Baghdad Update: Mosques

My friend Paul, the Official Middle East Correspondant of Uncertain Principles, has been doing another rotation in Baghdad, and has sent an update on the “surge.” This latest dispatch describes some… reliability issues with the Iraqui police forces who are supposed to be stepping up to provide internal security. There’s a certain Monty Python element to some of this:

The police were mostly stretched out in a building near the mosque, taking a nap, wearing mismatched bits of camouflage. Their sergeant looked like he’d just woken up and said he had no idea how those flags got all over the mosque. But he would certainly protect it now.

Only two police were on guard wearing their body armor, the others said they were very tired because it had been a long day. As they talked, gunshots rang out just a block away. No one flinched, or even paid any attention to them.

The captain paused and said, weren’t they going to investigate the gunshots ringing out in the neighborhood they were supposed to protect. The police said, yes, they would get right on that, and by the way, could the Americans spare them any food? Their rations hadn’t come in yet.

At the next mosque, the police sergeant said yes, they would certainly defend this mosque in fact his orders were not to let anyone near it, Sunni or Shia.

No said, the captain, you have to let the Sunnis pray here, that’s the whole point. Tomorrow is Friday, you have to let Friday prayers happen here. If the Sunnis have no mosque they will leave the neighborhood.

The full dispatch, with all the context, is below the fold. This will probably be the last Baghdad Update, as Paul is changing jobs, but then, he thought he was done with Iraq last year, and got pulled back in, so we’ll see what happens.

———————-

I thought, rather naively, that it had stopped. My year in Iraq, 2006, was notable for the eruption of sectarian cleansing across Baghdad as Sunni and Shiite turned on each other.

It took US forces a long time to recognize the severity of what was going on and react to it… and then it took it even longer to get a handle on it, but the one clear, positive outcome of this year’s “surge” was that sectarian killings were definitely down. Sixty, seventy, a hundred bodies weren’t turning up in the city streets every morning.

Then they blew the Samarra mosque up… again. How do you let something like that happen the second time? The Sunni clerics are blaming the government, the US, anyone but themselves – Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr says it has to be the occupation because no Muslim would do such a thing.

It’s like the Lebanese during their civil war when they would always tell you that all the fighting had nothing to do them and was just the foreigners from outside causing trouble.

Iraqis like saying that a lot too. “This is a good neighborhood, the trouble comes from outside, people from other places come and cause problems.”

Maybe. But now Baghdad waits under curfew and everyone tenses for the next round of sectarian cleansing, though frankly after the first wave of it in 2006, there’s really not that many neighborhoods left to clear.

The exception is in southwest Baghdad where I spent my last few days in Iraq, embedded with the US unit down there expected to keep the peace. Here the neighborhoods are still mixed, with Sunnis and Shiites more or less living side by side, and here is where the worst violence is.

I was in Bayaa, a mostly Shiite neighborhood with a few Sunnis left. I was placed with Delta Company, led by Captain T. W., a clean cut West Point graduate, a regular Dudley Do-right, Caspar Goodwood. Very sincere and after five months (of a 15-month deployment) is still convinced he could make a difference.

The first day I was there, panicked phone calls came over the tip line from Sunnis in the neighborhood that Shiites were rampaging through the streets and had taken over one of the last Sunni mosques.

The humvees roared into town and sure enough, there were mobs of young men running through the streets waving the colorful Shiite banners, with storefronts blasting Shiite hymns over massive speakers. The Sunni mosque was covered with the Shiite flags.

The men scattered when the Americans came up, leaving the bombed out streets deserted. Up in this part of town, where the remaining Sunnis lived, there was trash and rubble everywhere, with most stores locked and boarded up.

Farther to the south, in the all-Shiite areas, stores were open, people bustled along the streets, and there was graffiti everywhere extolling Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

When the captain asked local Shiite imam what the demonstration had been all about and why these flags were everywhere, they said it was a celebration – the Kurdish army unit that had been keeping the peace in the neighborhood had been replaced by the Shiite National Police and the people were happy.

And the Sunnis were terrified. So the captain went around and visited the newly arrived policemen stationed outside the two remaining Sunni mosques in the neighborhood. While the Kurds had been there, Sunnis still went to the mosques, it remained to be seen if the police could keep that trend going – the incident with the flags made for an inauspicious start.

This was the key to the whole surge strategy. The Americans would come in and clear the neighborhood and turn it over to the Iraqi security forces, because there still weren’t enough US troops to cover the entire city.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly what I was covering all last summer in 2006. Operation Together Forward would stop the civil war in the capital with the help of Iraqi forces – and it failed because the Iraqi forces were not numerous or trained enough to hold the cleared neighborhoods.

Now 12 months later a new/old plan was in place using more US soldiers but still requiring Iraqi forces to take up the slack and US commanders were reluctantly admitting that once again shortcomings with Iraqi forces, especially the police, were a bit of an issue.

As one military spokesman said, there were “reliability issues” with the Iraqi police, but when I wrote a piece saying the US thought the police were unreliable that same officer called me up screaming invective and venom (the words “fucking” and “bullshit” came up a few times) claiming I had misquoted him.

Apparently it’s a bit of a sensitive issue.

The police were mostly stretched out in a building near the mosque, taking a nap, wearing mismatched bits of camouflage. Their sergeant looked like he’d just woken up and said he had no idea how those flags got all over the mosque. But he would certainly protect it now.

Only two police were on guard wearing their body armor, the others said they were very tired because it had been a long day. As they talked, gunshots rang out just a block away. No one flinched, or even paid any attention to them.

The captain paused and said, weren’t they going to investigate the gunshots ringing out in the neighborhood they were supposed to protect. The police said, yes, they would get right on that, and by the way, could the Americans spare them any food? Their rations hadn’t come in yet.

At the next mosque, the police sergeant said yes, they would certainly defend this mosque in fact his orders were not to let anyone near it, Sunni or Shia.

No said, the captain, you have to let the Sunnis pray here, that’s the whole point. Tomorrow is Friday, you have to let Friday prayers happen here. If the Sunnis have no mosque they will leave the neighborhood.

Across the street a woman and daughter came to check on the house they had recently abandoned. All was well, though someone had tried to force the lock – perhaps the policemen looking for a place to live. When the captain asked if there was any way he could help the woman, probably a Sunni, she began to cry and said, “you have no idea what it’s like people are trying to kill you all the time… I don’t want anything from you, just a safe night’s sleep.”

A call came in later, another woman wanted protection to go back to her house, where her father had just been kidnapped and killed. She was dressed all in black wearing one of those gold pendants in the shape of Iraq that were all the rage last year as a symbol of national unity.

In the front all of the bullet spattered house, all worldly possessions were gathered and the woman wanted the Americans to help her move to another house in a different neighborhood.

Throughout the day, the patrols went on, following up on tips, searching the occasional house. In one there were two families living, Shiites that had been expelled from a nearby Sunni neighborhood.

Apparently there is thriving housing business where dodgy estate agents set up Shiite refugees in the houses Sunnis have fled.

I left Thursday night, I had flight to catch back to Egypt but I wanted to know how it turned out. Would the Sunnis go to mosque Friday? Would the fabric of the neighborhood hold together for one more weekend?

Captain W. wrote me an email Saturday morning:

“I wish I had better news. The Fatah Basha Mosque (the southern of the two remaining Sunni mosques) was blown up today. Luckily, no one inside. Still trying to figure out exactly how it happened with the National Police right there… Frustrating.”

In all fairness there was probably little the ill-equipped police could do when the militia showed up to blow the mosque. Much the way the Sunni police mosque guards in Samarra couldn’t really say no to the heavily armed Qaeda guys that probably showed up to do their own demolition work a week later.

I said my goodbyes to the office, I probably won’t be seeing any of them again any time soon. Besides not really wanting to be in Iraq again any time soon, I’m also leaving AFP and moving over to AP – so my time in Baghdad’s Mansour Hotel is truly at an end.

The atmosphere was a bit grim as I left. One of the security guards was riding home in his moped when a roadside bomb went off killing him. His brother, who also works as a guard, had to identify the body and apparently it was in pretty rough shape.

The tight knit group of guards were very upset, there was a lot of crying.

“It’s fate, what are you going to do,” said one as I gave my condolences on my way to the airport and escape.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    June 19, 2007

    Middle East peace requires removal of 100 million meat puppets, preferably mostly young males. Do it any way you like or let them do it to themselves. There is only one economic spatial and temporal solution. It requires one Boomer, two keys, and the WILL to set the world straight.

    Support evolution – shoot back.
    depp=true

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    June 19, 2007

    Once again, local policy is that comments advocating mass murder will suffer lossy compression.

  3. #3 Brad Holden
    June 19, 2007

    Paul posts are some of the best writing about Iraq I have read. Though I don’t wish the guy a return, I do really appreciate what he says.

  4. #4 MaryKaye
    June 19, 2007

    I will miss these messages. I figure it’s the best unedited, unsanitized, unscripted reporting on the ground in Iraq there is. Best wishes to your friend. And, many thanks.