Such Fragile Threads

The longing of the Iraqi people for a society based on basic human rights sometimes appears strong enough to overcome fragmentation into ethnic groups and religious differences, but at other times seems fragile and tentative.

BAGHDAD - Najaf and Karbala, the two holiest cities of Shi'ite Islam, are self-contained universes, revolving around the sacred tombs at their center - those of the martyred founders of Shi'ism, Ali and Hussein. These are cities built for pilgrimage, with dozens of small, ornately decorated hotels and spacious plazas where pilgrims from Iran, too poor to pay for lodging, sleep on cardboard mattresses. Outside the majestic mosques that house the tombs, street vendors hawk their wares: tapes and videos of ecstatic Shi'ite rituals, rugs and posters featuring the faces of Hussein and Ali, and Koranic discourses preached by popular ayatollahs. Religious music, whose melancholy key is balanced by a raucous backbeat, blasts from makeshift amplifiers.

Safa, the Shi'ite driver from Baghdad who we've hired for our trip through the south, guides us through the streets of Karbala. My Kurdish translator, Zimkan Ali, is nervous. Yesterday, a bomb had exploded here in Karbala, killing a young man outside a hotel on the main boardwalk, meters away from the Mosque of Hussein. "Moktada Sadr's followers are trying to take over the city," Zimkan tells me, referring to the radical young leader of a militant Shi'ite faction that had gained a widespread following among poor Shi'ites in the slums of Baghdad. "This place is full of religious fanatics."

From the moment Saddam lost control of the south, rival Shi'ite factions have vied to fill the power vacuum in the two holy cities. These maneuverings have been punctuated by terrorist bombings, which most Shi'ites believe were planned by forces loyal to Saddam and meant to spark internecine Shi'ite struggles. The most notorious of these bombings was the one that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Bakri al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Resistance and 80 other Iraqis outside the Mosque of Ali in Najaf. Al-Hakim's portrait is plastered everywhere in Karbala and Najaf; his brother, Abdul, is now a member of Iraq's governing council.

We arrive at the main plaza in Karbala just as the funeral procession for yesterday's bomb victim is beginning. Several hundred men are following the body, which is being carried aloft in a wooden casket draped in a yellow-orange cloth and adorned with branches and flowers. A prayer leader walks in front of the casket, leading the crowd and calling out "Allahu Akhbar [God is great]," his naked voice thunderous and grainy, as if he were using a megaphone. The body is headed for the mosque housing the tomb of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed. As the casket enters the gate, Zimkan asks the guard if I can enter as well, and he signals us that we are welcome to come through.

The interior of the mosque is drenched in beauty. Every surface is gracefully adorned. Green, gold, silver, and blue stones form intricate, abstract designs. Verses from the Koran are embedded in the upper walls just before they curve into domes, in a stylized, embossed calligraphy, words arching themselves toward perfection. The tomb itself lies behind silver grating, which the pilgrims kiss, slide over and then kiss again. The tomb is bathed in a misty green light. I peek inside and see a green neon bulb.

People are talking to me in a language I don't understand, and suddenly, my translator is at my side, looking worried. "They mistook you for an Iranian," he whispers. "That's why they let you in. But now they've realized you don't speak Persian. This mosque is like Mecca. Non-Muslims are not allowed. We're under some kind of arrest."

Several bearded and severe looking young men lead the three of us - Zimkan, Safa and I - into an office in the courtyard of the mosque, and begin to question us. "Everybody knows that the mosques of Ali and Hussein are forbidden to non-Muslims," the older of the bearded men says, as we try to excuse ourselves by way of ignorance. Two of the men take Zimkan to a separate room and search him thoroughly. They search me too, examine my notebook, and call other, more senior bearded men in for consultation. Safa reassures me that everything will be all right. After 10 minutes or so, we are released.

But the atmosphere has been poisoned, somehow. I take a picture of an elfin little man with a white beard who is sitting cross-legged on a blanket, smiling enigmatically near the mosque. "Give him money," people motion me with their hands and expressions. "He's a beggar." But when I take out a bill a bearded young man blocks the way, and rages at me in Arabic. "You American journalist. You want to take a picture of a beggar? You want to give him your money? You want to show that all Iraqis are beggars!"

Triggering memories

We quickly move away. Zimkan, I discover, has been traumatized by our short detention at the mosque. He is a native of Halabja, the Kurdish town near the Iranian border that Saddam Hussein attacked with poison gas in 1988, killing 5,000 of the town's residents. Our experience in the mosque has triggered memories; Zimkan is distraught, mournful.

"They searched me because I am a Kurd," he says. "You don't understand what Kurds mean to them, to the Arabs."

"But we're okay," I tell Zimkan. "This is the Shi'ites. They suffered under Saddam just like the Kurds did. This wasn't Saddam's secret service."

"It's not over yet," he insists, unconvinced by my argument. "They'll come after me. It was Moktada Sadr's men. They have taken over the mosque. Sadr said that Kurds are `kaf'r,' unbelievers. They're going to say that I led an American into their holiest place. They're going to kill me."

Zimkan's reaction challenges my paradigm of the Iraqi situation. In Baghdad, near my hotel, I had sat in an open-air teahouse - a plastic table standing on the sidewalk - where the same neighborhood characters gathered each evening. One of them, Nidam, a 30-year old Shi'ite with a baby face and precise English, had remarked, with a sweep of his hand: "Look around at this table. Shi'ite, Chaldean, Sunni, Armenian, Kurd. Saddam and his allies from Al Qaida are trying to set us against each other, Kurd against Arab, Shi'ite against Sunni. But it will not happen. Never!"

From all I had seen up until now, the longing of the Iraqi people for a society based on basic human rights and the rule of law clearly seemed strong enough to overcome the reflexive fragmentation into ethnic groups. But after Zimkan's fright, I realize how fragile and tentative are the threads holding Iraqi society together.

Within a few hours, everything changed again. The sun had set, ending the Ramadan fast, and a festive mood prevailed. People feasted on chicken and rice, lamb kebab, fresh fruit and yellow custard. Safa, our driver, ate quickly and then returned to the mosque from which we had been expelled. He came back with two bits of news. First of all, Moktada Sadr's men did not control the Hussein mosque. The men who had detained us were disciples of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shi'ite leader in Iraq, and a far less militant figure than Sadr. Secondly, these same men had helped Safa secure me an interview with Sheikh Abdul Mahdi, the administrator of the Hussein mosque, Sistani's deputy and one of his closest advisers.

Only three weeks earlier, on October 16, Abdul Mahdi and 200 armed Sistani loyalists had faced down Sadr's men when they had taken over the Hussein mosque by force. Three American soldiers and two Iraqi policemen had died when they tried to intervene in the battle between the Shi'ite groups. By the next day, the Shi'ites had negotiated a truce that left Abdul Mahdi, as Sistani's representative, still in charge of the mosque. Since Sistani himself gives no interviews, Abdul Mahdi was the highest Shi'ite official we could have hoped to meet. Zimkan's anxiety dissipated as quickly as it came. Safa, Zimkan and I are elated.

`We want security'

Sheikh Abdul Mahdi's house, clean, white and modern-looking, is filled with guests. They sit on cushions along the edges of the large salon, leaving the center open for men carrying trays of tea, biscuits and Coke. We are greeted warmly, fussed over. After a few minutes, Zimkan and I are ushered into an adjacent room: Abdul Mahdi's study. Leather-bound volumes of religious law and philosophy line the bookshelves; in one corner, a Mickey Mouse toy is on the floor, evidence of the sheikh's young children. Abdul Mahdi himself, 47 years old, sits cross-legged on the floor. He has the soft hands of a scholar; the portions of his face not covered by his beard are equally smooth.

I ask Abdul Mahdi a general question about the future of Iraq, hoping to ease him into speaking about politics. But he doesn't need any warming up.

"All the Iraqi people are suffering from lack of security," he begins. "We want security and this is the responsibility of the coalition forces. The coalition forces must be harsh with the Ba'ath, remnants of Saddam's regime. They are murderers, criminals. We know that there are Ba'ath members meeting, planning and moving. They want to show that there is no peace in Iraq. The coalition forces must move and strike! Why have they not begun? There are still Ba'ath members who are concentrated in various ministries in Baghdad, and in other bastions of power. They must be removed. If America allows the Ba'ath to creep back into authority, this will be a mistake, a big mistake. Why not try these people in the court of law?"

So the Americans should be in charge of security in Iraq for the time being?

Abdul Mahdi: "America must be quick about building up the new Iraqi government and a strong Iraqi police. But they can't entrust the task of security to just anyone, or the people will not trust the police. There are still Ba'ath elements in the police hierarchy. They have to be excised. The police are not yet strong enough to keep the security."

Some Americans have a hard time distinguishing religious Shi'ites from fundamentalists like the Al Qaida group. Can you help explain the difference?

"We are 100 per cent the opposite of Al Qaida. We don't consider them Islamic at all. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, Al Qaida has been fighting against the Shi'ites. For us, the Islamic religion represents peace. Our religious authorities have issued strict orders forbidding us from taking up arms against America. Not that we agree with a permanent American presence in Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani - whom the majority of Iraqi Shi'ites follow - wants America to leave peacefully. He wants Iraq for Iraqis quickly and peacefully. We want the American soldiers to return peacefully to their homes and families. But fighting against the coalition soldiers - we don't consider this resistance. We are absolutely against the attacks on the coalition forces. These attacks are against the interest of the Iraqi people. The Ba'ath are fighting the Americans because the Ba'ath are suffering from Iraqi freedom.

"Of course, we want our rights restored to us. We are the majority here in Iraq, but under the former regime, we had all our rights stripped from us. We want proper representation of the Shi'ites in the central government and in all governmental institutions. And although we want to achieve these goals peacefully, if we are unable to do so, we will eventually try a different way.

Saddam was known for supporting the Palestinians. He gave grants of $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers. Do you agree with this policy?

"Saddam is a liar. I don't necessarily believe that he helped the Palestinians, but if he did, it was to serve his own interests. We support the Palestinians in any means they use in order to achieve their rights, because the Israelis are harsh and cruel. But that does not mean we will give them any material support or encouragement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not our affair. We sympathize with the Palestinians in their fight for their rights. But if Israel gives them their rights, the region can be peaceful."

The sheikh apologizes. He has run out of time; people are waiting for him. Just one more question, I say. He sits back down again. What about democracy? I ask. "Is there a conflict between Islam and democracy? Do you want an Iraq that is similar to the Shi'a Islamic state in Iran?"

He answers the last question first. "There are Shi'a in Iraq and in Iran. We are related religiously. They believe in our religious scholars and we believe in theirs. But that has nothing to do with politics, or policy. The religious authority in Najaf [where Grand Ayatollah Sistani lives] has an independent policy from Iran.

"As for democracy, yes, of course, Islam and democracy can coexist. We understand democracy in a special way. But even so, Islam does not clash with the Western idea of democracy, where both the majority and minorities have rights. Yes, it is possible to practice this form of government in Iraq."

The salon where Sheikh Abdul Mahdi receives visitors has filled up even more in his absence. It is now jammed with supplicants and dignitaries, most of them in turbans or kaffiyehs. Outside, three imposing looking men with no visible weapons guard the gateway.

Glimpse of the future

In the Kurdish north, it is possible to see a glimpse, perhaps, of what Iraq might look like under a Western government. Compared to northern Iraqi cities such as Mosul and Kirkurk, which look drab, dusty and depressed, the Kurdish area, which has been free of Saddam's direct control since 1991, is flourishing. Iraqi Kurdistan is split into two regions: The western half is governed by the older and more conservative Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the Eastern half, by the more liberal Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In Suleymania, the capitol of the PUK-controlled east, the streets are scrubbed clean, new buildings are going up and the streets are busy with commerce. On one prominent intersection is a fast-food restaurant designed to look exactly like McDonald's, right down to the Ronald McDonald clown in the window. But the McDonald's corporation thought a franchise in Iraqi Kurdistan was too risky; instead, Suleymania has a MaDonal's. A testimony to Kurdistan's romance with all things American, it is open even during Ramadan.

More inspiring evidence of Kurdistan's democracy is Halwati, an independent weekly newspaper published in Suleymenia, whose examination of Iraqi intelligence reports captured after the fall of Baghdad have already exposed several prominent PUK and KDP officials, such as General Uriah Maaluf, the chief of police for an entire region, as Ba'ath spies. Halwati reporters are a part of a new breed of Kurdish intellectuals. Instead of an independent Kurdistan, they dream of a new Iraq. Twana Osman is one of Halwati's star reporters.

"What does Iraq mean to you," I ask him, "a Kurd whose people were slaughtered by Iraqis?"

"Being part of a democratic, free Iraq that has a concept of citizenship, I will be glad to be an Iraqi, not a Kurd or a Shi'ite," he says.

Abdullah, a Kurdish intellectual in his 50s who works for the United Nations, is even more blunt in his preference of a democratic Iraq to a nationalistic Kurdistan: "I don't have any desire to feel the boot of a Kurdish dictator on my ass."

The dozens of Internet cafes that have sprung up in Suleymania are perhaps the most impressive symbol of its openness and enterprise. But the Internet also makes the dark side of the new, online world visible. When I tell a Kurdish acquaintance that the computer screen in the Internet cafe I use keeps being "attacked" by ads for hard-core porno, he tells me that 80 percent of Internet use in Kurdistan is for porno.

Fallah, another Kurdish friend had a different tale of Internet woe. A survivor of Saddam's chemical attacks, he is trying to do a groundbreaking comparative study of the Holocaust and the Anfal, the Iraqi massacre of the Kurds. But when he typed the word "Holocaust" into the Arabic search engines, all he came up with was Holocaust-denial sites.

This is the kind of thing that worries Kaabat Ibrahim Raheen, a Kurdish agricultural engineer I meet in Baghdad. Kaabat spends much of free time in chat sessions on the Internet, trying to convince Americans that despite the reports about resistance they are reading in the media, most Iraqis want the troops to stay until a stable, democratic government is formed. But Kaabat is even more concerned about the media in Iraq: "The coalition and the governing council had better build strong media fast. The people in Iraq know nothing about the outside world. Right now, they remember the horrors of Saddam, and so they reject the worldview presented by Al Jazeera and Al Arabia. But how long can this last?"

Kaabat's fears strike home with me because many Iraqis seem to be open to conflicting influences, to be listening to more than one internal voice. My last night in Baghdad, I stay up past midnight talking to Nidam Fatah, the 30-year-old Shi'ite, one of the regulars at the makeshift teahouse, whose life, so far, has roughly coincided with the period of rule of the Ba'ath party in Iraq. Nidam struck me as intelligent and articulate - and also confused. Although his father taught him from early childhood that Saddam was an evil man, all of Nidam's schoolteachers had been thoroughly initiated into the Ba'ath party's ideology.

"I found myself wanting to defend Saddam," Nidam says. "I don't even know why. After the war, I cried. U.S. tanks in Baghdad? How could that be! What a blow to our pride! My children made the thumbs-up sign to the U.S. troops, but I told them no, put your thumbs down! But then I saw the mass graves. I understood the facts. I thought things through. I said, yes, why not, they can have our oil, but we must live well."

Nidam hates the Palestinians because "they were Saddam's favorite, while I had nothing," but he also hates the Israelis and believes that Saddam might have been an Israeli agent. His proof: "He fired 37 missiles at Israel, and they all missed, but the Israelis got so much money for reconstruction."

For now, Nidam is sticking with his hopes for a democratic Iraq and for a normal life, and so he wants the Americans to see through the mission they've taken on. But how long will that last? And what are Nidam's criteria for a good life? "Right now [the Americans] need to stay here. It is their responsibility. They need to create a government, elections and stabilization, a government that is free and peaceful. But then they must go."

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