The Us and Them of Central Iraq

Abu Ghraib, half an hour west of Baghdad, a town that ends with a prison, is strung out between two highways that are lined with tank carcasses, decapitated palm trees, and road-kill dogs. The town is semi-industrial, semi-agricultural, broken-down, and half-built. In January, it is muddy. Every time it rains, much of flat Abu Ghraib floods in mulchy ponds of rotting garbage. Kids play football in the ash heaps between the highway access roads and drive herds of goats up the embankments. Otherwise, the place is provincial and poor. One day, we stopped to ask directions from a group of highway workers wearing bright orange tunics.

“Who pays you?” I asked.

“Paul Bremer!”

“And is the pay good?”

“Pah! It is nothing—$2 a day,” and he spat into the gutter they had just swept.

The Americans are not much-liked in Abu Ghraib. Resistance activity here is the highest in the Baghdad area. In November, the police station was moved from the center of town to the edge of the U.S. base a mile up the road. It is surrounded by concentric concrete walls. Still, the mortar attacks continue; in January one killed a policeman.

The Us and Them of Central Iraq, occupied and occupier, are either side of a wide, disconnected gap. Iraqis have heard about American rights, fairness, and due process. But in an insurgent transition, these things seem to have been lost. Justice has come down to night raids, arrests, and detentions.

The Iraqi police are stuck in the middle of the disconnect between the Americans and the local population, and they have not yet managed to build a bridge. They are happy with their new equipment—Glocks and radios and uniforms—and unhappy about the hostility, the hissing, and threats from Iraqis on the street. Hamid Salih joined the police after the fall of Saddam. He wanted a job, the money sounded OK, and he wanted to serve his new country. He has four children, and every morning his wife tells him not to go to work.

“She worries,” he told me.

“I am worried. I am afraid,” said his nephew, who joined the police with him. “They can hit me at any time.”

“Pah, he’s young!” laughed his uncle.

“Weren’t you scared the last time we went out?”

And Hamid Salih, laughed. Yes, he admitted, he was.

“Once, we were fired on as we were driving through the town,” he told me.

Hamid Salih is an enormously fat man with corpulent good humor. In 1986, he was arrested and spent a year and two months in prison before his trial. For the first month, he was tortured with the usual beatings. He was hung against the wall, his arms wrenched behind him. He showed me the scar on his wrist where the handcuffs rubbed through the skin. Interrogators would stub their cigarettes out on his body and think nothing of it. They wanted him to confess. “Who are you working with? Which organization are you with? Which party?”

At his trial, two witnesses—neighbors coerced into testifying—had been found. He was charged with infractions of Law 247, distributing political literature; Law 225, attacking the president; and Law 226, attacking the army. The defense lawyer told the judge he believed these crimes were very bad indeed and merited execution. Hamid was sentenced to 10 years and let out during an amnesty in 1992.

His brother-in-law was a general in the army. He could do nothing to help him; indeed, he was afraid even to visit his sister during this time for fear of implication by proximity.

By ironic fate, of which there is rather an excess in Iraq, the general was arrested by the Americans in August. His brother-in-law, Hamid, now a policeman, could not help him either.

The general, who did not want his name to be used because he is fearful the Americans might come back and arrest him again, was the subject of a nighttime raid, a fairly standard procedure. Several armored vehicles, three helicopters, and a megaphone. He was blindfolded and flex-cuffed. The soldiers searched his house thoroughly; according to his wife, roughly. They dumped the sugar out on the kitchen floor, knifed open sofas, and confiscated a Kalashnikov and a pistol. The pistol was licensed to a member of the family and later returned. Kalashnikovs are as common as televisions.

The general, like all the many security detainees I talked to, was outraged and furious at his treatment. His complaints were perfectly valid. He had been held for four months at Abu Ghraib without charges and interrogated several times. Then he was released for no particular reason. While in custody, he was asked routine questions: Name? Father’s name? Were you a member of the Baath Party? (“Yes, everyone in Iraq was in the Baath Party.”) When was the last time you saw Saddam Hussein? Are you Sunni or Shiite? Do you know where Saddam is?

I asked him if he had been registered by the Red Cross.


Did you see a lawyer?


Did you see a judge?

He snorted.

He said that in Abu Ghraib, where the prisoners were housed in tents and slept under blankets on the ground, he saw prisoners being made to roll in the dirt and sit with their heads bent down. He says one man was forced to stand for 72 hours: If he fell asleep, they poured cold water on him or turned up loud stereos.

“I saw signs of torture, black eyes. One man I talked to said he couldn’t take it, he wanted to kill himself.” He said another man was kicked in the kidneys and had internal bleeding. “He couldn’t even bend over to pray.”

There is no way to verify these accusations, although some American soldiers elsewhere have been disciplined for beating Iraqi detainees.

The general thought about 90 percent of the detainees were innocent. They were a varied lot and included local councilors, one man so old he pissed in his trousers, an imam, a blind man, a 15-year-old kid, and a midget called Sabah.

“The Americans don’t know us,” he said, a common complaint. “They depend on informers.”

Part of his complaint was cultural: “I was in the army; I was a general. My social status is a respectful status. I don’t like being disrespected and humiliated in front of my family and the neighborhood.” And part was Sunni Triangle diatribe, a mix of the humiliation of the occupied with conspiracy theory: “They want to cause these problems, a differentiation between Shiites and Sunni! It is because they know if the Shiites unite with Iran, they will form a coalition and attack Israel. … Tying a man’s hands in front of his wife! … The Americans don’t give us jobs. They destroyed everything, and then they say it is our responsibility to rebuild everything!”

The coalition admits to holding about 12,000 security detainees. The Iraqi Assistance Center, which exists for relatives to find their detained loved ones, has less than 6,000 names in its detainee database. The problem: There doesn’t seem to be a process for security detainees arrested by the Americans.

When I had asked for the name of a lawyer used by the Americans in such cases, one official told me, eyes cast down, “Actually you know, there are no lawyers involved with the detainees.”

The head of the Iraqi Lawyers Union, a kindly old man called Malek Dohan, was not happy with the situation. “The way they are detaining people is against the law. It is done in chaos. The detainees wait a long time without an investigation. In many cases their families do not know where they are.”

The Abu Ghraib courthouse sits under the uncertain authority of a frayed Iraqi flag. A group of defense lawyers—middle-aged provincial men, underpaid, underworked, indignant, irritated—had similar complaints.

Abbas Hassan Al Timimi, in a beige suit, a beige shirt, and a beige tie with brown spots, played a strand of plastic amber prayer beads between his fingers as he spoke: “There are many rules and laws that have been stopped by the coalition. We are just living in chaos in this court. We just want to be heard. We want human rights. Where are the human rights they promised us? They are just picking people off the street. It is all secret. There is no judge, no court, no trial, no paperwork or files. They are given six-digit numbers and put in Abu Ghraib prison.”

In Abu Ghraib and other places where the Sunnis seem to have eked out a living away from the terror of the Saddam regime, objection and outrage have become the common language.

One defense lawyer with a gray beard told me, “I fear the Americans now more than I feared Saddam Hussein. Iraqis feel that the coalition forces are more of a dictatorship than the old regime.”

What about justice under the last regime?

“Yes, it’s true there were political prisoners, but everything was done under the law, through a court, justice—”

But people are imprisoned who had not broken any law, I said.

Abbas moved his head from side to side, a gentle shake. He opened his hands wide in that Iraqi gesture somewhere between “I know nothing of this,” “What can I, humble ordinary man that I am, do?” and inshallah.

But you are sitting here and complaining to me, I told him. What would have happened if you said such things about Odai?

He answered easily, laughing because it was so obvious, “Oh, you would be executed!”

The general and his policeman brother-in-law compared their time inside Abu Ghraib. The general was forced to concede that under Saddam, things had been worse.

“It’s true,” said the general. “The old times were harder. He really didn’t have enough food in prison.” And they showed me a photograph of Hamid when he came out of Abu Ghraib: a skinny, wan man, a different man.

Perception is nine-tenths of reality. Perhaps injustice feels equally unfair whether it is mild and a few months long or tortured and endless.

And still the stories were always the same. As I was leaving the courthouse in Abu Ghraib, one of the lawyers came up to me, asking me for help, which I could not give either. His brother had been missing since July 14, 2003. Someone had seen him being arrested by a U.S. patrolman on the highway. He had been to Iraqi Assistance Center offices, and his brother’s name did not come up in the computer. He tried to find him in Abu Ghraib and was denied access. Twice he went to Um Qasr to no avail. No one has offered him any suggestion about other places to search.

“It’s just not knowing anything,” he told me, miserably. I wrote down the details anyway.