Iraq’s Assassination Epidemic

Mustansiriya University: a campus full of bright young things streaming in and out of class and girls in bright happy-colored sandals now that summer is here (the sweet smell of molten Baghdad garbage marks the changing of the seasons). The girls are what I noticed first, all lip liner and smudged kohl and exposed golden tresses. The second thing I noticed was the black cloth banners painted with slogans: “Death Is a Lie: Hussein Is Everlasting,” “We Express Our Sorrow for the Death of the Martyr Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Founder of Hamas.” Territorial markers, like the flags that flutter all over the city, vast monochrome satin squares at traffic roundabouts, on top of bridges and roofs: black for death, red for blood, green for Islam. Inside the College of Sciences, draped over lintels, along walls, hung in the stairwells: “We All Express Our Sorrow for Those Who Died in Karbala and Khadimiya,” “The Attack on Sheik A. Yassin Was an Attack Against the Islamic Revolution,” “Every Day Is Ashura.” Shiite slogans.

“They tell us we can’t wear trousers or tight clothes,” Reem, a physics student, told me as we sat by a fountain in the sunshine. “Guards on the gates, they say do not wear so much makeup.”

Her friend Saif chimed in, “Yeah, and I agree with them.”

Reem rolled her eyes. “Of course he agrees with them! Their rules do no affect him. But it is a matter of freedom!”

“When you give them freedom, they take too much—” countered Saif good-naturedly.

And the black flags? I ask. There has been controversy about the black flags—

“The university should be a space free from politics,” said Saif. Reem was hanging onto her tenets of freedom: “I have a different opinion. Let them do as they like. It’s not hurting anyone.”

The black flags went up across campus around the time of Moharram, the Shiite month of mourning, in February. Dr. Abdul Sameer, the dean of the College of Sciences, told the students that they should be taken down; the students refused. Sit-ins followed demonstrations, negotiations failed. The flags remain. A Ministry of Education investigation is pending. Meanwhile, Dr. Sameer is at home under death threats, surrounded by bodyguards.

It’s a matter of freedom of expression, as Reem had said, but in Baghdad you can be assassinated for expressing an opinion. I have my Westerner argument with an Iraqi friend most days: I insist that Iraqis are ultimately responsible for what happens in Iraq, and he looks at me oddly and replies, “What can I do? If I say anything, they will shoot me.”

This is unarguable.

There is an assassination epidemic in Iraq. The targets are varied; motives sometimes guessable, sometimes not; the gunmen and bombers unknown.

I have a friend, Ahmed, a neat, handsome radical Islamist who painstakingly explains to me why it’s OK to kill Iraqi women and children if they are standing in the way of Americans, because this is permissible in jihad. He told me about a man from the neighborhood who got death threats. “He was working for the Americans,” said Ahmed, “as a translator.” The translator went into the mosque during prayer time and announced, “I have not informed upon anyone.” Someone called out, “Admit this before God.” The translator didn’t, and two days later, he was killed.

Another man I know, a former bodyguard of Saddam’s, Emad, a garrulous psychopath who has a bit of a road-rage problem and suffers from nightmares about the man whose throat he cut during the uprising in Karbala, said he had a friend, a tough guy who couldn’t get out of the country after the collapse. He was running from the family of a girl he used to carry on with. He sold his car, bought a beat up Brazili (a Brazil-made Volkswagen), and slept in it. He grew a beard and lost weight. A couple of weeks ago, they finally found him and killed him.

A psychiatrist friend, Dr. Ali, who is trying to set up an NGO to treat post-traumatic stress-disordered children (Good God, I asked him, where do you begin?), says he is constantly looking behind him in the street to make sure he is not being followed. The last time he was threatened, a man called his wife and told her they would kill the whole family if her husband did not stop working with the Ministry of Health—and by extension the American occupiers. “In the summer, there were just threats,” he told me, “but so many doctors have been assassinated, now the problem is not threats, it is action.” His wife is worried, they’re thinking about moving house, living with relatives, leaving Iraq. “I am depressed,” he told me. He has a colleague, Dr. Saad, whom he knows from the 1991 war, when they were monitoring the morale of front-line troops in Kuwait (fear, worry, and desertion). Dr. Saad left Iraq in 1996 and has now returned to work with the Democratic Coalition. A couple of weeks ago, he was stopped on a road bridge, and seven bullets were fired into his car. Still, Saad says, he doesn’t want to be deterred. He drives around in the same car he always did.

At Mustansiriya University, four professors have been killed over the past year. Dr. Fallah Hussein, the vice dean, was shot outside the gates of the university in the days of chaos after the fall. Dr. Sabah Marhoud, a famous writer, was stopped by a gunman outside his home and shot twice in the head. Dr. Mahmoud Al Qaisi was in a wheelchair after being paralyzed in the Iran-Iraq war. He was kidnapped last August; his body turned up 10 days later. Dr. Abdul Latif Al Mayah, head of the Arab studies department was killed in January, the day after he made one of his appearances on Al Jazeera supporting Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s view that elections should come as early as possible. His car was stopped by eight gunmen. His bodyguard and colleague were told to get out, and he was shot in the drivers’ seat. As he slumped, wounded and bleeding, they pulled him out of the car and shot him again, reportedly another 32 times.

The Independent Islamic Students Organization at the university, which put up the black-flagged slogans around campus has moved into the office that used to belong to the Saddam Students Union. On the wall is a portrait of a green-mantled Hussein, the Shiite martyr, surrounded by loving children; the bookshelves are filled with religious literature. They are a serious, friendly lot, answering my questions, giving me pamphlets in English, and refusing to shake my hand because I am a woman. They said they had about 200 members among the college students. They wanted their opponent, Dr. Sameer, to resign. They accused him of being a Wahhabist bent on making differences between the students. “He has made many mistakes,” said Mahan al-Jourani, who wore a black shirt and black trousers. “He is a dictator. He is the Saddam of this college.”

I asked them where I could find the memorial service for Professor Latif that was to be held that day. They told me it was being held in Seyyed Al Hakim Hall. (Seyyed Al Hakim was the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, based in Tehran for 20 years; in August he was blown up in a car bomb in Najaf.)

Is that the name of the place? I asked, a little incredulous.

“Yes, yes,” they assured me.

On the way, I ran into a friend, Hasan, who is in a boy band and studying chemistry. He said the Shiite students who were putting up the banners weren’t very popular. “I am a Shiite, I don’t have to do these things,” he said. “They don’t represent us at all.”

Hiba, Dr. Latif’s daughter, sat in the second row of the auditorium. She said that her father knew the dangers. “If no one takes a risk, who will take the risk?” Her voice cracked a little.

“He expected something, but not so soon,” said his sister-in-law. They had no idea who had done such a thing. The memorial service was dead memory: cloth flower arrangements, a videotape of the professor’s Al Jazeera interview, an intoning imam, flickering fluorescent lights, and thimbles of bitter coffee. In the entrance hall, Latif’s personal effects had been laid out on a table like a shadow box. Business cards with brown blood-stained edges; two pairs of spectacles, one with a cracked lens; and a wallet with a bullet hole in it. Outside, a phalanx of Kalashnikov-wielding bodyguards stood in a perimeter waiting for their charge, the minister for human rights, to emerge.

An article appeared in the local press prematurely reporting Dr. Abdul Sameer’s death. The article described the execution in gory detail: He was beheaded, dismembered, and thrown in pieces into the Tigris.

“This I consider a threat,” Dr. Sameer told me. I asked why and who.

He mentioned the “Muqtada group,” referring to the followers of MuqtadaSadr. He talked about Sadr City, the Shiite slum; the Badr Brigade, another Shiite party/militia. He complained about the dean of the university. He spoke vaguely of forces of chaos and of instigators.

In Iraq, it seems, the why or who is never really known.