Ominously, opposite the old 1940s British cemetery in Baghdad’s Bab al-Muatham quarter, someone has written “Leave or Die.” The U.S. Army is losing one or two men a day. It seems that opposition forces are now attacking “soft targets”—hotels, foreign offices, and journalists. When I first arrived, I was most afraid of the soldiers: young, bullish, and very frightened themselves, they made the transition from war force to peacekeepers badly, and many died. Three weeks ago, on my first day in Baghdad, I noted some graffiti opposite the Baghdad Museum. It read, “The blood of Saddam’s unbelievers will pay for the lives of all our Islamic martyrs.” Suddenly, my taxi driver started screaming and spun the car around. I turned: The tank that guards the museum was aiming at us, and, on the turret, a gunner was pointing at my neck. Last week, a soldier killed a 12-year-old boy who was playing with a water pistol. He shot him between the eyes.
At that time, I had been dressing to look as much like a journalist as possible—camera straps, pens in all pockets, enormous dark glasses, even a white linen cap: obviously not Iraqi, obviously not a soldier. Obviously not much of a journalist either; the real ones scream round the country with a fluttering retinue of fixers, drivers, and translators in armor-plated HUVs. Now, I don’t know. I spend no time on the streets anymore. I sit at the back of restaurants and coffee shops. I talk incessantly in Arabic and surround myself with people who are always curious about the blond boy with the Lebanese accent.
Today I took shelter in the Abdel-Qadir al-Gailani mosque, the largest Sunni place of worship in Baghdad. Stick-and-canvas stalls lead up to its entrance; the venders sell trinkets, worry beads, and photos of the grand Sufi sheikhs of the 1940s. A beautiful 19-year-old Faylee Kurd, his nose broken across his face, sells tapes of Quranic chanting. For the last nine months, he has been living in a shack behind the mosque, with his parents and three brothers. The Faylee Kurds (a specific ethnic group) have been kicked between Iraq, Iran, and the Kurdish north for two decades. I ask this one where he wants to live. He tells me Lebanon.
A deaf and dumb man swinging a Kalashnikov takes me to meet Sheikh Abd al-Jabbar al-Qaissy, the Imam’s No. 2. It’s nearing afternoon prayer time, and he’s waking from his nap. He must be over 70. He is very toothless, very turbaned, and very friendly. And not very clever. Every Islamic party in Iraq has been bending over backward to present themselves as the democratic face of Islam. Abd al-Jabbar knows to be wary of inquiries but doesn’t know how. The biggest religious party in Iraq is Shiite and led by Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim. Would Abd al-Jabbar welcome a Shiite al-Hakim as president? “I’ve never heard of him,” he claims. What does he think of the Iranian governmental model? “I haven’t been there.” And Saudi Arabia? “Saudi Arabia is the land of Islam; I have been on the Hajj to Mecca four times.” But he does tell me that Iraq has never been worse off; that she needs Islam, not politics; that only Islam can govern her; that Iraq will only find peace in God. “We have had 35 years of war here because Iraq abandoned God.” How was life for him under Saddam? “Fine, I stayed away from politics.” Has he heard of mass graves? “Not until the U.S. began talking about them.” Doesn’t he think a man in his position should know about such things? “No, I am a man of God.” He was running to the mosque for prayers. I was furious and desperate now for a translator. Instead of “moral responsibility,” I stammered, “psychological cowardice,” but he was shuffling off and was past hearing or caring.
I had dinner in one of Baghdad’s smartest restaurants with the “international man” of one of the big tribes here, a man who looks after their financial interests abroad. He spent an hour talking Tuscany and French white burgundy. The only other people there were Bernard Kerik (ex-New York police commissioner, now senior adviser to the ministry of interior) and a young woman. They came in separate cars, escorted. At the door stood four men in matching flak jackets, each with a fold-away automatic weapon, a pistol, and a jungle knife. They’re ex-special forces from Pretoria, South Africa. They call Nelson Mandela, whom they once worked for, a “sweetie.”
Under the Jadiriyya bridge in south Baghdad, drunkards gather around polystyrene iceboxes, drinking bootleg vodka. At night, it’s the looters’ hangout, where they spend what they stole. The ministry district, badly shelled, looks like a prehistoric graveyard. Men, who look like mice against the charred carcasses of monumental Baathist architecture, scuttle back and forth. By 7 p.m., every night, the crowds flee the city. Three days ago, the 1940s Prime Minister Abdel Mohsen Fahd al-Sadoun’s bronze statue was stolen from its pedestal on the street that bears his name. Even in the late evening, my ears feel the pressure of the heat. Every night, in the 15 minutes it takes me to fall asleep, I hear gunfire. Everywhere I go, people tell me life was better under Saddam.