Securing The Iraqi Homeland: The Differing Faces Of Security | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Securing The Iraqi Homeland: The Differing Faces Of Security 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:20 pm
From Friday prayers with the Mahdi army in Sadr City, to the fortified compound of Sumer International Security, to the squatters' camp outside Uday Hussein's former stable club, to the chambers of Judge Zuhair al-Maliky - a portrait of the new Iraq.

PART I.
SADR CITY FRIDAY PRAYERS

I am not sure if it's my imagination or not, but the times I don a hijab I do not seem to feel the heat as much as when I am without it.  The hijab is made of two parts, the first is similar to a neck warmer and is made out of black cotton much like tee shirt material.  I slip it over my head to my neck, pin my hair up, and then pull its five-inch length up onto my head as if it is a headband.  It covers much of my forehead and acts to hold in my hair.  In some places, like Sadr City, it is said the young male children will hit a woman if even a strand of hair is showing.  Next I put on the scarf, checking to see that each of the two ends in front are even in length before pinning it tightly beneath my neck.  This particular day, I am wearing a long brown skirt and one of my long sleeve Iraqi-wear shirts buttoned high on the neck.  I turn to my interpreter, Amal, who is wearing a black abaya she calls "a garbage bag" and ask if I look Iraqi.  She laughs, adjusts my hijab by pulling it down further over my forehead, and says, "You look fine."  Then she whispers, "Are you terrified yet?"

It is a joke between us, instigated by the repetitive comments of an American playwright we met in Baghdad last February who we both still keep in touch with.  Each time either of us speaks with him, he asks, "Are you OK?"  with a tone in his voice as if mortars are crashing around us at every moment.  Amal began the joke after one too many of these "are you OKs?"  In Baghdad it becomes a ridiculous statement as one goes about the activities of daily life.  Each time Amal and I ask each other, "Are you terrified yet?"  we laugh.  If there is any tension it melts.  But most of the time we say it as a blatant joke, to point out just how safe we feel as we walk through the crowds of Karrada Street in the evening hours, perusing the many goods for sale and stopping to eat dinner in an open air cafe.

When she says it to me this time, I laugh.  There is plenty of tension to release.  Amal, a journalist friend, David Enders, and I are going to Friday prayers in Sadr City and besides being unhappy about having to wear the hijab in this heat - it has been averaging 130 degrees - I don't know what to expect.  The media reports have painted a picture of a Wild West sort of town, where Mahdi militiamen walk the streets dressed in black, openly brandishing Kalasnikovs.

Our taxi takes us out of Baghdad to the dusty streets of Sadr City.  The driver stops to ask directions and before long we see people walking the street all going in one direction.  At one intersection, a white Toyota pickup blocks the street.  Several armed men dressed in black are on guard.  We leave the taxi to continue on foot but not before having our bags checked by the armed Mahdi militia.  They are courteous and friendly, one even begins to ask me about my camera equipment - he too is a photographer - as I empty the contents of my backpack onto the tailgate as part of the security search.  We are assigned a guard who escorts us a few blocks past lines of other black-clad men wielding weapons and checking each person passing through their cordon.  Arriving at an open-air hut with a table beneath, we exchange our press passes for official Friday prayer press passes.

The level of organization, courtesy and feeling of safety is astounding, especially given media reports that Madhi militiamen are a poor, uneducated, rabble rousing bunch.

The crowd moving toward the site thickens the closer we get; the feeling is light and it's just as David said it would be - that of a rock concert.  All of the men are carrying prayer rugs, some have umbrellas and many have towels - some folded neatly on their heads and others are worn turban-like - to catch the rivers of sweat pouring from their faces.  Men and children hawk food, colorful posters of various clerics, books and badges showing Moqtada al-Sadr's face.  Amal buys three of these and distributes them among us.  "Put this on," She says.  "It will help."


Under a blazing sun in 130 degree heat, over 10,000 Shi'ite heed the call to friday prayers and carpet the street in Sadr City.

We are led to the mosque's roof where two other journalists are perched.  Amal and I are female, so our group is not allowed below where the men have gathered.  The sight is breathtaking.  Numbering well over 10,000 strong, their prayer rugs touch edge to edge lining the wide street in front of the mosque from curb to curb and stretching out for many blocks, as far as the eye can see.  Young men carrying water tanks on their backs walk through the crowd, spraying as they go.  The women, far fewer in number, are sequestered in the inner courtyard of the mosque and are visible from one side of the roof which male journalists are not allowed access.  All of the women wear abayas; some have their entire faces covered.  Three are covered from head to toe in black and wear the bright green headband of the militia.  An Iraqi flag stands behind them.

Prayers begin and the crowd acts in unison responding to the words of the clerics.  One tells the crowd, "Your women must not leave the home, not even to go to religious school.  They must not pray to God, only to their husbands."

It is hot under the mid-day sun, unlike anything I have ever experienced.  Moving back and forth across the roof photographing, the heat rises from the ground as if it were fire itself, seeping through the thick black soles of my Chaco sandals, the only western clothing I allow myself to wear.  The sun burns the top of my feet, which have become blackened by dirt and its rays, and I find that my skirt shades my feet if turn in just the right direction.  A consistent breeze throws the furnaced heat around over my wet body - there has never been sweating like this.  Just a few seconds out in the air produces rivers of water from all pores.  I am living proof of the miracle of the body's ability to cool itself.  Reminded of time spent in sweat lodges, I concentrate on breathing in the heat deeply so as to balance the body's internal heat with the external heat.  It is a short matter of time before our frozen water bottles are liquefied and drank.

All know I am a foreigner but do not know from where.  When asked, not daring to say I am American, I respond, "Belgium."  But they all know I am a journalist and most are acutely aware of my presence - even the women in the courtyard.  As I spy through my long lens scanning the crowd, I see them - men, women, and children - look up and gaze into my eyes as if they understand the eyes of the world are on them.

Amal and I come back the following Friday without David.  It is much the same as before but we stay on the ground this time.  We are still not allowed into the men's area but I am able to photograph the front lines.  Once prayers are over the crowd quickly disperses.  Our guard keeps an eye on us as we linger, taking photos of the women emerging from the mosque and the parades of young boys in white shirts and green headbands marching through the dusty emptying street.  They chant, "Moq-ta-da.  Moq-ta-da.  We will give our lives for you Moqtada.  For Allah, we are here to serve you."  A few women approach and talk of the bombings and violence they have witnessed.  Others smile for the camera and attempt to get other women to stop and have their photo snapped as well.  I feel a sharp pain on my thigh and look down to see a boy of about 10 glaring at me.  In his hand is the thick wire that he has just struck me with.  He starts to admonish the women who shoo him away.  I stare him down.  I am in Rome, am willing to wear the hijab and be kept out of the men's area.  But violence against women will not be tolerated.

Amal and I are the last to turn in our press passes and as we walk through the back-to-normal streets, I ask her if we are safe.  "I can't imagine any other place where we would be so safe," she replies.  The taxi drivers are not so convinced and all refuse us passage.  One of the Mahdi army chiefs stands with us at the main intersection and still no taxi will take us.  He eagerly invites us to lunch but we sadly decline because of another appointment.  This remains as one of my only regrets of the trip.  He arranges for a car to take us to another intersection where he gets out with us and waits until we secure a taxi.

PART II.
SUMER INTERNATIONAL SECURITY


"We deal with the weapon very carefully.  When first learning about the weapon you must learn how to carry it.  There is no difference in the workings of the AK-47, the MP-5 or the M-16.  At the end we will have a bullet in the target.  This AK is Russian made.  There is a difference between the western version and the eastern version.  The western companies make the AK with the safety on one side and the eastern has it on the other."

"Why?"

"Because they have conflict with everything.  Whether they make cars, or weapons, or instruments.  Everything - there is a conflict."


Sumer Security Trainees, many of whom have had experience in the military, run through a series of rigorous exercises as part of their required two-week training course.

I am getting my first Kalashnikov-handling lesson at the Sumer International Security Company located in Baghdad, not far from my hotel.  My instructor, (who asks I not reveal his name) is a former captain in the Iraqi army who trained cadets at the military academy.  His specialty was psychology and says this kept him from participating in actual fighting.  In a discussion about the differences between civilians and soldiers, and the level of political participation of each group, he reveals he never got involved in political ideas because to do so would have gotten him killed by Saddam.  He also reveals that his wife and son were killed four years ago - something having to do with the former regime - but he will give no details.  "Maybe I will tell you next time, if we get to know each other better," he says.

He is an exceptional instructor and by the end of the session I have learned how to pick up the gun, check my surroundings before I lift it, lock and unlock the safety, check to see if it is loaded, load it, and in general how to handle it.  Later in his office by way of two interpreters he says, "Honestly, I wish I could work with more Americans to prove to the whole world that the Americans have not occupied Iraq, but that they are here to help Iraqi people.  We have a lot of good ideas and experience with the terrorists whom we have caught in the past.  The problem that prevents me from working in good conditions are the new parties that have appeared in the Iraqi community.  It is not about a love between American people and Iraqi people - it is about rebuilding Iraq.  The Americans are the people who will help us rebuild Iraq."

The actual training facility and corporate headquarters of Sumer is located in a larger complex, a several block area of a Baghdad neighborhood, sealed off from the outside world by huge protective cement barricades and an astounding number of security personnel.  Eight hundred security men either live or pass through here on a daily basis.  All in all, SIS employs 4000 people, 34 of whom have been killed on the job since May of 2003.  A security guard working at SIS makes $400 per month - better than nothing in a country with a 60 percent unemployment rate, but many guards tell me this is not enough to survive.  The guards are a mixture of Arabs, Christians, and Kurds.  The complex also contains private homes, city streets, and the Al-Sadeer Hotel that houses DynCorp personnel who act in advisory positions to the Iraqi Police force and SIS trainers.

One of these "trainers," Tom (he doesn't offer his last name) from Massachusetts, walks through the training area just before my lesson.  A former Special Forces Marine, he will be catching the next plane out of Iraq; his six-month contract with Dyncorp has ended.  His specialty is weapons training, and while in the Marine Corp he participated in everything from raids to patrols.  He was in country - down south - before the war actually began, and helped the resistance during the war.  When I ask him why he left the Marines, he says, "My contract was up.  I spent 15 years and got tired.  It took up a lot of my time."  He adds, " You make $60,000 a year but you can make six figures a year doing this."

Networking with former military contacts has helped him get a variety of jobs in Iraq.  Some last three months, others six.  As far as working with the trainees at SIS, Tom says, "after observing them for three weeks we identified deficiencies, so we showed them new ways.  They were very dedicated and willing to learn."  I ask him if supplying security is the biggest moneymaker in Iraq these days.  "Yes.  A lot of big money is being shelled out for security."

Indeed.  As of May 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority Web site had the names 62 private security companies listed as operating in Iraq.

The expense of security is evident as one attempts to enter the Sumer complex.  The honk of a vehicle driving through the two closely placed 16 foot high cement barricades placed just far enough apart to allow entrance cues a car, which acts as a gate, to slide back and allow the first level of entry to the complex.  As it slides back in place blocking exit, a swarm of security guards surround the entering vehicle, open its hood, trunk, and scan its underbelly with huge mirrors on long poles.  Once cleared, a second gate car glides back to allow entry.  Once inside, armed guards poised with Kalashnikovs are clearly visible in fortified positions both on the ground and along the upper levels of buildings.  This is the ultimate in security living in the new Iraq.

I am used to this routine having been here several times, visiting Hussain Sinjari, Editor-in-Chief of Baghdad's Ahali newspaper.  It was during a dinner at his home that my lesson was arranged.  I asked if it was possible to learn how to shoot a Kalashnikov.  "Oh yes, of cooourse," he replied, pointing to his cousin who was seated across the table.  "Farhad will teach you."  Hussain explained my request to Farhad who then offered a deal.  "As a good businessman," he began.  "I will give you this lesson if you do a story about my security company."  I laughed out loud and said I was getting the best part of the deal - a glimpse inside the workings of an Iraqi security company would simply be a bonus to my learning how to shoot a Kalashnikov.

Founded on May 14, 2003, SIS was, according to its Web site, "the first private security company established after the liberation of Iraq."  SIS, in partnership with DynCorp, provides security for international dignitaries, business executives, US and Iraqi government agencies (CIA and Governing Council members), sensitive sites in Iraq like power plants, and escort protection for the transport of oil, under the aegis of the UN Oil for Food Program.

The head of SIS is Farhad Sinjari, a quietly intense, former peshmerga fighter who learned his trade beginning at age 17 in the mountains of Kurdistan.  Nothing misses his eye.  He speaks only Arabic, so we converse through Zee, his 22-year old personal interpreter who speaks perfect English.  Interviewing him is akin to scaling a glass wall.  His answers are guarded, carefully executed, and brilliant in their deflection of anything with even the slightest political tinge.

According to Farhad, each potential client is closely scanned.  He will not work with just anyone.  When asked what will his huge security force - which to some translates into "mercenary force" - will do once things settle down in Iraq and it is no longer needed, he responds, "They will go home."  I explain that there are some who worry about the future of such a large militaristic group of men once violence abates.  What will they do for employment?

"If Iraq becomes stabilized, the economy will be strong enough to support other means of support.  This will happen automatically.  Once the safety and security is back in this country, jobs will be looking for these people, they won't be looking for jobs, says Farhad.  "I hope to change my job as soon as possible," he adds.

I ask him if he dreams of someday living outside the wall.  "I don't dream this way but I do dream that one day Iraq will get back to normal without cement barriers and guards everywhere.  I would like to see a country where skyscrapers are being built and life is flourishing.  The wealth of Iraq is all under the ground.  We are in real need of loyal and honest people to dig up the ground, extract the oil and begin building."

Does he think the elections will occur as mandated - no later than the end of January?  "If the election happens and people are impressed by it," Farhad says, "security will follow."

PART III.
A VISIT TO THE COURTHOUSE


"How could I sleep at night if I forced even 100 people to leave a place without their having anywhere to go - while allowing one man, who the American government brought into Iraq after a long absence and who now occupies a 7,000 square meter government property and refuses to pay rent, to stay?
- Judge Zuhair al-Maliky, August 12, 2004

The excerpt is from my last-day-in-Iraq interview with Zuhair al-Maliky, a Baghdad University-educated lawyer and Iraq's chief investigating judge, just two days before he issued a warrant for the arrest of Ahmad Chalabi on charges of money laundering.  Our discussion centered around two seemingly unrelated topics: the money laundering issue and the plight of tens of thousands of homeless Iraqi people, mostly Shi'ites terribly brutalized and disenfranchised by Saddam's regime, who now occupy various properties owned by the Iraqi government.  Back in February I visited several of these camps and was told there were approximately 30 of them in Baghdad alone, and another 267 such camps spread across the whole of Iraq.

"Once the safety and security is back in this country, jobs will be looking for people, they won't be looking for jobs."
One camp, a large parcel formerly housing Uday Hussein's stable club - complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool and theater - is located in between the buildings housing the Ministry's of Oil and the Interior.  During interviews with squatters - 650 families totaling approximately 6 to 7000 people live here.  I have been told that every once in a while "someone" comes from the Ministry of the Interior and threatens them with eviction.  The property was heavily bombed during the war and is slated to be used as a training academy for the Iraqi Police Dept.  But squatters say they have nowhere to go and some have said they will "suicide" themselves if forced to leave.  So far, each time an Interior Ministry official has threatened eviction, an American MP has saved the day by authorizing squatters cannot be moved unless "alternative housing" is supplied.

At no time did al-Maliky let on that a warrant was in the works for Chalabi.  But it was very apparent, during our discussion, that the actions of Chalabi and others brought into Iraq by the Bush administration was very much on the mind of this young judge.  As was the plight of the squatters.

Al-Maliky has getting quite a bit of media attention.  Critics have labeled him an instrument of the "America puppet-government" and those served with warrants have called into question al-Maliky's credentials.  Officials in the latest American-backed government are failing to support him by refusing to arrest Chalabi, his nephew Salem Chalabi, and others al-Maliky has issued warrants against - 17 who are associated with Chalabi's political party, the Iraqi National Congress (INC).

Ahmad Chalabi, a 59-year-old Shi'ite who was in exile for 45 years, is one of the most brilliant purveyors of misinformation and perhaps the most well-known puppeteer of the American government to date.  Chalabi, along with members of the INC, fed a series of lies speaking of intimate knowledge of Saddam's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction - complete with fictional reports from eye-witness defectors - into the waiting ears of their friends in the Bush administration: Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby, and Chalabi's occasional dinner companion, Richard Perle.  Chalabi also reportedly suggested to these neocons that Iraq would be a country friendly to Israel.  It is now general knowledge that the US went to war against Iraq based on this erroneous information.  More recently, Chalabi, realizing that those perceived as being handpicked by the Americans would be sidelined, if not killed, has reinvented himself in Iraq as anti-American.  Regardless, many on the street in Iraq express a deep dislike of Chalabi.

For its efforts prewar, Chalabi's INC was paid a total of $39 million by American taxpayers, although its $340,000 a month allowance was recently cut by the Pentagon after a falling out over the false WMD info and claims he had given classified US info to Iran.  Postwar rewards have included a seat on 25-member Governing Council and head of the De-Baathification Commission, possession of 25 tons of potentially incriminating documents gathered by Saddam's notorious Mukahabarat Intelligence Agency, and control of the Ministry of Finance by way of his "associates."

And then there is the question of hundreds of Iraqi government properties.  These include mansions, former government offices, ranches, and agricultural land alleged to have been illegally seized by various groups and political parties - among which members of Chalabi's family and the INC are said to have been the most acquisitive in the days after the toppling of Saddam's statue.

Among these properties is the one al-Maliky speaks of above, and that of the squatters.


Judge Zuhair Al-Maliky: "It is the government's responsibility to provide homes to homeless iraqis who suffered 35 years of tyranny and not to political parties."

Salem Chalabi, named the lead prosecutor for the trial of Saddam Hussein by the Iraqi Governing Council, despite polls showing him to be the least trusted politician in Iraq, was charged with the May 28 murder of Haithem Fadhil, director general of the Finance Ministry.  According to the LA Times, Fadhill "was preparing a report on reclaiming government-owned real estate."  An anonymous source told the LA Times: "Fadhil 'was trying to get back those properties that belonged to the people.  He told his wife and a friend that he had received a lot of threats from Mr. Salem Chalabi directly, who told him: 'You will not stay for long.  We will get rid of you.'"

Salem reportedly has responded to the charges by saying, ''Allegedly, what I said was: ''If you don't stop investigating these properties, you won't stay in this position for long.  I don't have any recollection of meeting [Fadhil]. I've never been in his office, I don't own any properties in Iraq, I stay at a friend's house.  These allegations, to say the least, are ludicrous.''

Another Chalabi associate, the security chief of the INC, Aras Habib, who was nominated for a position on the National Assembly and was nominated by Ahmad Chalabi to head a reincarnated version of the Mukahabarat, has been charged with torturing, kidnapping, illegal detention and stealing government property.

According to investigators working on the money laundering case, Chalabi family members close and distant run almost every major bank in Iraq.  The money laundering issue first surfaced at various branches of the Central Bank of Baghdad where, on Oct.  15, 2003, the exchange of old Iraqi currency - known as "Saddam's dinars" - for new began.  Slated for destruction, millions of old bills were taken to several burn sites around Baghdad, including the Mukahabarat Intelligence Agency complex, destroyed by American bombing and presently occupied by approximately 4,000 squatters.  Soon after their arrival, it was discovered that some of the bills were counterfeit.  A short time later, an alleged associate of the Chalabi, Saba al-Noori, then manager of the Ministry of Finance with ties to the INC, had 57 female bank tellers jailed without charging them.  In interviews I had with tellers last February and March, Ahmad Chalabi and Saba al-Noori's name came up again and again.

On April 1, 2004, in what he says was his first big case, Judge al-Maliky ordered the tellers released on bail and al-Noori was charged and convicted with illegally arresting the tellers.  It is said that al-Noori is a former Mukahabarat officer who had some "smuggling troubles" and ran away to Jordan.

At the end of our interview I ask al-Maliky:

"Are you afraid?"

"I would be lying if I told you no."

"Because it seems they keep killing people."

"Yes.  And it is easy to get rid of one person.  And after, all one down and then blame the terrorists."

"Who do you think is killing these people?"

"Who would think of killing a person who is fighting corruption?  If you can answer this question, you will find out."

The bait and switch game is on.  From somewhere comes a whisper that a specific person is acting as a puppet of the "American-backed government."  Fed into the ear of the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr, the former Baathist Sunnis in Fallujah, reinvented Iraqis like Chalabi, or anyone with a gripe, this information immediately makes them an enemy of Iraq.  For criminals at work laundering money, powerful people looking for control, or thieves - rich and poor - stealing the goods of a nation at war, these whispers deflect attention.  As these whispers reach the ears of the media, in many cases connect-the-dot verification via the Internet, or personal and/or corporate bias takes place.  Not to mention the many journalists spending more time holed up in the confines of their barricaded hotels than on the streets talking with the average Iraqi or forced to meet the needs of a far off editor who already knows the story they are looking for before it happens.  Before long catch words like "puppet" and "American-backed" are words being used by just about every media outlet.

And does anyone really know the truth besides those playing the game?  The only truth I know is that in the great primordial soup Iraq has become the outcome is a literal crap

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