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This is Baghdad. What could be worse?

By Anthony Shadid
Sunday, October 29, 2006

BAGHDAD

There was an almost forgettable exchange earlier this month in the Iraqi National Assembly, itself on the fringe of relevance in today's disintegrating Iraq. Lawmakers debated whether legislation should be submitted to a committee to determine if it was compatible with Islam. Ideas were put forth, as well as criticism. Why not a committee to determine whether legislation endorses democratic principles? one asked. In stepped Mahmoud Mashadani, the assembly's speaker, to settle the dispute.

"Any law or decision that goes against Islam, we'll put it under the kundara!" he thundered.

"God is greatest!" lawmakers shouted back, in a rare moment of agreement between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Kundara means shoe, and the bit of bluster by Mashadani said a lot about Baghdad today.

It had been almost a year since I was in the Iraqi capital, where I worked as a reporter in the days of Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and the occupation, guerrilla war and religious resurgence that followed. On my return, it was difficult to grasp how atomized and violent the 1,250-year-old city has become. Even on the worst days, I had always found Baghdad's most redeeming quality to be its resilience, a tenacious refusal among people I met over three years to surrender to the chaos unleashed when the Americans arrived. That resilience is gone, overwhelmed by civil war, anarchy or whatever term could possibly fit. Baghdad now is convulsed by hatred, paralyzed by suspicion; fear has forced many to leave. Carnage its rhythm and despair its mantra, the capital, it seems, no longer embraces life.

"A city of ghosts," a friend told me, her tone almost funereal.

The commotion in the streets -- goods spilling across sidewalks, traffic snarled under a searing sun -- once prompted the uninitiated to conclude that Baghdad was reviving. Of course, they were seeing the city through a windshield, the often angry voices on the streets inaudible. Today, with traffic dwindling, stores shuttered and streets empty by nightfall, that conceit no longer holds.

Even the propaganda, once ubiquitous and often incongruous, is gone. One piece I recalled from two years ago: a map of Iraq divided into three colored bands. In white, it read, "Progress." In red, "Iraq." In white again, "Prosperity." The promises are now more modest: "However strong the wind," reads a new poster of a woman clutching her child, "it will pass." More indicative of the mood, perhaps, was one of the old banners still hanging. Faded and draped over a building scarred with craters from the invasion, it was an ad for the U.S.-funded Iraqi network, al-Iraqiya. In Arabic, its slogan reads, "Prepare your eyes for more."

As I spoke to friends, some for the first time in more than a year, that was their fear: more of the kundara.

"When anyone is against you, when anyone has differences with me, I will put a kundara in his mouth, I will shove a kundara down his throat, I will hit him with a kundara, and so on," another friend told me.

"We live in a kundara culture today."

I had first met Karima Salman during the U.S. invasion. She was a stout Shiite Muslim matriarch with eight children, living in a three-room apartment in the working-class district of Karrada. Trash was piled at her entrance, a dented, rusted steel gate perched along a sagging brick sidewalk. When I visited last year, the street, still one of the safer ones in Baghdad, exuded a veneer of normalcy. Makeshift markets overflowed with goods piled on rickety stands: socks imported from China, T-shirts from Syria and stacks of shoes, sunglasses and lingerie. Down the street were toys: plastic guns, a Barbie knockoff in a black veil, and a pirate carrying an AK-47 and a grenade. There was a "Super Mega Heavy Metal Fighter" action figure and a doll that, when squeezed, played "It's a Small World."

On this day, the metal stands were empty, as were the streets.

"Praise God," Karima said as I asked how she was. In a moment, her smile faded as she realized the absurdity of her words. "Of course, it's not good," she said, shaking her head. "There's nothing that's ever happened like what's happening in Iraq."

On June 23, 2005, three car bombs detonated in Karrada, outside her home, wrecking the Abdul-Rasul Ali mosque and spraying shrapnel that sliced into the forearm of one of her five daughters, Hiba. Friends at school nicknamed her "Shrapnel Hiba." Two months ago, yet another bomb hurled glass through their window, cutting the head of Hiba's twin sister, Duaa. Four stitches sealed the wound. Over that time, Karima lost her job as a maid at the Palm Hotel, where she had earned about $33 a month.

"People are too scared to come," she said matter of factly.

Next to her sat her son Mohammed. During the invasion, Mohammed, an ex-convict, had joined a motley unit of a dozen men patrolling Baghdad's streets as part of the Baath Party militia. Now he had entered the ranks of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to a young cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, and blamed for many of today's sectarian killings in Baghdad. Karima's son-in-law Ali had been an officer in the American-equipped police force, earning $300 a month. He quit after receiving a death threat. Now he, too, had joined the Mahdi Army.

"Not all of them are good," Karima told me, casting a glance at her son.

Stocky and a little surly, Mohammed smiled. "Who else is going to protect Iraq?" he asked.

They debated the causes of the violence that, these days, is the topic of almost every conversation. Radical Sunnis, the Americans, Iranian agents, other militias. "Even the Egyptians," Karima offered. "And the Sudanese," Mohammed added.

"Brothers are killing their brothers," she said.

Stories poured forth: a bomb amputating the arm of a 10-year-old neighbor; another killing Marwan, the barber.

"If they brought the Israelis, the Jews, and they ruled Iraq, it would be better," said Karima, her face framed by a black veil. Sunlight bathed the room; electricity, as usual, was cut off. "It would be a million times better than a Sunni, a million times better than a Shiite."

Her first grandchild, 2-month-old Fahd, sat next to her. His expression was rare in Baghdad: eyes expectant, fearless.

"Is it not a pity to bring a baby in a world like this?" she asked. "It's a shame."

Her eldest daughter, Fatima, looked on.

"One-third of us are dying, one-third of us are fleeing and one-third of us will be widows," she said.

"This is Iraq," Karima added.

The last time I had visited Faruq Saad Eddin, he and his wife, Muna, had argued over whether their eldest son should have left the country. We sat in Jihad, a neighborhood so dangerous now that a stranger risks death by entering it. A generator droned in the background; occasional bomb blasts thundered in the distance, probably homemade mines targeting U.S. patrols. An urbane former diplomat, Faruq had been upset. He worried about what would become of his ancient land if its capable fled.

"You can't just cut out and run away," he told me. "This is our country and sooner or later our children will come back. The resilience of the people, that's what 11,000 years means," he said. "Someone who has 11,000 years, 100 years to lose here or there is not that much."

On April 17, Faruq and Muna left Iraq at the insistence of their son, who had paid a year's rent for an apartment in Jordan. A month later, a car bomb detonated outside their Baghdad home, shattering the windows in the room where we once had shared bitter coffee.

On a cool morning in the Amman neighborhood of Umm al-Summaq, Faruq shook his head at the arbitrariness of fate.

"We would have been killed, no doubt about it," he said.

"We are all stranded, here and there, Iraqis," he added.

A friend once compared the elderly who are reluctant to leave Baghdad to the blind. Take them away from the familiarity of their home, garden and street, and they become lost and disoriented. Faruq has sought new routines: morning strolls, e-mails to friends, a voracious appetite for news and late-night updates on his favorite baseball team, the St. Louis Cardinals. His apartment overlooked the rolling hills of Amman, glowing in the morning's soft sun; his granddaughter Mayasa played giddily next to him with a stuffed toy.

"I should feel happy," he said.

He shook his head again, a gesture that meant he wasn't.

"We have a heavy heart, really," he said after a few moments of silence. "Just knowing what's happening makes us grieve."

I had come to know Wamidh Nadhme in 2002, before the invasion. A professor of political science at Baghdad University, he was a forthright voice in those tense, uneasy days when Hussein was still in power. He tried to speak with complete honesty despite the possible consequences of doing so in a police state. With an ever-present Dunhill cigarette, he would slowly field questions back then, reasoning out every intricate response, surrounded by his French-style furniture, worn Persian carpets and a framed piece of papyrus from Egypt, where he had spent time in exile as a young activist. But on this visit, reason eluded him, as did explanation.

"I find myself unable to understand what's going on," he said.

Wamidh had settled into what he called "withdrawal." He still visited the university once a week, but Baghdad was simply too dangerous to venture outside. After nightfall, the streets of his neighborhood of Adhamiya look like they might an hour or so before dawn: dark, without traffic, and menacing. As we talked, helicopters rumbled overhead. Gunfire burst almost continuously.

"You feel like the country is exploding," he said.

We traded stories. One I had heard from a friend: Insurgents stopped a driver at a checkpoint. They opened his trunk. "Why do you have a spare tire?" the insurgent asked solemnly. "You don't have trust in God?"

Well into 2005, Wamidh has bristled at the notion of a sectarian divide, even as the very geography of Baghdad began to transform into Shiite and Sunni halves divided by the Tigris River. Like many Iraqis, he blamed the Americans for naively viewing the country solely through that sectarian prism before the war, then forging policies that helped make it that way afterward. He ran through other "awful mistakes": the carnage unleashed by Sunni insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda, the assassination of a Shiite ayatollah in 2003 who may have bridged differences, the devolution of Sadr's movement today into armed, revenge-minded mobs.

As Wamidh finished, he flashed his customary modesty. "Perhaps you could correct me?" he offered.

I asked him whether it would become worse if the American military withdrew.

He looked at me for a moment without saying anything, as though he were a little confused.

"What could be worse?" he asked, knitting his brow.

I saw Wamidh again a week later, and the question had lingered with him. "I sometimes wonder what I would do if I were the Americans," he said over a traditional Ramadan dinner. His answer seemed to hurt him. "I have no idea, really."

"It's like a volcano that has erupted. How do you stop that?"

On April 9, 2003, Firdaus Square became the lasting image of the U.S. entry into Baghdad. In its center was a metal statue of Hussein in a suit, his arm outstretched in socialist realist fashion. Like an arena of spectators, columns of descending height encircled him, each bearing the initials "S.H." on their cupolas. By early afternoon that day, hundreds of Iraqis swarmed around the statue with one task in mind: bring it down. It marked the fall. A year later, amid uprisings by Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and Sadr's militia in Baghdad and the south, it spoke of occupation. The square was deserted, guarded by U.S. tanks whose barrels read, "Beastly Boy" and "Bloodlust." Soldiers, edgy, had orders to shoot anyone with a weapon. At times, music blared over speakers on a Humvee.

One song: "Ring of Fire," by Johnny Cash.

As I stood in Firdaus Square this day, after invasion, liberation and occupation, I wondered what word described Baghdad.

"This is a civil war now," Harith Abdel-Hamid, a psychiatrist, had told me, trying to diagnose the madness. "When you see hundreds of people killed every day, corpses of people tortured in the streets every day, what else does it mean?"

"Call it what you will," he said, "but it is a civil war."

Perhaps. But I felt as though I was witnessing something more: the final, frenzied maturity of once-inchoate forces unleashed more than three years ago by the invasion. There was civil war-style sectarian killing, its echoes in Lebanon a generation ago. Alongside it were gangland turf battles over money, power and survival; a raft of political parties and their militias fighting a zero-sum game; a raging insurgency; the collapse of authority; social services a chimera; and no way forward for an Iraqi government ordered to act by Americans who themselves are still seen as the final arbiter and, as a result, still depriving that government of legitimacy.

Civil war was perhaps too easy a term, a little too tidy.

I looked out on the square. On one side were rows of concrete barricades and barbed wire, having faded almost organically into the landscape. In another direction, a billboard read: "Terrorism has no religion." Across the street, a poster portraying Iraqi police pleaded: "We are the heroes fighting for the sake of Baghdad." In the middle of the square, on the stone perch where Hussein's statue once stood, were torn scraps of other posters: "Your voice," "the nation," "patriotism," "dialogue," "building the future." The words were isolated, without context, like fragments of a clay tablet.

Sirens soon pierced the square. Two armed police escorts, headed in opposite directions, rushed along the street. Each frantically waved at the other to pull over. Guns dangling from the window, they fired volleys into the air to intimidate each other.

In time, the one with fewer rifles and fewer men let the other pass. They were playing by the rules of the kundara.

In the square, Salam Ahmed sat with a friend, Saad Nasser, under the statue, looking out at the scene.

"They died under Saddam, and they're dying now," Salam said.

Unshaven, wearing a baseball cap, Saad looked at the ground. He was grim, angry and dejected.

"No one can stop it but God," he said. "Only God has the power."

shadida@washpost.com

Anthony Shadid, a Washington Post foreign correspondent, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is the author of "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War" (Picador).

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