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Strife During Wartime

Four Years After The Invasion, Expatriate Iraqis' News From Home Isn't Getting Any Better

Photos by Christopher Myers
Dr. Nasir Al-Khalidi, aka "Dr. Ali," and his wife Fatima, in a photograph from 2003.
Haider Thamir
Mohammad Ak-Khakani
Najwa Alamin

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 8/15/2007

News from Iraq--just about none of it good--peppers Americans daily and nightly, in small, forgettable fragments.

The typical Iraq story in mainstream media relates to actions taken by or against Americans: We hear about the deaths of U.S. soldiers; we're familiar with the names of the major insurgent groups, their weapons, their tactics.

Much less is reported about the people who are bearing the worst impact of the war--the nonradical, unarmed Iraqi population. They are reduced to body counts after bombings. It's rare for American TV or print media to quote any Iraqi sources outside the fragile government of Nouri al-Maliki.

In 2003 and again in '04, City Paper interviewed a small group of Iraqi expatriates living in the Baltimore area, asking not only for their own stories and perspectives but also for news from their homeland ("From Baghdad to Baltimore," Feature, May, 14, 2003; "Calling Baghdad," Feature, June 16, 2004). Three years later, we return to some of the same people to ask how things have changed for family, friends, and communities in Baghdad--and others living in exile. Inevitably, the expatriates have offered their own analyses and critiques of the war, and their pleas for change in U.S. policy.

Three of the expatriates quoted below spoke to City Paper in previous interviews. Najwa Alamin, 48, is an artist and child-care provider who has lived in the United States since 2000. Dr. Nasir al-Khalidi, 63, a well-known figure in Baltimore's scattered Iraqi community and known throughout as Dr. Ali, served as a high-ranking physician in the government of Saddam Hussein before falling out of favor and being subjected to torture and harassment. He escaped Iraq in 1999. Mohammad al-Khakani, 45, a native of Kut in southeastern Iraq, is a former physician's assistant who left his homeland in 1991 and is now a factory worker in Baltimore. Al-Khakani's wife, Aseel Jabur, joined him for this interview. They were married in 2003; earlier this year, she spent two months with her family in the heart of Baghdad.

Also new to these pages is Haider Thamir, 47, a Cockeysville resident and a financial adviser by profession. Thamir is an active and outspoken Iraqi-American, having met with U.S. government officials ranging from FBI agents to former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and President Bush. Locally, he has called in to The Marc Steiner Show on WYPR-FM and subsequently appeared on the talk show as a panelist on the subject of Iraq. Thamir emigrated to the United States in 1990, three and a half months before the beginning of the first Gulf War. He seems thoroughly Americanized--his English has the slightest Iraqi accent--but he stays in close contact with the old country, calling and e-mailing friends and cousins in Baghdad and Najaf on a weekly basis.

All of these expatriates declare their loyalty to the United States; two--al-Khakani and Thamir--are U.S. citizens, and the others are working toward citizenship. They make a point of expressing their gratitude for the freedom that lets them speak out as they never could in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But their feelings about U.S. policy in Iraq range from pained ambivalence to bitter resentment.

Dr. Ali, prefacing his comments on the war, explains, "I am saying what I am saying because I love America. I have a house, I have a good life here. Never and never and never will I go back [to Iraq]." He adds that he celebrates his birthday on Jan. 25, the date of his arrival in the United States, instead of his actual date of birth. But he tracks events in Iraq with e-mails and telephone calls and daily monitoring of half a dozen news sources, and his critique of the American invasion is scathing. "This is liberation? This is freedom?" Dr. Ali demands. "[The U.S.] liberated the country from electricity and healthy water and security!"

"Probably there wasn't anybody happier to see Saddam Hussein go than me," Thamir says. "Possibly there was no other way to take him out. But history will prove that the reasons given [for the invasion] are phony." Weapons of mass destruction, the spread of democracy, connections between Saddam, Sept. 11, and al-Qaida--all phony. As the Bush administration pressures the Iraqi government to pass a law that cedes control of Iraqi resources to global oil companies, he says, it looks more and more like the "blood for oil" slogan of anti-war protesters was right all along.

Thamir says that friends in Iraq ask him, "Is anyone telling the [American people] that they're not doing the right thing? Is anyone talking to them? What are they doing?"

 

As time goes on, Baltimore's Iraqi-Americans have fewer and fewer firsthand sources of information about their homeland. Many of their friends and relatives have followed their example and fled Iraq. "The country is empty of qualified, educated young people. Doctors, engineers have all left," says Najwa Alamin, citing her own cousins, college graduates in their 30s, who have moved to Syria and Jordan. Dr. Ali makes the same point: "The educated and wealthy have sold everything and escaped to Jordan or Syria, some to Egypt"--and some, like Dr. Ali himself, to Europe and the United States.

Despite its escalation since the beginning of the war in 2003, "the brain drain," as Thamir calls it, has been going on for almost 40 years, ever since the Baath Party seized control of the government. In the earlier years, much of the educated middle class left for freedom and opportunity; some left to save their lives. Increasingly, it is a matter of survival. "A lot of educated people have been killed--assassinated," Thamir says. "Why? For chaos to prevail."

For Iraqis who don't have money or outside connections, escaping Iraq means living as an impoverished refugee in Syria, Egypt, or Jordan, as do roughly 4 million Iraqis today, according to Dr. Ali. "Their life is really miserable. Jordan especially is very expensive," he says, wondering aloud, "What will they do when their money is finished?" Some Iraqi women, he says, are "starting to work as prostitutes just to support their life. They were good women. When the hunger comes, people can do anything."

An especially difficult situation faces Iraqis who have collaborated with Americans. Mohammad al-Khakani has a friend who worked as a translator in Iraq, on the promise that he would be assisted in leaving the country. Although his friend is now in the United States on a temporary visa, the man had to fight for months to get the promised help from the U.S. military. By contrast, al-Khakani notes, Denmark--a "coalition of the willing" partner--has allowed all of its Iraqi translators to immigrate.

Given the level of violence and the feeble condition of government in Iraq, it seems remarkable that regular paychecks are still issued to government retirees as well as employees--even those who can't make it to work, according to Alamin. In fact, government-issued checks are the main source of income in most of Baghdad's communities and extended families.

"If you have a business, it is terrible--you can't make money," says al-Khakani, who last visited Iraq in 2005 when it was "safer than now."

As recently as July, electricity was supplied in the capital for less than one hour per day. Having all but given up on electricity and clean water, Baghdad residents are spending most of their household funds on what Alamin calls "bare necessities," namely food and cell phones. One of Alamin's relatives owns a gas-powered generator, but she saves it for emergencies. Unable to run refrigerators, Iraqis have reverted to iceboxes; a block of ice lasts a day or two.

"They don't go out to eat, or entertain," Alamin says of her Baghdad contacts. "The only time they leave their homes is to go to their jobs or to the market to buy what they need, walking distance from where they live." No civilian goes out at night except in an emergency.

Al-Khakani notes that "even standing in line for gas is dangerous."

And medicine is practically beyond the reach of the average Iraqi. "God forbid somebody gets sick and needs health care," Thamir says. "You are told at the hospital that you need to bring gauze, bandages, syringes. You have to go get it and bring it back before the patient dies."

 

Thanks in part to economic sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War, residents of Baghdad have had years to adapt to poverty. Coping with rising violence is much harder.

"[Iraqis] say, `We don't care about electricity, about water.' All they care about now is security," Dr. Ali says. "Nobody can say when he'll be killed. This is making life in Iraq unbelievable." He believes that Baghdad is even more dangerous than Western journalists have reported. "The Iraqi government doesn't allow the authorities to tell the truth. The chief of [the Baghdad morgue] was fired because he gave an interview and said the truth and gave some numbers." Based on news reports, Dr. Ali estimates that the death toll in Baghdad alone is 100 to 150 Iraqis per day.

"The dream for every Iraqi--90 percent--was for Saddam Hussein to be removed," Dr. Ali marvels. "Now 90 percent, I am sure, would say we need Saddam to come again. Why did that happen?"

Al-Khakani says nearly the same thing: "Everybody [in Iraq] is saying it was better under Saddam Hussein. It was safe."

Al-Khakani's wife, Aseel Jabur, recently returned from a visit to Baghdad. "When I stayed in my family's house, every day we [heard] car bombs," she says. Her family lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent Shiite, hence a target for attacks from Sunni extremists. Recently, her brother saw a stranger pull up to the curb, leave a package, and drive away. Because the drop-off was witnessed, nobody was hurt when, half an hour later, the bomb went off.

One day this spring, after a firefight in the neighborhood, Jabur's father found an insurgent in his garden, bleeding. The man didn't look Arabic, she says, and her family thinks he was an Afghan. The father, a retired Iraqi general, called the Iraqi military to take the man away. The Iraqis failed to show up, so he called the Americans, who came and collected the suspected terrorist.

Dr. Ali's sister, still living in Baghdad, recently wrote in an e-mail, "I am not afraid of death. Everybody is dying. I am afraid they will come to rape me and kill me."

"What if your sister wrote this to you?" Dr. Ali demands. "Tons of e-mails like this come to every Iraqi [outside Iraq]. Everybody is looking for survival."

In fact, Alamin says, her relatives in Iraq don't always tell her about day to day violence: "It has become a boring thing to talk about--explosions and that sort of thing." It also means giving a name to a religious conflict that most educated Iraqis find shameful and absurd. In Alamin's youth, in an educated middle-class community, it was practically taboo for children, at least, to label people as "Sunni" or "Shiite." She still resists categorizing Iraqis this way, which makes it difficult to describe the de facto civil war now raging between militant factions of both groups.

"In Baghdad, when sectarian violence started, one of my aunts ended up in a house in the `opposite' territory," Alamin says. "She got a letter threatening her, telling her to leave her house. Instead, she opened her house to a family from the opposite sect, who had been kicked out of their neighborhood by the opposite sect" -- that is, by members of the aunt's sect.

Since then, Alamin's aunt has moved to Kurd-controlled northern Iraq, where she lives with her daughter, who is married to a Kurd. She still comes to Baghdad every three months to pick up her government pension check "It's very hard for my aunt to visit her brother across the city," she says. "The trouble is the fake checkpoints, not knowing if they are [manned by Sunni] al-Qaida or [Shiite] Mahdi Army. If you know you can fool them."

 

Strikingly, all of the Iraqi expatriates interviewed for this story point a finger at al-Qaida--emphasizing its presence and activity in Iraq, much as the Bush administration has done in recent months, over the activities of native Iraqi insurgents. "Personally," Dr. Ali says, "I think al-Qaida is killing the most Iraqis."

Politics colors the interpretation of atrocities that aren't always claimed by their perpetrators. The Bush administration's critics, including Democrats and Washington pundits, have been skeptical of its recent emphasis on al-Qaida; Iraqi expatriates, on the other hand, might be tempted to blame al-Qaida for the actions of homegrown terrorists. The divisions between foreign agents and native insurgents are drawn in shifting sands.

Dr. Ali says that al-Qaida forces, routed from Afghanistan in 2002, came to Iraq after the fall of Saddam (who, contrary to the Bush administration's past claims, saw Osama bin Laden as his enemy). It is easier for al-Qaida fighters in Iraq, Dr. Ali says: They have "the language and the looks" of Arabs, whereas they were obviously foreigners in non-Arab Afghanistan.

Al-Khakani, a Shiite muslim, allows that "there are bad Shi'a," but he identifies al-Qaida and the Saudis--Sunni forces--as the chief troublemakers. In general, he says, "the terrorist people come from outside [Iraq]." But he doesn't see Iran as a source of violence against Iraqis. He points out that his hometown, Kut, has been peaceful. "Where are U.S. soldiers killed?" he asks--southern Iraq, which is predominantly Shiite, or Baghdad?

"Ethnic cleansing" similar to that taking place in Baghdad neighborhoods is also occurring other areas that are similarly mixed. There is violence in southern cities such as Basra and Amara, Thamir says, "it's just not reported as much."

While Dr. Ali, a Shiite, condemns al-Qaida, he also points an accusing finger at Iran. Iranian-backed groups "are killing Iraqis because they don't want the situation stabilized. . . . [Iran] wants the Americans to be involved in Iraq so they don't pay attention to Iran." He sees the most prominent Shiites in the current Iraqi government, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as having been "brainwashed" during their Saddam-era exile in Iran. He even claims to hear an Iranian accent in their Arabic.

A friend of Thamir's in Baghdad, a former Iraqi air force officer, is "running from house to house" with his family to evade assassination. "Every night they spend in a different house. This guy was a high-ranking pilot, and during the Iran-Iraq War he bombed Iran. Now they're after him to get a reward. He's one of the few [veteran pilots] who have survived." Many pilots who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, Thamir says, have been found dead with notes on their bodies saying, "This is your reward for bombing Iran."

Dr. Ali agrees: "Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia are all having revenge on Iraq."

Likewise, Thamir blames Iraq's chaos on all the outside forces--Iranians, Saudis, al-Qaida, Turkey, and the United States. All, he thinks, are deliberately creating chaos for their own ends. The U.S. invasion, he says, created the conditions that allowed the others to move in.

 

Two things Americans generally fail to understand about Iraq, Dr. Ali says, are the primacy of the country's tribal rulers, and what he calls the "Iraqi psychology . . . the Bedouin mind," in which a need for vengeance can be "carried 10, 20, 30 years."

Dr. Ali recalls that a group of American officials--he says he doesn't know for sure what government agency they were with--came to his house in Rosedale in 2003, one month prior to the U.S. invasion, purportedly to ask advice. "I told them the most important thing is to deal with the tribal leaders," he says. "That's the culture of Iraq. Each leader is like a state under God." Recently--and only recently--he has heard American generals saying the same thing with regard to Sunni tribes. "Five years later!" he sputters. "After five years now we start to speak to the Sunnis? Each one of them has a brother killed, a son killed. . . . How are they to forget that?"

Thamir agrees the traditional structure of Iraqi society was tribal, not religious; tribes can even be a "50/50" mix of Sunnis and Shiites. Like Alamin, he was raised to downplay and even deny sectarian differences; he still refuses to name his own religious affiliation.

Thamir and Dr. Ali see the same fundamental problem with the American intervention: From the outset, there was no scheme for managing and rebuilding Iraq after removing Saddam. "What was the strategy? The `strategy' was just to go to Iraq!" Dr. Ali exclaims.

This complaint is by now familiar to Americans. Even high-ranking Republicans now admit that the Bush administration made colossal blunders, beginning with the "de-Baathification" of the Iraqi government and the disbanding of the Iraqi army. Dr. Ali calls the latter "the biggest mistake--[it created] 400,000 insurgents. They are very well trained, they have guns, and what are their opportunities for life? This mistake was used by the other side . . . and now they open the doors for people from the Iraqi army to come back, but after what? After they become criminals and killers."

Dr. Ali notes rumors of a $10,000 bounty being offered to any Iraqi who killed an American--a sum of money that would support an Iraqi family for about three years. Baghdad's poorest neighborhoods, such as what was then known as Saddam City, were the most hard-hit when Paul Bremer, director of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, disbanded the Iraqi military. Today Saddam City is Sadr City, the stronghold of the so-called Mahdi Army, a sprawling Shiite militia nominally controlled by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Thamir says the United States ignored history, especially the relevant record of post-WWII Germany and Bosnia. "With all the sophistication of Germany at the time, no elections were called for four years," he says. "[The Allies] utilized the Nazis to run the country--not the war criminals, the bureaucrats."

But was--is--the United States merely incompetent? Or are American forces deliberately fostering conflict and violence? Al-Khakani alludes to stories he has heard from friends in Iraq about American troops blocking police action by Iraqi forces, essentially shielding terrorist activity. Prime Minister al-Maliki, he says, has "complained to Bush that he can't move without U.S. permission." Thamir says he has heard similarly chilling reports, "that when there's a raid on terrorists, that Americans would release them."

Thamir continues: "The rationale is that chaos would reign supreme and there'd be an excuse for the occupation to be sustained."

 

In a recent instant-message conversation, Najwa Alamin told her Iraqi aunt that she was about to be interviewed by a reporter. "Tell him that sectarian violence is not going to divide the country," the aunt replied. "It's going to end at some point and we will go back together."

She pointed to a single but significant event: On July 29, the Iraqi national soccer team defeated Saudi Arabia to win the Asian Cup, held in Indonesia. Thousands of people, especially young men, flooded the streets of Iraqi cities to celebrate. There were no explosions. No sectarian fights broke out, although celebratory gunfire killed at least four people. The victorious team members wore black armbands, however: The previous week, after Iraq beat South Korea's team, two car bombs had disrupted the victory festivities, killing about 50 celebrants.

Alamin quotes her aunt: "You have no idea how that game united people. It was about patriotism, about unity. When a game brings people together, there are good chances that if we can get rid of the interference from the outside, things can get better."

The same event inspired hope, however faint, in Haider Thamir: "You don't care where the [soccer] players came from. They played as a team and they won as a team. Their message was, if we're united, we can defeat anyone."

Here in the United States, a minority of Americans feel confident that the United States should "stay the course," whatever ill-defined course the president wants to follow, and another minority wants an immediate unconditional withdrawal. The majority of Americans want to get out of Iraq, but puzzle over when and how? What will happen if the United States pulls out abruptly? What are the alternatives? The expatriates answer these trillion-dollar questions with painful analogies.

Al-Khakani shrugs and sighs. "You see on September 11, when the building is as on fire," he says. "The person inside has a choice. He can jump from the top. If he stays, he's going to burn." Al-Khakani says he fears that if the United States pulls out, it will arm the Sunnis and the Wahhabis, the radical Sunni sect that dominates Saudi Arabia, to fight Shiites and Iran. At the same time, many Sunni Iraqis fear that the United States is favoring Shiite factions.

Dr. Ali offers another, equally vivid analogy: "In Iraq we have a saying--`It is like a needle in the throat.' You can't leave it in, you can't swallow it, you can't take it out." A premature pullout of U.S. troops, he says, "gives a good opportunity to al-Qaida."

Still missing, as it was in 2003, is a strategy. Without the right strategy, Dr. Ali contends, the U.S. "can stay another 10 years in Baghdad and there will be no improvement." The way forward is "a diplomatic way--[Americans] have to sit down and discuss with everybody," instead of gambling on another unilateral top-down game plan. As a physician he says, "If I give a patient treatment for a fever, I have to treat the reason for the fever, not just the symptom."

Thamir, in his role as an unofficial spokesman for expatriate Iraqis, has struggled to conceive of policies that could reverse Iraq's plunge into disaster. He agrees that wide-ranging talks are needed--and that the United States can't be allowed to set the agenda for security and peace. "Internationalize the problem," he says. "Bring everybody in . . . timetables need to be set." Most importantly, he says, America needs to focus on getting Iraq back on its feet economically. "If we are occupiers," he notes, "we had better do it right. Create wealth, create jobs, really tackle the problems." He cites a recent editorial in an Iraqi newspaper, saying that America's reconstruction efforts are more befitting of Bangladesh than a superpower.

As an Iraqi-American, Thamir insists that "success for Iraq means success for America. But how does [the U.S. government] define success? By forcing the government of Iraq to pass an oil law raping the Iraqi people for the benefit of the oil companies?

"[American] people should demand to know what is happened with their taxes. What is the goal?" Thamir continues. "They should ask tough questions of their representatives who are working on all these things." He speaks as a U.S. citizen who has himself used many opportunities to speak out, publicly and privately, about American policy. But he's not optimistic. "One thing this administration doesn't want," he says, "and that is advice."

Unless and until things change dramatically for the better, Iraqi-Americans will continue phoning and e-mailing home, watching from a safe distance--but without detachment--as disaster engulfs province after province. "Everybody I'm speaking to [in Iraq] is asking me to help him," a mournful Dr. Ali says. "But what authority do I have? What can I do for him? There is much painful news for me."

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