By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
BAGHDAD, Nov. 20 -- The bullet tore through a red jacket that hung on the rack of the outdoor stall and struck Roba Taha in the foot. As her blood began to spill onto the sidewalk, so did the anger of scores of shopkeepers along this busy commercial street in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood on Monday.
Some rushed the high school student to the hospital. Most rushed to a high-walled white dump truck to confront the driver, who allegedly fired several shots. Residents standing on their balconies yelled out that men were hiding in the bed of the truck. Frank Leever, 28, an Iraqi Christian shopkeeper, clambered up the back of the vehicle. "They are Afghanis. They are terrorists," he recalled shouting.
The mob closed in, hurling rocks and accusations.
Monday's incident offered a window into the collective psyche of a capital that is experiencing a lull in violence not seen since February 2006, when the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra triggered cycles of sectarian killings. Many Iraqis said they rose up against the truck driver and the men in the truck to preserve the gains in security Iraqis are enjoying. They also said they were anxious that violence could return, as it has many times since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Large swaths of Baghdad remain no-go zones for most Iraqis, as they were before thousands of U.S. reinforcements began arriving nine months ago in an effort to bring stability. But in enclaves like Karrada, life is returning to a kind of normalcy, although bombings, gun battles and assassinations are still threats. Iraqis have long shown a determination to hold on to ordinary rituals amid instability and chaos.
"I love my country," said Ali al-Abadi, who was helping Taha in his shop when the bullet struck her, and who took her to the hospital. "I want stability to be regained."
That's the reason many shopkeepers said they attacked the truck.
"All this joy will be turned to sadness," said Hussein al-Esaadi, 21, who works in a cellphone store. "We did this because each of those men will kill 30 more people."
In fact, the men in the truck's bed were neither Afghans nor terrorists. An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, said they were workers from Nepal, Sri Lanka and India. Their contracts had expired, and they were being escorted by a security convoy to the airport.
In a cellphone video provided to The Washington Post, Iraqi soldiers appear to be beating the contractors with sticks or clubs as the crowd of Iraqis cheers them on. Some Iraqis also rushed to the truck and appeared to throw punches at the contractors.
"When they reached the intersection, they ran into a traffic jam. The security guards opened fired randomly. A woman was hurt in her leg. So we arrested all of them. Now, we're investigating them," Khalaf said.
In total, U.S. military and Iraqi officials said, 43 people were arrested: 21 Sri Lankans, 1 Indian and 9 Nepalese contractors, 10 Iraqi security guards and 2 Fijian guards. The two Fijian guards had U.S. Defense Department identity cards, according to Maj. Brad Leighton.
Leighton and Khalaf said that the four-vehicle convoy belonged to Almco, a Dubai-based construction company with U.S. military contracts, none to provide security. But it was unclear whether the convoy was working on a U.S. defense project Monday. Among other jobs, Almco was hired to help build a heavily secured justice complex in eastern Baghdad.
Although it has U.S. military contracts, Almco, not the U.S. government, was responsible for security of its convoys, Leighton said. The convoy, according to witnesses and videos taken at the scene, included an armored Land Rover and a Mercedes -- vehicles not usually associated with private security firms.
Leighton said the men were being held at an Iraqi army base but that U.S. soldiers had access to them.
For the shopkeepers, what mattered was that the men were foreigners. Many Iraqis have long blamed Iraq's neighbors and foreign fighters for their nation's woes. The incident also came a day after a car bomb detonated in Karrada's al-Hurriyah Square, killing six people, including five policemen, and injuring nine.
"Karrada is fed up with bombings," said Ahmed Hekhet, 27, another employee at the cellphone store, who said he threw rocks at the truck.
Shortly after noon Monday, the convoy passed a checkpoint without stopping, then drove against traffic down Karrada Dhakil Street, the main thoroughfare in this affluent, mainly Shiite neighborhood. The convoy hit the traffic, then gunshots erupted.
Abadi, the shopkeeper, lifted Taha and with the help of others placed her in a car and took her to Kindi Hospital.
"I wished I could have been split in two, one to go with her, the other to help them in beating the terrorists," Abadi said. Like most of those interviewed, he did not know that the men were contract workers.
Shopkeepers and residents gathered around the truck. Others went to call an Iraqi army Humvee that was two blocks away. When the soldiers arrived, they fired warning shots. But the driver of the truck, witnesses said, reversed the vehicle and tried to go down a side street. He was stopped by a concrete barrier.
As more Iraqi soldiers and police officers arrived, the crowd grew. Some of the soldiers got on top of the truck bed and started beating the workers.
"Imam Ali is with you," the crowd chanted at the soldiers, referring to Shiite Islam's most revered saint.
"Heroes, heroes," other chanted.
Hekhet rushed to the truck and struck some of men. Witnesses described the men as being on their knees, crouched low, their hands clasping their heads.
"It was like they were mute," Hekhet said. "Even while they were being beaten they remained silent."
Haidar Khuzaie, 37, a jewelry store owner, said that fear and anger had taken over the crowd. "People said they were terrorists, but they were bending down and hiding," he said.
After the incident, which lasted 15 minutes, some in the crowd ran up and hugged some of the Iraqi soldiers and kissed their cheeks.
"Previously, the Iraqi [soldiers and police] would not have had the authority to do what they did. We were surprised," said Esaadi, of the cellphone store.
Moments later, he phoned his friend Abadi to find out the condition of Taha, the student. The doctor could not operate right away, but her family had arrived to comfort her, Abadi said.
Along Karrada Dhakil Street, shopkeepers were asking one question.
"Why do they want to mess with this situation?" said Abdul Amir Ali, an electronic supplies store owner. "We've just started to feel safe and secure. The traffic is flowing, the shops are reopening."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.