran,’ I said.
“Exactly, you are exactly right,” Hussein said nodding. “The Shia want Iraq to be like Iran.”
What got us talking about this was the upcoming Hussein Mosque celebrations in Karbala. Many people are flying flags. We were out in the countryside and we drove past a group of children marching from village to village, dressed in black and hitting themselves on the backs with chains. Now, I was told this isn’t really painful because so many small chains are on a handle, so the pressure is distributed. I noticed the old man leading the children and signaling with his fist when to strike themselves. Of course, he didn’t have any chains to strike himself with. He probably didn’t practice this under Saddam’s rule. ‘You teach these kids to hit themselves, but you don’t do it yourself…what’s wrong with this – am I only intolerant of other cultures?’
Later that same day, we were driving out to Butler Range, and I noticed a black BMW behind us. There was a small boy in the front passenger seat. The father gave the boy a poster to show us. I saw this in my rearview. His BMW got right on my bumper and kept trying to pass, but couldn’t get past. Then, he suddenly tore out past me even though I tried to block him. He flew past and cut off our 3 vehicle convoy, and at the same time, the boy displayed some kind of poster to us. ‘SGM, the BMW’s stuck in traffic over there,’ I said.
“Let’s stop him…Sergeant Cole, stop that black BMW,” Walker said on the radio. The BMW tried to get away, and as soon as the road was clear, he dropped into low gear and hauled ass. We turned a corner (I was the rear vehicle) and noticed the BMW pull over on the side of the road.
‘That’s good, he’s cooperating and pulled over,’ I thought with relief. Then my heart sank. ‘Oh shit,’ I whispered. I noticed two bullet holes in the rear windshield. ‘The boy,’ I thought. I jumped out with my weapon pointed at the car and went to the passenger side to get the boy. The man got out and Walker and the scouts had their weapons trained on him. Hussein and the new sergeant major, CSM Brown, stood by. I noticed the man get out shocked, holding his neck with a bloody hand. His injury didn’t seem that serious, so I continued to move closer to the car. I saw the boy and slowly opened the door. He had both hands on his lap and he was frozen solid, except for some trembling. Two bullet holes were in the front windshield. The two that were fired from the lead scout’s M-16 entered the rear and passed between the man and the boy, and exited with two holes in the front.
I lowered my rifle and opened the door slowly and the boy looked up at me shaking. I gently grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out. I knew he must be terrified. ‘It’s OK, zien, zien,’ I said. I grabbed one of the posters in the car. It showed an angel holding the body of some fairytale-looking Arab man. It was Hussein of the Karbala shrine. The following day was the festival of his martyrdom.
“May God Protect You and Keep You Safe,” the poster said in English, below the Arabic.
‘Oh shit, this isn’t good,’ I thought. I walked over to Hussein to get the Arabic translated.
“Yes, this is a sign of greeting. When he showed the convoy the poster, it was like a way of saying ‘Merry Christmas,’” he said.
‘Oh man, you’ve got to be kidding me!’ I said to him. Our eyes understood each other, and we knew this whole situation was a misunderstanding. I got the boy and made sure he was still OK. He was still shaking, but looking better. Hussein and I took over the situation after I asked Walker if I could take over the diplomatic part of saying “OOPS.” They pulled security along the road. I, the “Iraqi Lover” and Hussein listened to the man start arguing about his car.
“This is an expensive car! I was running late to prepare to go Karbala tomorrow! I didn’t do anything!” He was furious.
‘Let me see your neck,’ I said. He showed me his neck. It looked like a piece of glass cut his neck, but very minor. ‘Ask if he’s OK,’ I told Hussein.
“He says he’s OK,” he replied.
‘And his son?’ I asked.
“Yes,” he nodded.
‘Tell them we are very sorry and that you can’t drive like that because it makes soldiers nervous…BUT, we’ll try to fix the problem,’ I said.
I went over to CSM Brown (and not SGM Walker) and asked if we could pay for the damage from our battalion funds, of which we have thousands of dollars. “Yes, give him our info, and get his, we should be able to work that out,” he said helpfully.
‘Good man,’ I thought. Not the usual “Fuck ‘em!” attitude.
Hussein told me the man was pissed. I could tell because he started to yell. ‘Tell him to shut his mouth and listen to me,’ I said. ‘Tell him we are going to pay him.’ The man kept yelling. ‘Look! Tell him he’s lucky to be alive and I’m trying to help him get paid for damages…so let me fix the problem instead of crying about it. Get a piece of paper, give me your name, and I’ll give you instructions,’ I said sternly. He got quiet and got a book out. The boy looked up at me and smiled. ‘Man, you’re really lucky to be alive, I know this is messed up, but help me out here,’ I thought. I wrote instructions to him about how to contact us at our base and collect money for the windshields. CSM Brown checked the note.
“Looks good,” he said.
‘We’re sorry, and we’ll fix this,’ I said. ‘He’s got something to be thankful for tomorrow, just to be alive,’ I told Hussein. He laughed.
“I told him he’s got to sacrifice a sheep or something now to thank God – and also always drive careful around Americans because they can’t tell who’s enemy and who’s friend,” he said with a laugh.
We got back in our trucks and left. Walker was happy with all the excitement. He always says, “Let’s go out and draw fire,” and I always say,
‘SGM, you don’t want to draw fire – everyone says that until they get hit.’
We went out to the range, and Hussein and I talked some more about Machiavelli and Victorian Age literature. “Do you know Wuthering Heights?”
‘Wow, yes, I certainly do – Emily Bronte, one of my favorite writers,’ I said completely surprised. ‘I can’t believe I’m talking about Bronte out in the Iraqi desert with an Iraqi,’ I thought to myself.
“Yes, I love her writing, it’s wonderful,” he explained.
‘I love her writing too, because the way she makes you feel emotions as if they belonged to you – the human emotions most complex come alive on those pages. I’ve actually been to her house in Haworth with Nora,’ I said.
“You’ve been so many places,” he said. You could tell he found it hard to believe I’d been to Bronte’s home. I remember Emily Bronte’s small room that overlooked a dark graveyard. I miss Yorkshire. “You know Thompson, I’ve been working with Americans for a year now, and I’ve never had conversations like the ones we’ve had. You are the smartest soldier I have ever met,” he said frankly. I was stunned a bit, but humbly appreciative of his remark. I was equally impressed with him – even though he was Iraqi, he knew more about western literature and political philosophy than anyone I could think of − officer or enlisted. He’s very intelligent, many Iraqis are – but they work for us, and (that’s the nature of the situation) they have so much untapped knowledge. The engineer who runs the internet café, the electrical engineering student who mops our floor, the ex-fighter jet pilot who used to pick up trash, but now translates (Emgin). War is a horrible thing. Dictators are too.
The following day, the Hussein mosque in Karbala was attacked with rockets. In Baghdad, suicide bombers attacked the main Shia shrine. In Pakistan, Shia were attacked too. In all, over 150 were killed – the most bloodshed in one day since the end of the heavy fighting of the war. The death toll has since climbed higher. I was expecting something to happen that day. I was working on my truck and it was about 1200 when I thought, ‘I haven’t heard any explosions yet, that’s good!’
Then, Assad came to me shaking his head, “Thompson, do you know Hussein mosque has been attacked, also Baghdad. It’s horrible. It’s Sunni, they want to make war.”
‘I’m sorry Assad, I was hoping nothing would happen,’ I said sadly.
“It’s not your fault. These people are crazy. The worship the devil! I know them well. I was in Yemen in 2001, September 11. I saw on the TV the attack on twin towers and I thought, ‘This isn’t real, it’s a movie.’ These ‘Wahabees’ were celebrating! They were happy to see this! I thought immediately that Saddam had some part in this. I know he has a mass destruction weapon. He would use it. I wrote George W. Bush a letter in 2001. I send it to Voice of America radio. I ask him, why his father did not support the Shia uprising in 1991, why he did not get Saddam? Then, I was in Basra, and the secret police were just taking men off the street, even men just going to buy bread at the market, and taking them to the city center. The police would ask, ‘Are you a rebel?’ The man would say, ‘No.’ Then the police would shoot him in the head for no reason. They killed thousands of men like this. I wrote this to George W. Bush.
When the Army came to Iraq, and I saw the Apache helicopters, I thought, ‘George W. Bush read my letter.’ Thompson, your Army is my Army, the Army of freedom. I pray for you always for God to save you. You must be careful, as you see today, there are evil people out there. I am worried for Iraq, but happy you are here. You’re my brother.”
‘You’re my brother too,’ I responded in deep thought and with a strong sense of solidarity with Assad.

Assad would become a very good friend over time. He spoke wonderful English, he had good, strong values with which I identified with, and he was a hopeful person. He is about 45 or 50 years old, with graying hair, and gray facial hairs growing out of his round, brown face. He’s a short, but heavy man with calloused, thick hands. He’s a Shia, from Babylon, and a man who had traveled as far as Malaysia. He was outspoken when it came to matters of liberty and democracy, once telling me, “The Iraqis are like a caged bird. Their master is gone, the door is open, but all they want to do is stay in the cage.” I don’t remember what we talked about all the time, but most of the time we would spend over an hour talking about life for real Iraqi people, about their hopes and fears. We would sit while drinking sweet tea, the loose leaves sitting at the bottom of a Styrofoam cup. He talked about the Swiss manager he had many years ago, the German foreman he worked for. He loved the Europeans, he believed in liberty, and he forgave the Americans for all their mistakes. He was a dear friend to me, and not a day goes by that I am not concerned for his safety.

Read more, see video, and buy the book at www.American-Interrupted.com.


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